Taipei by Tao Lin
Tao Lin’s major press debut, Taipei, is his most complete work to date. Set to be published in June by Vintage Books, Lin seems to have gone back to the drawing board in terms of execution, if not subject matter. It’s still laced with the notable Lin issues of drug use, alienation, anxiety, and twenty something life but Lin gives these topics a more thorough examination than he’s done previously. Reading all of his works to date, I’m left wondering if his previous novels Richard Yates and Eeee Eee Eeee were merely warming up acts, a writer finding himself, honing his voice. If it was the publication of the novella Shoplifting From American Apparel that gained him notoriety in the burgeoning alt lit scene than Taipei is what should cement his stature in that community as well as mark his emergence on the bigger landscape as a young writer to watch.
My favorite book of his was the story collection Bed but Taipei has made me reconsider. In all honesty I feel as though his social media antics are now justified with his latest release. I’m a fan, not a follower. I haven’t, and probably will never, get into a bidding war for any of his random personal things on eBay. His output, to date, has been rather impressive but it seems as though he’s stepped up his game with Taipei. Maybe we’re seeing a more mature Lin? I can’t ever envision him writing a family saga or a historical novel but with Taipei Lin has turned a corner, if only slightly.
The recollections of the narrator’s childhood, his memories of moving around and of school are what gives this story an emotional anchor. Surrounded by adult drug use, wandering the globe, searching for a connection to other people in any conceivable way, it’s the childhood moments that really shine through. The moments overseas, when going to visit his parents are touching as well as Lin has managed to keep his character’s both very American (the scene of the narrator walking through the downtown shopping district, laptop in hand, recording everything reminded me just how connected we are) as well as part of a larger global family (his mother’s email correspondence about his drug use is hilarious and poignant, serving as a reminder that this book isn’t just about our little percentage of twenty somethings.)
Lin’s willingness to bare all w/r/t to his narrator and his emotional vulnerability provides the engine to keep Taipei moving along at a brisk pace. I found this protagonist, Paul, to be his most fully formed yet as the scenes of him interacting with himself, trapped in his own head, while at a house party or literary reading, provides another layer of emotional authenticity that elevates him beyond his daily drug use.
Some of the secondary characters, namely the females, could’ve used a bit more description. I felt they were, in a way, caricatured and pigeonholed to be nothing more than drug taking partners. The rotating cast of people, even some of the males that come in and out of Paul’s life, suffer from a lack of description that renders the majority of them faceless, making them hard to differentiate.
Taipei isn’t a perfect novel but it’s Lin’s best effort to date. He’s managed to delve into his areas of alienation and drug use and anxiety while also breaking new ground by giving this book a global touch and examining the divide between not only different cultures but also different generations. This book is a good place to start for someone new to his work. It’s good enough that it almost quiets out all the noise brought on by his social media persona, and that’s saying a lot.