Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?
When I received this novel in the mail, I did not understand that Tao Lin was a name I had seen before, during a hazy period several Internets ago, when I was learning about Fat Acceptance and Tracey Egan Morrissey was still called Slut Machine. Later, I recognized the name as something observed in unread Gawker headlines (and unread Millions pieces, as it turns out).
I report this so you will know that when I began reading Taipei, my loathing was pure.
The novel opens and we follow a writer named Paul as he drifts around Brooklyn waiting for his book tour to start. We are with him as he sort of goes through a breakup, sort of goes to parties, sort of “works on things” (sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not), definitely purchases little lots of groceries contrived as though to generate maximum annoyance (“organic beef patty, two kombuchas, five bananas, alfalfa sprouts, arugula, hempseed oil, a red onion, ginger”), definitely wiles away the hours in awkward communing with pseudo friends “[he was] peripherally aware of a self-conscious Matt slowly creating guacamole”), and definitely upsets his mother.
The subject also has excruciating interactions with a series of distressingly underemployed young women.
Paul noticed Laura looking at his pile of construction paper and said she could have some if she wanted, and she focused self-consciously on wanting some, saying how she would use it and what colors she liked, seeming appreciative in an affectedly sincere manner — the genuine sincerity of a person who doesn’t trust her natural behavior to appear sincere…Laura exited a few minutes later, meekly holding her tambourine and shaker and some construction paper. “I see you ‘got in on’ the construction paper,” said Paul in the sarcastic, playful voice he used to recommend Funyuns the night they met, but with a serious expression. “Good choices, in terms of colors. Good job.” “You said I could have some,” said Laura hesitantly.
Everyone’s ages are recorded, as if in a hipster police blotter: “After the reading Lucie, 23, introduced herself and Amy, 23, and Daniel, 25, to Paul and Mitch, saying something about her and Amy’s online magazine.”
I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible. Tao Lin seems to aspire to a prose I can only describe as “affectless.” When an adjective is required, and sometimes when it is not, Lin often adds a “y” to a noun (see: “soil-y”). Some traditionally formed adjectives and adverbs are enclosed in quotation marks; I believe to communicate the overarching theme of the book, which is that the majority of Paul’s powers of observation are absorbed in the business, not of something so studied as introspection, but of prolonged self-gazing from an external vantage. His quotation mark tactic achieves this effect, but it also communicates an embarrassment about words and what they can represent or mean.
He reached outside his blanket and pulled his MacBook “darkly,” he felt, toward himself, like an octopus might. It was 12:52 a.m., almost three hours since leaving Angelica Kitchen. Laura, to Paul’s surprise, had emailed twice — a few sentence fragments apologizing for her awkwardness at 11:43 p.m., a paragraph of elaboration at 12:05 a.m. Paul emailed that he understood and liked her and thought she was “cool.” She responded a few minutes later, seeming cheerful. After a few more emails she seemed almost “giddy.” They committed — earnestly and enthusiastically, Paul felt — to get tattoos together tomorrow.
If Lin is too arch to use the word “giddy” stripped from the safety of quotation marks, he spares no length, no number of unremarkable words, in the service of communicating how his character is feeling. These boring sentences are demarcated from the other boring exposition sentences by their length and the number of commas, which imbue the novel with an arrhythmia that somehow also succeeds at being monotonous:
He imagined his trajectory as a vacuum-sealed tube, into which he’d arrived and through which — traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life — he’d be suctioned and from which he’d exit, as a successful delivery to some unimaginable recipient.
Other narrative choices indicate either a fundamental laziness that precludes finding interesting combinations of words to describe things, or a concerted effort to describe the world of Paul using minimal “literary” embellishment (both possibilities arrive at the same place in terms of transmitting insight or aesthetic pleasure to the reader). Even the conceit of listing ages seems like a careless shorthand to describe people without really describing them, though this strategy conveniently reveals, later in the novel, that Paul’s authorial fanbase is all younger than he (sometimes inappropriately so: e.g., “Calvin, 18, and Maggie, 17, seniors in high school,” with whom Paul and his girlfriend Erin do lots of drugs and swim in the hot tub in Calvin’s “mansion” — quotation marks original — in Ohio).
After the initial deep, anxious loathing I felt for the novel, a germ of grudging appreciation made itself felt. Paul’s drug use in the novel begins with what seemed to me like a your-parents-wouldn’t-like-it-but-don’t-call-the-helpline usage — an Ambien here, an Adderall there, a Xanax. Eventually, though, Paul and his friends launch into sustained drug abuse. When the drugs began to flow (MDMA, LSD, mushrooms, heroin, Xanax, Klonopin, cocaine, Oxycodone, Methadone), I thought the novel began to excuse itself for its awfulness, namely because it now had a Problem I could recognize.
The characters seemed destined for emotional or physical trainwreck, and this immediately made them more interesting. The “affectlessness” made sense too; if you were writing about the observations of a person who was usually on a mess of downers, the adjectives might be the first to go. Your characters would also make a lot of totally inane remarks, as Maggie here, while swimming in Calvin’s parents’ pool on mushrooms: “What if we were all obese right now?” This kind of dialogue was conveyed with extreme accuracy and represents some of the “best” parts of the book.
After Paul and Erin make the surprising choice to get married in Las Vegas (“‘I don’t get it, at all,’ said Paul. ‘It’s what people do. This is what people want.’ ‘It seems really insane,’ said Paul.”), together they shamble around Brooklyn, and embark on a regrettable “honeymoon” to Taipei to see Paul’s parents, and ingest an amount of drugs that I think would make your nervous system fall out and/or prompt your parents (or somebody) to call the police. They feel the drugs’ effects and shamble further around Taipei fast food restaurants, recording themselves for an ongoing series of YouTube videos of themselves on drugs. Throughout this sojourn they display the kind of drug- and pretension-heightened honesty that is not exactly honesty, and that is the very opposite of the generosity and warmth I believe are necessary to sustain human relationships.
I began to think that this might be a sad novel — because of drugs, this guy, who already seems paralyzed by a steroidally muscular self-consciousness, is wasting his life, alarming the fast food employees of Taipei with his utter, utter malarkey, breaking his parents’ heart, and annoying the shit out of me while he does it. But, like the other promising problematic things in the novel — like Paul’s relationship with his family, with girls, with friends, with self, with work, or the amount of time he spends in Whole Foods — the novel refuses to pathologize his drug use, even though that is a time-tested way to engage the reader.
Speaking of inane remarks, reading Taipei came as close as anything can come to putting me on mute. I suddenly began hearing my own voice when I spoke within earshot of others, particularly people older than I. On the BART platform, I heard myself say “It was, like, not what I was planning to have happen,” and my voice trailed off as I became conscious of the poverty of my spoken expression, how much I must sometimes sound like the people in Taipei (“‘I feel like I’m unsarcastically viewing this as a major ordeal,’ said Calvin.”) I was born the year after Tao Lin; hearing our shared idiom come out of my own mouth, I realized that some of my loathing for this book is very personal. There is a fearful recognition of those things I want most to cleanse from my self-presentation, and self.
This realization brought another weak florescence of respect for Tao Lin. First, I tested the idea that he was mocking all our imbecilities and modes of expression, but rejected it as false because I can’t imagine that someone occupying the role of cultural critic would be able to stand recording all these encounters, unless he was able to take a lot of Xanax and not remember doing it, the way I manage airplanes (this is not, I suppose, totally out of the question). I next considered that this author might have made a radical and thus laudatory commitment to capturing things as they are or seem to him, no matter how egregious, or egregiously boring, they look on the page (and possibly because they do):
Laura complimented Paul’s hair and level of “casualness” and, going partially under the table, held a candle toward Paul’s shoes — which from Paul’s above-table perspective felt stationary and storage-oriented as shoeboxes — asking what brand they were.
“iPath,” said Paul.
“I can’t see. What are these?”
“iPath. The brand is iPath.”
“I like them,” said Laura.
“iPath,” said Paul quietly.
Could Tao Lin be… post-shame?, I wondered. Philip Larkin jumped to mind, “High Windows:” ‘When I see a couple of kids / And guess he’s fucking her and she’s / Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, / I know this is paradise”). This association, however, was actually what caused me to finally reject this hypothesis as well: Tao Lin might freely record things that seem humiliating to me, i.e., sounding like an idiot, but his sex is the sex of The Truman Show. When the panties come off, the camera, narratively speaking, looks politely away. All we hear about it is that it happens, its location, and duration.
One might perceive this as another form of cultural or personal critique: for someone very focused on the self and what the self is feeling, and how many drugs to put in the self, sex is one of the first normal human priorities to be abandoned. But then we read a conversation Erin and Paul have in Taipei, when they ask one another for opinions and “critiques” about their prowess. While Paul says that sex is not “that big of a thing” for him, Erin still reassures him, and us, that he’s “good at everything” and “[keeps] it interesting” and that she “[has] orgasms…regularly.” It feels a sterile, cowardly way to treat sex from a radical cataloguer of human experience.
I felt it necessary, back there, to mention the initial purity of my loathing, because after Googling around, lighting up new links and links long dark, the loathing quickly becomes sullied and amplified by outside influences. I even found a rejection of my more charitable positions toward Tao Lin from the horse’s mouth: Entertainment Weekly asked, “While you were writing this book, you predicted that it’d be your ‘magnum opus.’ Did that pan out?” and Tao Lin answered: “Yes, in that I didn’t save anything for a future book. I used, as source material, everything I know or have felt or experienced, or could imagine knowing or feeling or experiencing, up to this point in my life.”
Then at Thought Catalog, I was treated to a first-hand account of “What It’s Like To Be In a Tao Lin Novel“:
I’ve always wondered what it was like for people friendly with, like, Hemingway and whatnot. These authors, like Tao, write pretty closely to their personal experience… I will treasure this book for the rest of my life not because my friend wrote it, or because it’s the best book ever written (goddamn is it good, though), or because I’m in it and so are a lot of other people I care about, but actually because of a scene I’m not even in. Six simple lines of dialogue.
–“You said you only go to like one party a month. But you’re at almost every party,” [said Daniel].
“This isn’t normal at all,” said Paul. “Before we met I probably did less than one thing a month.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Probably because I met people I like.”
Daniel hesitated. “What people?”
“You, Mitch, Laura… Amy,” said Paul. “I’m going to the bathroom.”–
(I don’t mind airing my loathing, because Tao Lin seems like he can take it. In Taipei, he anticipates it: “He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as ‘monosyllabic,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘stilted and unfriendly’ within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.”)
My loathing was never pure, of course. Not really. I think that really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord. Then there are things you read, a little less great, that don’t make you feel one way or another, creatively speaking. Then there is a small, deadly class of book that make you never want to set pen to paper again. Tao Lin’s novel is a grave case of this latter kind, where you are faced with the consequences of writing down all the things you do or think. What if they sound like this? Colorless, witless, humorless. Picking out individual passages cannot express their cumulative monotonous assault on the senses.
The good thing about Taipei, if you’re like me, is that its characters will make you want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.
Last week I participated in an online survey about ethics in book reviewing. One of the questions asked something like, “Is it okay to review the book of someone to whom you are aesthetically or philosophically opposed,” and I think I answered “Yes,” although I think the correct answer is “No,” or possibly “I’m not sure.” The next day, I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer. But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it. Likely it comes from some hypocrite-lecteur-mon-semblable-mon-frere place, but Taipei brought out all of my conservative instincts. Only a real codger would say this, but if this is the output we can expect from one of our bright young things, we’re fucked.
A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.