Jun 18, 2013

Taipei — Tao Lin and Tao Lin and the Millions

I woke up this morning and read Lydia Kiesling’s review of Tao Lin’s Taipei and now I am — fuck it, I’ll just say it — REALLY FUCKING ANGRY that something so irresponsible could be published on an influential site like The Millions.

Angry enough, at least, to FJM it. 

For those unfamiliar with the FJM structure, the text in bold is from the review. The rest is from the three trolls who share a pot of coffee inside my head. 

Here we go…

"When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?”

I also wonder about playground bullies, terrorists and a reviewer who starts off her savaging under the false pretense that some heady publication is holding a gun to her head and forcing her to share her brilliant thoughts on a writer who she would have otherwise yawningly dismissed. I’m glad we’ve started this review on such honest grounds with such fair leverage points. 

"I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting words as possible." 

So Ann Beattie also hates words. So does Raymond Chandler. Grace Paley sometimes hates words. (If you’re going to argue that these writers use words more interestingly than Tao Lin, why not actually make that argument? Why keep everything here so vague and non-sensical?) And minimalism is a nihilist philosophy. The affirmation of life’s worth must be written in flower-fucky prose. Hence: Eli Cash the great, edifying literary force of our times. 

After the initial deep, anxious loathing I felt for the novel, a germ of grudging appreciation made itself felt. Paul’s drug use in the novel begins with what seemed to me like a your-parents-wouldn’t-like-it-but-don’t-call-the-helpline usage — an Ambien here, an Adderall there, a Xanax.

Resist your Stockholm Syndrome! Tao Lin has forced you to read his book! You haven’t cracked yet! You’re the fucking John McCain of book reviewing. Stay strong. 

But, like the other promising problematic things in the novel — like Paul’s relationship with his family, with girls, with friends, with self, with work, or the amount of time he spends in Whole Foods — the novel refuses to pathologize his drug use, even though that is a time-tested way to engage the reader.

Praise Jesus! You had me worried there. I thought you were going to actually consider an aesthetic choice outside your usual realm of pretty words and life-affirming narratives. But I see now you were just employing the “I’m gonna prop this poor bastard up and then bash him down EVEN FUCKING HARDER” move Hulk Hogan used against Ric Flair in Halloween Havoc. Also, I totally get what you’re saying with that last -em dashed clause. Like, all drug experiences must be pathologized (hold on… googling to see what that word might mean in that context) in a time-tested way that will engage the reader in ways similar to other novels about drugs that you do not mention because maybe they do not exist except in the hazy peripheries of your literary memory. 

Speaking of inane remarks…

Do go on…

…reading Taipei came as close as anything can come to putting me on mute…


…I suddenly began hearing my own voice when I spoke within earshot of others, particularly people older than I. On the BART platform, I heard myself say “It was, like, not what I was planning to have happen,” and my voice trailed off as I became conscious of the poverty of my spoken expression, how much I must sometimes sound like the people in Taipei (“‘I feel like I’m unsarcastically viewing this as a major ordeal,’ said Calvin.”) I was born the year after Tao Lin; hearing our shared idiom come out of my own mouth, I realized that some of my loathing for this book is very personal. There is a fearful recognition of those things I want most to cleanse from my self-presentation, and self.

In the world of Lydia Kielsing, we should all aspire to only utter the most beautiful and well-directed expressions. And if the world is filled with banal, increasingly distancing and alienating interactions, Tao Lin cannot write a novel about these things because it reminds Lydia Kiesling that the real world, even — GASP — the interior world of Lydia Kiesling, is rife with those same banalities.  

Ergo, a writer can only address “millennial ennui’ through intentionally adversarial prose like Cormac fucking McCarthy and all the different, life-affirming ways he describes the way the sun shines off a well-polished saddle. Is that it? Because I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. 

(What’s most frustrating here — and I’ll drop the FJM act for a second — is that Kiesling seems to have stumbled upon her thesis. Why not write about this experience of standing on the BART platform after having read Tao Lin and the self-loathing she felt? Is this not the most interesting part of her experience in reading this book? Is this not more worthy of her explorations than the thousands of words already expended to basically say, “Eh. Not for me?”) 

This realization brought another weak florescence of respect for Tao Lin…


First, I tested the idea that he was mocking all our imbecilities and modes of expression, but rejected it as false because I can’t imagine that someone occupying the role of cultural critic would be able to stand recording all these encounters…”

Okay… Let me try to figure this out… Is she saying that she expects cultural critics to be lazy? And why mention cultural critics in a review about a novelist? Is she saying that all novelists are also cultural critics? Or is she saying that any writer who inspires a musing about possible cultural criticism from Lydia Kiesling must then be a lazy cultural critic? 

(I don’t mind airing my loathing, because Tao Lin seems like he can take it. In Taipei, he anticipates it: “He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as ‘monosyllabic,’ ‘awkward,’ ‘stilted and unfriendly’ within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.”)

So… Any representation of the author in a work of fiction must represent the actual feelings of the author and his ability to “take it?” My head is about explode from all your clever meta games, Lydia! 

I report this so you will know that when I began reading Taipei, my loathing was pure.

My loathing was never pure, of course.

I’m sure this amazingly clever paradox can be explained… 

I think that really great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord. Then there are things you read, a little less great, that don’t make you feel one way or another, creatively speaking. Then there is a small, deadly class of book that make you never want to set pen to paper again. Tao Lin’s novel is a grave case of this latter kind, where you are faced with the consequences of writing down all the things you do or think. What if they sound like this? Colorless, witless, humorless. Picking out individual passages cannot express their cumulative monotonous assault on the senses.

If you’re going to make the case that your highly refined aesthetic sensibilities might have colored your reading of a novel, it might be helpful to actually state what these sensibilities celebrate. Who do you like, Lydia Kiesling? Who is an author who “makes you feel like making something of your own?” Who inspires these “joyful noises unto the Lord?” If your review hinges on the premise that the banalities of everyday life do not affirm everyday life, shouldn’t you provide an example of a work that accomplishes this task? Lorrie Moore? Mark Richard? Gilbert Sorrentino? Who!?!?

Instead, you’ve pitted a very specific critique of a novel against a vague and angry God. 

The good thing about Taipei, if you’re like me, is that its characters will make you want to hug your lover, have a baby, go to work, call your mom. But maybe you’ll rethink that novel, that personal essay. In the cold ruthless scheme of things, that might not be such a bad thing. But it makes me look upon this novel as dangerous and threatening to life, like as the anti-choicer looks upon the abortionist.

If anyone can interpret what all that meansplease go ahead and light yourself on fire. 

I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer.

…wait, I thought this review was over… 

NO! We have not gotten to the part where she assails herself with the tweeted opinion of Joyce Carol Oates and then bravely strips herself of all that shame and stands bravely in the shining sun of vague aesthetic choice, nasty reviewing and self-aggrandizement. 

But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it. Likely it comes from some hypocrite-lecteur-mon-semblable-mon-frere place, but Taipei brought out all of my conservative instincts. 

I’m glad it also brought out your conservative instincts to compare authors of books you do not enjoy to terrorists, playground bullies and anti-abortionists. Also, I’m glad you avoided ever explaining these “conservative instincts” in a way that could be unpacked and examined. The vague angry howling god of “great literature” lives on because of these sorts of omissions. 

Only a real codger would say this, but if this is the output we can expect from one of our bright young things, we’re fucked.

aaaaand we’re done.