BY ROBERT AYERS
In the novel Taipei, Tao Lin depicts a certain aspect of our generation: the talented, educated, intermediate stage between youth and middle age, moving from space to space detached from purpose or direction. These are the people who spend their time in Seattle or New York or any city center that offers support to their artistic pursuits. Tao Lin, with almost scientific precision, captures the boredom and despair this generation often experiences. He shows them in places like coffee shops and theaters, readings and bookstores, tiny city apartments and house parties. And the internet. The internet is almost a physical place, it is a setting that contains so much interaction between the characters.
I am not attempting to write literary criticism but to respond to a worldview that I am convinced is shared by many people of this generation.
The story is of Paul, a novelist, much like Tao Lin. In the first few pages he ends a long time relationship with his girlfriend. The writing, at this point, lacks emotion; it is intentionally Hemingwayesque. Lack of emotion is a major theme throughout the book. Paul wanders around New York after his break-up, taking drugs, attending house parties and preparing for a book tour. After a trip to Taipei to see his parents he meets Erin and begins a relationship with her. The rest of the book is a depiction of their relationship, fueled by drugs, slowly deteriorating. Whether the drugs obscure and confuse the emotions, or whether no genuine emotion is ever felt, is never made clear by Tao Lin. The book ends after Erin meets Paul's parents in Taipei. Paul, having an adverse reaction to mushrooms, decides, somewhat ironically that he is "grateful to be alive."
The book is very eager to get across two things: drugs and boredom.
The monotony of the characters’ lives is broken only by relationships that end, drugs that wear off, travel, and art.
Art is not a search for truth, but alleviation from boredom. Being productive is “in service of feeling good.” The hard work of writing a novel, or doing any sort of art, well, demands great concentration. If the reports of his intense revisions are true, Tao Lin is a master. But I suspect that the characters’ ability to concentrate for long periods of time is a drug-assisted means to escape the boredom of their existence.
In the end, boredom is all they have. In a passage that I consider the thesis of the book, Paul and Erin are near the end of their relationship. Paul thinks that he can hear Erin sobbing quietly when she thinks he doesn’t notice.
“Paul became aware of himself staring ‘transfixed,’ at the center of the screen, with increasing intensity and no thoughts. He focused on resisting whatever force was preventing him from moving his head neck or eyeballs until finally- suddenly, it seemed- he calmly turned his head a little and asked if Erin was bored.
‘I don’t know. Are you?”
‘I can’t tell,’ said Paul. ‘Are you?’
‘Maybe a little. Do you want to go?’
‘Yeah,’ said Paul, and slowly stood.”
We share the spaces they inhabit, both physically and intellectually. We share the coffee shops and the bookstores and the internet. But for the characters in the book, that is all that the world is or ever will be. Their world is like a box, so small, so constricting and unlovely. There is no way out. It is their cosmos.
We share the spaces but we live in a different world. The world does not contain us the way it contains our counterparts – our fellow actors on the stage of the coffee-shop, house party, bar, club, library, reading, traveling, eating. It contains them, and constricts them.
The Christian, on the other hand, believes in transcendence. She sees a truth outside of the box and should be pointing to it, inviting everyone to see along with her.
I believe that is the purpose of art made by a Christian. She must point to the truth without ever claiming to possess it. Tao Lin tells a story of boredom and despair. The Christian response, according to Lesslie Newbigin, “will simply be the telling of the story, the story of Jesus, the story of the Bible. The story is itself, as Paul says, the power of God unto salvation.”