Gchat Is a Noble Pursuit: Tao Lin’s Modernist Masterpiece

Tao Lin. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Tao Lin. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

True, his characters are young people living in Brooklyn.  And he writes about the Internet. But we should stop calling Tao Lin the voice of his generation. Taipei, his new novel, has less to do with his generation than with the literary tradition of Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, and Robert Musil.

Mr. Lin was first thought to be “generational” because he was very young and had a big online following.  But even in 2005 Mr. Lin cited throwback influences like Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Joy Williams—somewhat unfashionable choices, indicating Mr. Lin’s highly individual taste for understatement, quirkiness, and what has been called K-Mart realism.

His breakout book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, opened with a Gchat:

“You know those people that get up every day, and do things,” said Luis.

“I’m going to eat cereal even though I’m not hungry,” said Sam.

“And are real proactive,” said Luis.  “And like are getting things done, and never quit their jobs.  Those people suck.”

Mr. Lin made rigor seem like laziness.  His blunt, notational realism seemed like spit in your eye if you didn’t happen to relate to a life spent lying fetal on a mattress, “looking at the internet” on a sideways Macbook. The bleakness of his characters could seem a little forced coming from an author with such a willful prose style. Talk about Mr. Lin’s lost generation gave cover to critics who, perhaps, didn’t see the funny side.

His new novel, Taipei, has a different emotional footprint. Mr. Lin is writing with longer sentences.  Some of them have to be read twice: he’s making the reader work harder than in American Apparel or in his last book, Richard Yates. But he’s also giving more.  Mr. Lin said in an interview that he spent 140 hours revising Taipei after the book was in galleys—that is, after most authors aren’t hardly allowed to make changes. His edits were apparently so extensive that I was sent not a galley, but a printout of the revised pdfs. This isn’t just a matter of perfectionism.  It’s a new style for Mr. Lin, one that confesses the urgency of his ambition.  If you thought his previous novels were stunts, read this one.

About those long sentences. I cheerfully wrote “Proust” in the margin early on—because the hero, a young writer named Paul, takes such a meta attitude toward his own memories. He can step back and watch thoughts blossom. At the beginning of Chapter 2 he wakes up and—because of “something staticky and paranormally ventilated about the air”—decides he is still a young child, waking up to winter break in Florida. Then he remembers he left Florida and went to school at NYU.  And then:

After a deadpan pause, during which the new information was accepted by default as recent, he casually believed it was autumn and he was in college, and as he felt that period’s particular gloominess he sensed a concurrent assembling, at a specific distance inside himself, of dozens of once-intimate images, people, places, situations.  With a sensation of easily and entirely abandoning a prior context, of having no memory, he focused, as an intrigued observer, on this assembling and was surprised by an urge, which he immediately knew he hadn’t felt in months, or maybe years—to physically involve himself—by going outside and living each day patiently—in the ongoing, concrete occurrence of what he was passively, slowly remembering. [. . . until] he realized, with some confusion and an oddly instinctual reluctance, blinking and discerning his new room, which after two months could still seem unfamiliar, that he was somewhere else, as a different person, in a much later year.

These sentences are not euphonious. They have a staccato honesty, an almost ironic slavishness to spontaneous thought. They don’t do the syntactic flexion of a David Foster Wallace sentence, but they charm on a similar basis, disarming us in their helpless verbose breach of style as they race after articulations. Mr. Lin avoids Wallace’s frequent demonstrations of good faith. He’s more self-centered. He gropes—that “staticky” and “ventilated” air—after the right word, often an adverb, and the more awkward the better. Having steeled himself in flip minimalism, Mr. Lin becomes the most unapologetic maximalist.

Of course, the book is not very long. It has, though, the thickness of a classic brain-sprawl like On the Road: the book crosses from New York to Taipei a few times, also visits Baltimore, Las Vegas, and Ohio, among domestic destinations, and brings young New York to life as few books (or TV shows) can. I would like to see Franco Moretti, the great mapper of novels, chart all of Taipei‘s block-circling and bar-revisiting in Williamsburg. The book is not without scaffolding—looking ahead to his autumn book tour Paul draws up a calendar on page 36—but in terms of feel this is a modernist, one-thing-after-another novel, a slurry of evenings and all-nighters dammed and channeled according to whatever Paul’s relationship status is. Mr. Lin makes a few strong structural choices: after a break-up at the novel’s beginning, Paul visits his parents in Taipei; at the novel’s end he returns to Taipei, this time with Erin, a fellow writer whom Paul has married.  Paul’s movements have the haunting eloquence of Jake Barnes’ in The Sun Also Rises: when Jake Barnes goes swimming we feel both that he is wasting his life, and that he is going through something noble and sad.

Mr. Lin has said that this novel is much more autobiographical than any of his previous works. Paul uses lots of drugs.  It’s Adderal, more than madeleines, that gets him stroking the texture of his own abstractions. Abstraction is a major theme—as in distraction, preoccupation. He and Erin “had bonded over feeling alienated by people who focused on visuals, instead of people, while on hallucinogens.”  But by novel’s end Paul has decided, while on shrooms, that he is dead, and Erin is a projection: “He briefly discerned her movement as incremental—not continuous, but in frames per second.”  This sounds like the beginning of The Man Without Qualities.  Redemption is more mental than soulful: “They hugged a little, near the center of the room, then he turned around and moved toward the kitchen—dimly aware of the existence of other places, on Earth, where he could go.”

Right before his Vegas wedding, Paul calls Erin’s attention to “an eerie building far in the distance, thin and black, like a cursor on the screen of a computer that had become unresponsive.  He imagined building-size letters suddenly appearing, left to right, in a rush—wpkjgijfhtetiukgcnlm—across the desert.”

Emptiness and randomness constitute the beauty of their Vegas marriage. We don’t hear their vows.  Their dawning seriousness will be evident as the novel goes forward—but true to Mr. Lin’s “minimalist” roots, it will be left unspoken. Indeed, right after the Vegas ceremony, we read that:

Paul ran suddenly away, onto the parking lot, in a wide arc that curved eventually toward the rental car in a centripetal force, accelerating to a speed that was, at this point in his life, unfamiliarly fast, but not near the maximum, before slowing, as he neared the passenger door—and, knowing he would not collide with the door, briefly aware of the dream-like amount of control he had over his body—to a stop.

This awkward sentence demonstrates an urgency that for all of its tentativeness can only be interpreted as wanting to express happiness.  It’s not exactly what I expected from Tao Lin’s masterpiece.  Which reminds me why I hadn’t necessarily expected there to be one.

Benjamin Lytal’s first novel, A Map of Tulsa, was published this spring.

editorial@observer.com