Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Another Post About Taipei

Near the end of her brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan introduces the idea of “word casings.” Word casings are “words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words--'friend' and 'real' and 'story' and 'change'--words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.” The quotation marks in words casings, at least as I interpret them, act as an indication that the enclosed word is beyond meaningful definition and that any usage of the word is a self-conscious application of an ersatz version of what was once an accepted and powerful idea. So the word casing “love” would mean something along the lines of: a feeling that matches enough of the characteristics of what people used to consider love, knowing that there is no stable meaning of love and the feeling I am describing to you as “love” may be totally different from what you would describe as “love.” Word casings are a potential natural progression of post-modernism that some would see as liberating and others as cynical.

Tao Lin ends his new novel Taipei with a word casing. After a drug experience makes him certain he has died, the protagonist Paul “heard himself say that he felt 'grateful to be alive.'” The passivity of the moment is breathtaking. Paul still didn't necessarily feel something but rather “heard himself say” that he felt something, and that something was not an actual feeling per se, but what he suspected had been defined as “'grateful to be alive'” back when we still had faith in the definitions of words like “grateful,” “alive,” and “to be.” Tao Lin's style is based on this profound passivity (more on that soon) but this moment takes it to a strange place. There is a chance that Paul, in his perpetual detachment, in his utter lack of ethical thought, in his drug use/abuse, and in his milieu of cynicism is most honest and meaningful in this moment with this word casing. There is a chance that, at this moment, the quotation marks aren't an avoidance of the effort of definition, aren't a cop out, aren't lazy irony, but are a vital to expression of the character's true self.

I often describe Tao Lin's writing as “autistic.” The actions are there but all of the emotional content has been stripped away from them. Another way to describe Tao Lin's style is as the logical conclusion of Heminway's anti-lyricism. The prose is only a dictation of what is said, done, and thought. It would be journalism, except journalism has at least some kind of commitment to cover statements and actions that are interesting, or, at the very least, relevant to a wide range of people. Lin, however, tends to write about someone like him. Even when not as directly autobiographical as Taipei seems to be, Lin's protagonists tend to be young male Asian-American writers living in New York. It's an unsettling, often unpleasant style. It rejects some of the basic agreements of literature. That said, though I can't say I “like” Tao Lin or “enjoy” reading him, there is something powerful about what he writes. He is doing something dramatic and different and cannot be ignored.

But there's something different about Taipei than his previous prose. Some barrier was broken, maybe with drugs or at least their depiction, and Lin's reportage style lead to some very un-jounalistic, un-Hemingway writing. Along with the basics of motion and the conversation (often painfully awkward), the narrator dictates Paul's thoughts and feelings, some of which are breathtaking and original. A few examples.

The antlered, splashing, water-treading, land animal of his first consciousness would sink to some lower region, in the lake of himself, where he would sometimes descend in sleep and experience its disintegrating particles and furred pieces, brushing past, in dreams, as it disappeared into the patterns of the nearest functioning system.

Paul laid the side of his head on his arms, on the table, and closed his eyes. He didn't feel connected to a traceable series of linked events to a source that had purposefully conveyed him, from elsewhere, into this world. He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed and was continuing ahead in a kind of confused, choiceless searching. Fran and Daniel returned and ordered enchiladas, nachos. Paul ordered tequila, a salad, waffles with ice cream on top.

On the bus Erin slept with her head on Paul's lap...Paul stared at the lighted signs, most of which were off for the night, attached to almost every building to face oncoming traffic—animated and repeating like GIF files, or constant and glaring as exposed bulbs, from two-square rectangles like tiny wings to long strips like impressive Scrabble words with each square its own word, maybe too much information to convey to drivers—and sleepily though of how technology was no longer the source of wonderment and possibility it had been when, for example, he learned as a child at Epcot Center, Disney's future-themed 'amusement park,' that families of three, plus one robot maid and two robot dogs, would live in self-sustaining, transparent, deep-water spheres by something like 2004 or 2008. At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had, to him, begun to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing the nothingness on the other side of death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated...--technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the purpose of increased converting power and efficiency, until the universe was one computer.

Really, nobody knows why we do what we do. We know the most recent reasons for our most recent actions, but the ultimate source of me typing these words at this moment is the same fundamental mystery of matter from energy or consciousness from matter or thoughts and emotions from consciousness. But we all have an illusion of the answer, an adequate understudy for the ultimate truth, an ersatz basis that allows us to continue doing. Paul is severed from the illusion of knowing what is going on in his life and why it is happening, and the cut itself is so clean, he doesn't even seem to realize it happened. Like everyone else, Paul just keeps moving, just keeps doing, saying, and thinking things, but unlike everyone else, he doesn't have a reason why. Lin has surgically removed it.

Sometimes the result of this surgery is excruciating. It is just agony every time Paul talks to anybody and my awkwardness is embarrassed whenever Paul talks with Erin about their relationship. And there is a lot of him just doing stuff. Just going to parties, just looking at the internet, just eating, just doing. There have been some vigorous, passionate, negative reactions to Taipei, and honestly, I can't blame those readers for hating this book. In some ways, by severing Paul from the basic illusion of human significance, Lin has severed his book from the joy of reading.

But then there are moments like those quoted above where Paul's intellect and imagination just take off. He imagines time. He imagines existence. He takes whatever boring, stupid, meaningless shit is happening around him and, without lying to himself about his value in existence, dresses it in the significance of lyrical metaphor and imagery. “Realizing this was only his concrete history, his trajectory through space-time from birth to death, he briefly imagined being able to click on his trajectory to access his private experience, enlarging the dot of the coordinate by shrinking, or zooming in, until it could be explored like a planet.” There is a process here, something I haven't pinned down, about meaning, that even if we don't enjoy, we should experience.

Literature is the laboratory of human experience. Just like science, literature only gets better if writers try everything, if writers take risks, if writers fail, and, just like science, you don't know who the Newton is until you know who the Newton is. Could it be Tao Lin? We'll only know when enough critics replicate his equation for gravity.

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