An exploration of chronic self-consciousness that is powerful and unromantic.
The novel is a mix of meandering anti-plot, deliberately affectless language which creates a vision of modern life as organised around a series of institutionalised social events. An off-rhythm prose style often seems devoted to cramming as many nouns into a single sentence as possible. Tao Lin is interested in documenting a distinctly modern type of urban malaise sans judgement emphasising how the twin poles of late capitalism and technological dependence have shaped internal life. Tao Lin’s Taipei has drawn just comparisons to the novels of Bret Easton Ellis.
However, it also seems uncharitable, because while Ellis squares the deliberate flatness of his prose with the superficiality of his characters, Lin actually maps complex and fully realised internal lives.
Taipei centres on Paul, a young semi-successful author living in Brooklyn and an obvious stand-in for Lin himself. Over 18 months, he does some obligatory book promotion, goes to shitty parties and obsessively maintains his multiple social media pages, while ingesting a vast cocktail of drugs (some legal, some not). One of Lin’s smartest decisions is to make Paul’s first person narration sound more like objective news reporting than traditional internal monologue, hyperbolically expressing Paul’s chronic self-consciousness and inability to live in the moment.
The reason Lin’s language isn’t immediate at all is because Paul – whose most prominent attributes are over-education and apathy – is always over-thinking, experiencing every event with a mental commentary. The constant self-documentation he indulges in online becomes internalised: obsessed with the image he’s putting across to others, he measures them according to some imaginary, standardised ideal.
Another element that contributes to Paul’s stasis is his awareness of the irony-sincerity blend, which results in him compulsively spitting out everything that could possibly be seen as sincere in quotation marks. Of course, this tendency to wrap clichés in a winking sense of irony isn’t the same as forming a reaction or an alternative to that cliché. All it does is encourage a sense of knowing self-satisfaction. Make no mistake, Lin knows how pathetic his deeply solipsistic protagonist is, and the book could never be perceived as being uncritical of this lifestyle. Nor could it be described as apolitical, as Lin begins by immersing the reader in Paul’s narrow perspective before expanding outwards to explore the social forces that have fostered his personality.
At the centre of the novel is a brief section that explicitly contextualises Paul’s decision to start taking drugs: during early adolescence he developed an extreme level of self-consciousness and social anxiety that caused him to largely shut himself away from the world. During his third year of college he was introduced to MDMA, it relieved his fears so greatly that he was suddenly able to feel like a perfectly functional member of society. He soon found that the more of these mind-altering substances he took the more positively he was perceived by others, and his dependence quickly grew.
The joke here (and to call it a joke isn’t to imply that the idea is any less serious) is that drugs have been hijacked of the hedonistic or transgressive thrill they once held, and are instead used by Paul as a way of adjusting to the mainstream. He’s even less concerned with experiencing pleasure himself than creating the illusion of experiencing pleasure, thus putting those around him at ease. How is selfhood defined in an age when cosmetic psychopharmacology offers commodified pills to alleviate all kinds of mental illnesses of vastly varying degrees of severity? And how long before medications begin to be offered as a “solution” to suppress any personal trait that could be labelled abject or unusual?
Lin vigorously de-romanticises a number of elements counter-cultural fiction used to render noble. Paul’s isolation isn’t a result of heroic individualism, but chronic self-consciousness. Drugs aren’t agents of social rebellion, but a way to make yourself appear as normal as possible. Perhaps Lin’s best joke is that every character is so concerned with what others are thinking of them that they don’t even think about judging others themselves, thereby rendering all of their debilitating anxieties a huge waste of time.
Taipei by Tao Lin is available to buy now.