Review: ‘Taipei’, by Tao Lin

TaipeiTaipei by Tao Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A blurb by Blake Butler on the back of this book reads, “A work of vision so relentless it forces most any reader to respond.” I think I read this blurb, for no particular reason, three or four times while reading this book and every time thought it said ‘restless’ instead of ‘relentless’, which I liked a lot because that’s exactly the feeling I had reading this book, and it feels accurate RE: how I’ve felt reading Tao Lin’s work in the past. There’s a staccato, jutting momentum that happens in this book, with an alternating rhythm of things happening / dialogue and the main character’s constant emotional and physical self-awareness and hyper self-analysis. This starting / stopping feeling as the ‘time’ inside the book repeatedly pauses creates this restless feeling for me, an effect that I felt causes a constant level of subtle anxiety, which isn’t a criticism but an appreciation for writing that can both create such an effect and create an effect so appropriate to what’s going on in the book.

This anxiety and kind of hyper-present in the moment framework was haunting to me, in that I felt like it constantly changes how my internal thought processes and inner monologue functioned for abstract lengths of time during / after reading this book for a while. I found myself stopping to think about what and why I was feeling, even during relatively trivial moments that I’d otherwise not have paid so much attention to, as if the main character was now in my head, narrating back to me as I went through my day, creating a bizarre but I think enjoyable kind of meta fan-fiction effect. Or something.

Something I thought repeatedly while reading this book was that Tao Lin is perhaps a master of the most genuine brand of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing ever done, that it was earnest and unadorned. I wondered if anyone who thought they liked books of that style would ever read this or one of his other books and decide maybe they didn’t like it so much without the conventions of other works, which to me would seem more obviously creative than before, which is to say possibly less honest, which is not a criticism–like the difference between a realist, dramatic movie constructed to compel certain emotions versus a documentary that insists on all the banal details.

I also thought a lot about how the relatively autobiographical nature mixed with the heavy drug use insists on such a clear lineage to writers like Hunter S. Thompson and others, and how both books like Taipei and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are both used in discussions about specific generations / time periods. It felt interesting how the drug use in Taipei isn’t ‘exciting’ or ‘glamorous’ so much as just factual, just another detail to note along the way; it creates an interesting balance where there’s no specific weight to the fact that the characters are taking lots of drugs all the time, it’s not the focus of the book necessarily, and the characters don’t act like crazed addicts.

I felt a great deal of empathy throughout the book for the feeling of a kind of meandering boredom, with emotional activity spikes toward both elation and lonely sadness, triggered at times by nothing or trivial causes; this empathy made the book fully enjoyable to me. I feel like I worry with each new book from Tao Lin I’m going to get bored and not want to read him anymore, as his style doesn’t change from book to book, but I keep enjoying them quite a bit. I still feel like Tao Lin’s poetry is more enjoyable, though, than his prose, which is just because I loved his earlier books so much, and I’d like to see him return to poetry again as well.

I think also this book has ‘something to offer’ even to those who don’t particularly enjoy reading it, which is probably the best any book can offer to do. It’s more than worth your money.

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