:: Article

Geist in the machine

By Kevin Breathnach.

Taipei, Tao Lin, Canongate 2013.

Tao Lin’s last book was titled Richard Yates not so much to signify that it had anything much to do with the writer Richard Yates (it didn’t), but to draw attention to the haphazard and inadequate nature of book titles generally. In a similar vein, Lin has stated that his new novel, Taipei, might just as easily have been called MacBook. As it happens, MacBook would actually encapsulate some of the formal manoeuvring we will soon see at work, but the novel itself would be completely devoid of all narrative drive were it not for ‘Taipei’, that very definite point in geographical space which hangs over the entire work, letting the reader know that at some point Paul, the novel’s heavily narcotised main character, will finally cease falling asleep at every party he has just arrived at. At some point, says the title, somebody is going to go somewhere.

Taipei is an aimless, auto-fictional account of an arbitrarily framed period in Paul’s life. It begins several months before his book tour, when Paul breaks up with his girlfriend, Laura. He visits his parents in Taipei, after which he withdraws from the world for several months. Upon re-entering, Paul takes a lot of drugs, goes to a lot of parties, takes a lot of drugs, goes on his book tour, takes a lot of drugs, enjoys a fleetingly enthusiastic friendship with Daniel, takes a lot of drugs, finds a new girlfriend, Erin, with whom he takes a lot of drugs, marries in Las Vegas and takes a lot of drugs honeymooning in Taipei, before their relationship begins to turn sour and they take a lot of drugs. The novel is so dutifully monotonous that the reader comes to view the introduction of stimulants as a genuinely dramatic event in a narrative hitherto somnolent with benzodiazepine and other muscle relaxants.

Drugs serve a purpose within the narrative, as they do in most ostensibly serious writing they appear in. But, as with a lot of such writing, it is difficult to get away from the idea that so much conspicuous illicit consumption is included at least partly for the benefit of the author’s own image. Drug-use is cool, and always has been – especially if the user is in some way artistic. Rock stars are all but obliged to take drugs at some point in their career if they are to maintain any level of subcultural credit. Meanwhile, Rimbaud famously speaks of visionary transcendence coming as a result of ‘a long, deliberate derangement of all the senses’. Huxley quotes Blake to suggest in long-tired tones that, on mescaline, the doors of perception are cleansed and everything appears ‘as it is, infinite’. Even weedy old Walter Benjamin wrote about the ‘magnificent constructions of light, glorious and splendid visions, cascades of liquid gold’ he experienced upon eating hashish in 1928. Those days are now gone, I think. It is no longer just the rock star, the artist and the romanticised down-and-out who take drugs; now everyone does it. Drugs have become democratised to the point where you can actually shop for them online. It has become a real contemporary issue. As a consequence of this, it would take a very naïve artist today to publically attach themselves to the idea of drug-discovered transcendence and truth. Tao Lin is about as far from naïve as you can get, and makes no such claims explicitly herein. Paul takes drugs with studied nonchalance and says he does so in order to feel ‘normal’. And yet, throughout Taipei, it always feels as if, by including so much drug-use, Lin is noncommittally drawing on a residual mythology to tacitly suggest that this, his cool new book, gets to the heart of timely and timeless truths at once.

In reference to the movie Eat, Pray, Love, which Paul and Erin watch on the flight to Taipei, we read of the movie’s ‘unacknowledged but knowing, it had seemed, usage of clichés’. That phrase – ‘unacknowledged, but knowing’ – seems fit to describe the rather sly manner in which Lin draws on this residual mythology, which is itself a cliché. It feels designed to fit, in fact, like some sort of acknowledgement, so that the phrase ‘unacknowledged, but knowing’ becomes self-cancelling and therefore ironic; what ‘unacknowledged, but knowing’ actually says is ‘knowing, and hereby obliquely acknowledged’. Not only is the phrase ironic in itself; it also ironizes Lin’s quiet (and, for me, problematic) appeal to the residual mythology of drug-use. Just as Lin is not naïve enough to explicitly endorse certain adolescent perceptions of drug-use, nor is he naïve enough let the text’s implicit statements about it go unironised. Lin, like his characters, is far too self-conscious for all that. ‘I’m doing it,’ says Paul. ‘I’m saying stereotypical things that people say while on mushrooms.’

The words ‘earnest’ and ‘earnestly’ appear over forty times in Taipei; that they have need to be called upon with such frequency gives you some idea as to default register of Lin’s narrative. This is a novel forever at work to ironise its own posturing, though careful never to dissemble it completely, since, I would hazard, this is precisely what will appeal most to many of Lin’s Vice-reading readers. The book is crawling with some truly execrable sentences. ‘Um, so, my debit card, either from cutting so much blow or being maxed out, isn’t working,’ says Daniel at one point ‘with an earnest expression’. Such authorial affect is usually undercut soon after. At a Q&A following a public discussion on the subject of ‘the hipster’, of all things, Paul is pleased to note that most of the questions are addressed to him, ‘although almost all were negative and partially rhetorical, including why he kept writing after the ‘excrement’ that was his previous book.’ And so we come to a point where, it seems, variations on the theme of posturing and ironic distancing will play themselves out at a comfortable, contrapuntal rhythm.

But don’t reach for your slippers yet. To read on from here, confident we’ve caught the novel’s tonal rhythm, would be to ignore those destabilising, dissonant movements where the use of irony is itself disavowed. At one point, Daniel is surprised to find Paul listening to Rilo Kiley, a band he thought Paul had only joked about liking. ‘Paul said he wouldn’t pretend he liked something, or make fun of liking something, or like something “ironically”.’ Later still, though, when he and Daniel are listening to music, Paul ‘clicked “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service and said “just kidding.” He clicked “The Peter Crisis Jazz” by Don Caballero. He clicked “pause.”’ The characters in Taipei exist in a milieu where a certain style of self-consciousness, irregularly expressed in a need to place ironic distance between themselves and their emotions or actions (‘just kidding’), has a crippling effect upon all social interaction. What I’m most put in mind of is an episode of The Simpsons, where a grungy teenager says that Homer, cast as Cannonball Guy, is cool. His check-shirted friend asks, ‘are you being sarcastic, dude?’, to which he morosely replies: “I don’t even know anymore.” That Taipei, a thematically modish novel, should so recall an episode of a gesturally subversive, but ultimately mainstream television show that was screened in 1996, the same year David Foster Wallace published Infinite Jest, says a great deal about how far we haven’t come. (How long must a zeitgeist hang over us, I wonder, before it becomes just plain geist?) The characters in Taipei can’t listen to music together. They struggle even to accept a gift.

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.

As a consequence of all this, Lin’s characters are unable to maintain any level of true intimacy. The novel starts with Paul ending his relationship with Michelle. Following this, a nascent relationship with Laura is not allowed to develop properly. For no apparent reason, he stops being close friends with Daniel, who promptly exits stage left. When Paul marries Erin, it is in the shared expectation that their relationship won’t last another five months, an expectation that, by the end of the novel, seems still too optimistic. Even within the novel’s romantic relationships, the characters very rarely bring themselves to have sex, either because they are so fucked up on drugs or, perhaps, because sex is a singularly unironisable act. Taipei, it seems to me, is a critique of irony-used-as-shield which itself uses irony to shield its own self-indulgences. This is both appropriate and extremely frustrating.

The relationship between drugs and irony is not limited to the novel’s low-level libido. In Taipei, the characters use both as a way of distancing themselves from their own emotions and behaviour. Paul claims he takes drugs in order to feel ‘normal’ – that is, not so self-conscious. On drugs such as MDMA, then, he becomes less inhibited in his speech, more confident in his actions. And while he must first thank the actual chemical effects of MDMA for this psychological transformation, there’s another element of it, I think, that comes from having at least the option to later write off any expression of emotion as mere drug-talk. For Paul, drugs are another way of not quite meaning what he says. ‘The next two times they ingested ecstasy,’ says the narrator, ‘they both felt what they termed “overdrive,” which for Paul was a whirring, metallic, noise-like presence that induced catatonia and rendered experience toneless – nullifying humor, irony, sarcasm, intimacy, meaning.’

More importantly for Paul, though, drugs constitute a means of controlling an emotional existence which, occurring unassisted, he never trusts entirely. He knows that if he takes LSD, he will not feel bored. He knows that if he takes MDMA, he will feel energised and outgoing. He knows that if takes Xanax, he will feel carefree and vacant. In Paul’s dramatic character, then, we observe an insecure young man who takes comfort in the secure laws of cause and effect, to which he has grown deeply loyal. In the authorial techniques of Tao Lin, we see much the same loyalty.

Lin is never content to allow the behaviour of his protagonist to be presented without a cause. Every word that leaves Paul’s mouth comes with a detailed analysis of the thought-process leading up to it. In the first few pages, as his relationship with Michelle is about to end, we read that Paul, ‘stared dumbly at the gently convex curve of her back, thinking with theoretical detachment that he should console her and that maybe the discomfort of her forearms against the thin metal of the fence had created a location, accessible only to herself, toward which she could relocate, away from what she felt, in a kind of shrinking. “Do you–“ said Paul, and coughed twice with his mouth closed. “Do you want to eat dinner with me somewhere?”’ This unwillingness to let anything go unexplained is not limited to the minutiae of social interaction; it also operates on a much grander biographical scale. In the early stages of the novel, just as the reader is getting used to Paul’s withdrawn, apathetic attitude to the world, the narrative leaps back in time to present a chain of events in Paul’s early life. It begins in first grade, when a classmate beat him at chess and another said his breath smelled, develops through to his sophomore year, when he turned on his mother so that she might start disciplining him, and concludes with his final days in high school, by which point his only remaining friend, Hunter, is described as ‘like an overworked stepfather or sensitive uncle to Paul, the mentally disabled stepson or silent, troubling nephew’. Immediately thereafter, the narrative returns to the present with an account of a long night spent moving from one party to another in a fog of Ambien and alcohol. In this juxtaposition, Paul’s self-consciousness and subsequent drug-abuse are explained, rationalised and, if need be, ‘forgiven’.

As much as Paul’s memories ‘had increasingly occurred to him without context’, they occur to us in clear and complete context. Indeed, despite the copious amounts of drugs taken by its protagonist, the narrative itself never falls into disorder. The reader is never disoriented. While an Ambien-headed Paul struggles to comprehend what is happening at the parties, we resolutely do not. True, Lin stuffs the occasional sentence with clauses at unusual syntactical junctures, making things momentarily difficult to grasp in full detail. But on the level of paragraph, page and chapter – the level on which experience and memory take place – we experience no narrative equivalent of a freak-out. On this level, the relationship between form and content is non-existent. Where Paul keeps losing his memory, and therefore his identity, the reader gets a smooth linear narrative with occasional, well-signposted flashbacks called in to neatly explain or clarify something about the psychopathology of present-tense Paul. In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a group of synthesised images is described as ‘less deceptive’ because ‘at least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images’. No such precaution is taken by the narrative voice of Taipei. The ability of language to convey thought in never called into question; in fact, the text often removes itself from free indirect style to directly quote Paul’s apparently verbalised thought-process. ‘Paul, staring at her calmly, thought “she’s definitely drunk” and “normally I would be interested in her, to some degree, but currently I’m obsessed with Laura.”’ Taipei may well be a thematically modish novel, but formally it amounts to a near-anachronism: a unitary psychological novel, told by a reliable third-person narrator willing to spell every last detail out in neutral tones that affect an impossible objectivity. Taipei is not what you’d call a writerly text. Everything is included, processed, and diagnosed.

When Paul and Erin visit Taipei on their honeymoon, they smuggle a box full of ecstasy, MDMA, Ritalin and LSD through customs. On one of the first nights there, Paul and Erin drop two ecstasy pills and a tab of LSD, grab one of their ever-present MacBooks and set off to Ximending, an area of Taipei that Erin says ‘looks like Times Square’. After a long, dispassionate conversation about their respective relationship histories, and a quick trip home to take more drugs, they start using the MacBook to film a movie called Taiwan’s First McDonalds, in which the pair speak to each other at length in ‘the voice’, previously described as ‘an unspecific, aggregate parody of (1) the stereotypical “intellectual” (2) most people in movies (3) most people on TV with a focus on newscasters and National Geographic-style voice-overs’. This has all the hallmarks of a real-life in-joke developed in the midst of an extended binge. It is just one of several examples of a personal in-joke making its way into this very public narrative. It doesn’t come off at all.

A few days later, as Paul is walking through Taipei, the novel seems to bare its soul to us. ‘Technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life,’ Paul thinks, ‘by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of increased functioning, until the universe was one computer.’ In a global context, there is very probably some truth to this observation. On a bus moving through Taipei, Paul is said to feel ‘like he could almost sense the computerization that was happening in this area of the universe’. As far as Paul’s character is concerned, however, his observation is an indisputable fact. He spends his honeymoon using his MacBook to make films of himself on drugs; he and Erin decide that, even when they are in the same room together, they will use Gmail chat to have difficult conversations with one another; after Taipei, Paul, Erin and two other friends snort heroin before going to the cinema to live-tweet an X-Men movie. Paul is very attached to his MacBook, which becomes one of the novel’s most significant motifs. It is perhaps for this reason that Lin suggested Taipei could as easily have been called MacBook, but to me it seems as if the MacBook is more than a mere motif; instead, it seems like the novel’s very model.

Just as technology is said to ‘indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter’, so Lin indiscriminately converts experience, interesting or uninteresting, into novelised experience. Take, for example, ‘the voice’: what I’m guessing started as utter shit-talk while Lin himself was on drugs is somehow deemed worthy to be used as narrative content. The same goes for live-tweeting X-Men on heroin, and any number of other such events in the novel. Lin seems to novelise all his experiences, just as Paul and Erin computerise all of theirs.

Taipei, then, is a novel-as-computer. Its characters speak impersonally and rationally about issues we usually think of as personal and irrational. ‘Sweet,’ Erin tells Paul. ‘You seem to encompass major things of what I want, in ways I feel like only segments of other people… have.’ Here, the concluding ellipsis seems to mimic that moment at the end of a program installation, where the time between 99% and 100% extends disproportionately. If this computer-based simile is only implied, everywhere else such similes are made quite explicit. Narrative phenomena are variously described as being, ‘like a cursor on the screen of a computer that had become unresponsive’; ‘supernatural and comical as a mysterious creature on YouTube’; ’like an amoeba trying to create a personal webpage using CSS’; ‘as if by unzipping a file – newsroom.zip – into a PDF’. ‘Memories,’ Paul realises at one point, ‘were images, which one could crudely arrange into slideshows or, with effort, sort of GIFs maybe.’

Told in the language of file names and code, full of programmatic characters all wired up by drugs, Taipei is a computer, a processor, a troubleshoot report. Right down to its luminescent front cover, it is every inch the MacBook of its alternative title: slightly pretentious, somewhat too sure of itself, this ultra-modern social signifier seems to use a different version of Word, but doesn’t really. MacBook, in sum, runs altogether too smoothly to ever hack for the frozen sea within us.

Kevin Breathnach is a recent graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he studied French and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, The Stinging Fly, the Quarterly Conversation and Totally Dublin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 6th, 2013.