Writing about reality television draws on two forms, the recap and the treatise. Recaps work like box scores, recounting the highlights from last night’s episode, from drinks thrown in faces to the number of occupants in a given hot tub, all of it in rat-a-tat language that any sportswriter would recognize. Treatises find their common ancestor in the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, the first word in close-reading bottle caps, laundry detergents, and other products of a consumer society as if they were poems. It is staggering to consider the thousands of commenters who, whether they realize it or not, owe a debt to a mid-century French theorist.
The best writers are able to synthesize both forms. Right now, the favorite subject for these writers seems to be The Bachelor. Roxane Gay, Leigh Stein, Jennifer Weiner and many others pick apart the assumptions and nuances of this tragicomedy of contemporary mating rituals like Oxford dons parsing the meanings of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. (Feel free to make your own joke about Catherine’s status as a sacred object of veneration.)
My favorite entry in the growing corpus of reality television literature is “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from his 2011 collection, Pulphead. Sullivan adds a wrinkle to the recap/treatise approach by making the essay a profile. Thanks to the patronage of GQ, Sullivan visits Mike “the Miz” Mizanin, an early star of MTV’s The Real World. He meets reality in the flesh, you could say, and the encounter makes him, for lack of a better term, a believer.
“Here’s the surprising truth about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, the increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes the thought experiment more rigorous) you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, interior auto-mediation, and so forth). But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watch me, interior auto-mediation, and so forth? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?”
I often thought of Sullivan’s essay while reading Arts & Entertainments, the new novel from Christopher Beha. It’s being billed as a media satire, which is inevitable when a novelist turns his attention to the machinations of fame. Not to say that it isn’t funny; my favorite zinger is the hit single of a Miley Cyrus-like celebutante, “Gettin’ My V Worked Up.” But when it comes to reality television, it’s clear that Beha is more interested in the reality than the television. As I reached the end, I felt the novel taking on an existential, almost religious feel.
Arts & Entertainments follows Eddie Hartley, a drama teacher at a Catholic prep school in his early 30s. He used to be an actor, with a few appearances in off-Broadway productions and even on Law & Order. But what he didn’t know, and what everyone else did, was that he wasn’t talented enough to be successful. His wife, Susan, works at an art gallery, and their combined salaries are just enough to keep up with the professionals of New York City. But they want a child, or at least Susan does. Conceiving doesn’t go well, thanks to Eddie’s lazy sperm, and their only chance is an in vitro treatment that they can’t afford.
Opportunity comes in the form of a class reunion. Eddie meets a web impresario who asks about his relationship with a certain TV star. When he was a struggling actor, Eddie’s girlfriend was a struggling actress who, unlike Eddie, was talented. Phenomenally so, to the point that she became the star of the most popular scripted drama on the air, a medical drama show that stretches the limits of credulity every week. If Eddie were to have a video of Martha, and the video were sufficiently, ahem, noteworthy, then there might be a lot of money in it for him.
Eddie does, in fact, have a video. But he doesn’t want anyone to know that it’s him. He edits himself out of the footage as best he can, lies to his wife about residuals from a horror film that’s become a cult hit in Korea, and starts making plans for the best family that science can provide.
It was here that I noticed a marked difference to Beha’s previous books, which are, in the very best sense, bookish. The Whole Five Feet, a memoir, chronicles the year Beha spent reading his way through all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, along with the personal crises that rose up in his own life. What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel, is a story of literature and faith that is sure to send the heart of any English major a-flutter. These books portray people who think of their lives as books, and themselves as protagonists.
Eddie, however, no longer wants to be a protagonist. He simply wants to no longer feel like a failure, which is a pretty good definition of adulthood at this moment.
Money in hand, he visits the fertilization specialist. Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel 10:04, excerpted in The Paris Review, also features a character making the same kind of donation. One more scene of antiseptic ejaculation in literary fiction, and we’ll have a trend piece on our hands. The procedure is successful, to the point of excess: Susan is pregnant with triplets. And it is right at this point that the Martha Martin sex tape appears, demanding the culture’s unwavering attention.
Though it’s a story of the digital present, Arts & Entertainments can remind you of a noir film in the meticulous way that it catalogs the consequences of a single, monstrously stupid decision. Eddie’s identity in the video is found out almost immediately, the media being even more diligent in ferreting out the secrets of a celebrity than an elected official. Eddie loses his job. Susan kicks him out. But they are still in the orbit of Martha Martin’s fame, and this presents opportunities. Needing money to raise her triplets, Susan accepts an offer from a mysterious producer to become the star of her own reality show. Unable to appear on her show, Eddie signs a contract for his own, aided by a young woman well-versed in the kabuki of reality TV, and who poses as his girlfriend for the sake of the show. But if their relationship appears on TV, and everyone thinks they’re together, then is it truly a pose? Are your faces melting, bros?
Beha, and Sullivan, are asking what reality values in humanity. Certainly not beauty, whether physical or moral. “Hotness” would be the best term for the kind of beauty found on such programs, but there are any number of shows that feature personalities whose appeal doesn’t lie in how evenly their tanning spray is applied. Reality TV values watchability, a spectacle of the self that viewers can’t look away from, like a train wreck. With no choice but to play the role of himself, Eddie becomes, in effect, his own train wreck.
To his surprise, and quite possibly to the reader’s, Eddie finds that being watchable has its advantages. “He’d worried at first about losing himself in the part, but the more committed he became to showing the camera what it wanted, the more persistently he felt the presence of an unseen self.” Reality TV allows the soul to grow, not wither? What kind of novelist would make such a point? Beha and Jennifer Weiner have carried on a friendly rivalry on Twitter; maybe Beha lost a bet?
Gambler or not, Beha is the kind of novelist who believes that the term soul still has descriptive value. He has written movingly about Catholicism and the fencing match he’s carried on with it throughout his life. His earlier books looked to literature to imbue life with a sense of the religious, a tradition that stretches back to Augustine, if not further. But in his new book, Beha finds people talking about God in more unexpected places.
Late in the novel, Eddie meets with Moody, the mysterious producer of Susan’s reality show, trying to make an appearance in his wife’s life before she gives birth to their triplets. We learn that Moody once attended divinity school, and the experience informed the way he does his job.
“In the world I used to live in, good is whatever God wants. That’s it. There’s no other measuring stick. There is no good before God. When we say that God is good, all we’re saying is that God is God. In the world I live in now, it’s the same thing. There’s only one criterion. What does the audience want? Does the audience want you to be honest? Does the audience want you to be kind? . . . The audience has only one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.”
The popular image of the reality TV producer is Christof, played by Ed Harris in The Truman Show. The producer as God, as his name helpfully informs us. Moody is saying the exact opposite. The audience is God, and he is its servant. What could such a reversal mean?
The question reminds me of theology classes that went over the attributes of God. Omniscience was on there, meaning that God is all-seeing and all-knowing, followed by omnipotence, meaning that God is all-powerful. The two were the subject of many a term paper, students wrestling earnestly with the question of why God would let terrible things happen to his creations. If humans were omniscient, we thought, maybe we could do a better job.
And now, thanks to the media environment we’ve created for ourselves, we are, in some sense, omniscient. We can know everything there is to know about the people on our shows and newsfeeds. But this omniscience hasn’t come with omnipotence. I’d imagine that being more informed is leading many people to feel less powerful, as if we’re comic book heroes whose superpowers are less of a gift than a liability. The only way we feel godlike is by watching. As Moody says, there is nothing else we can do.
It’s under this half-divine gaze that Eddie feels, for the first time, that half-formed soul he has within him. Arts & Entertainments is ambiguous as to whether or not this mediated soul is the most we can hope for in this age. But there is, after all, another way of watching others, one that brings us closer to the inner realities of human beings. It’s what we’ve been doing all along.
We can read novels.
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.