Taipei marks Tao Lin’s first UK publication (though I reviewed his previous novel Richard Yates a couple of years ago) and the quotation on the back referencing Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Gmail makes clear his marketing potential for trend-savvy publisher Canongate as the voice of the social media generation. Luckily Lin does not attempt to mimic the forms of social media to create his narrative but instead presents us with characters who create the narratives of their own lives using phones and laptops.
Taipei’s main character is a writer called Paul. We know he is a writer as he has recently had a book published and undertakes a publicity tour during the novel; there is little evidence, however, of him writing or thinking about writing: if this is a ‘portrait of the artist’ it is one that has nothing to say about the art. Most of Paul’s time is spent taking drugs and going to parties, but any sense that this represents an exciting, glamorous lifestyle is negated by his passionless, almost absent personality. Take, for example, his introduction:
“Paul had resigned to not speaking and was beginning to feel more like he was ‘moving through the universe’ than ‘walking on the sidewalk.’ He stared ahead with a mask-like expression, weakly trying to remember where he was one year ago, last November, more for something to do than because he wanted to know…”
Lin uses quotation marks to distance Paul from his feelings, as if his emotions were always filtered through a borrowed phrase. Later in the opening pages, when asked whether he is hungry, Paul replies, “I don’t know.”
Little in the way of a definable plot occurs in the novel, though Paul does marry at one point, the culmination of a relationship he charts using social media:
“The next three days they texted regularly and, Paul felt, with equal attentiveness….Then she texted less, and with less attention, and one night didn’t respond to a photo Paul sent…”
Much of their time is spent taking various drugs; the effects of these are only ever described vaguely in dialogue but they clearly form the backbone of their relationship. Other activities include using a MacBook to film in a Taiwanese MacDonald’s and tweeting live while watching X-Men: First Class. Much of their life is lived second hand online – when they have their first “drug fight” they both immediately go to their laptops to type out an account. If it sounds dull (and it does sound dull to live through) I found an almost hypnotic fascination in following Paul’s life, a character who manages to be absurd and true, ridiculous and sad.
The novel I most thought of while reading Taipei was The Catcher in the Rye. Both novels have that sense of generational summation and both express alienation from society and a reluctance to take on responsibility. That Taipei’s protagonist is older simply reflects the way in which adolescence has extended into the mid-twenties and beyond. The differences, however, are striking. Gone is the vibrant, colloquial first person narrative, replaced with a bland, emotionless recording of events. Whereas Holden is rebelling against what he sees as the phoniness of the adult world, Paul has little contact with the world outside of his group of friends and acquaintances. He does not so much reject it as refuse to acknowledge it. By the end, defying all character development, he seems further distanced from himself than ever.