Guest Review of Taipei, by Tao Lin
By Charles Yu
Charles Yu is the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other periodicals. Yu lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.
What does it feel like to be alive? It's an inquiry central to many novels, either explicitly or implicitly, and it has been explored in so many ways, in so many variations and permutations, that it's remarkable when someone finds a new way of asking the question. With Taipei, Tao Lin has managed to do just that. The novel's protagonist, Paul, is a twenty-something writer living in New York City who has at least two extraordinary capabilities: (1) a terrifyingly high tolerance for pharmacological substances, and (2) a prodigious ability to record and recount the moment-to-moment flow of micro-impressions and fleeting sensations of his awareness. While Lin may not be the first writer to combine these two elements in the form of a novel, he is the first one to synthesize them in this particular way, and it is the tension and interaction of these things that make Taipei such a compelling read.
What does it feel like to be alive? Weird. Really weird. That's something very easy to forget - we have an ability to acclimate quickly to our own ambient mental environment. For similar reasons, the fundamental strangeness of being alive is also very hard to articulate. What Tao Lin does is to slow everything down, paying very close attention to everything, registering his findings. The noise and bustle and all-night lights of the big city, first New York City, and then Taipei, the blur of pills and parties and people's faces are presented not as an impressionistic smear, but in careful, deliberate language, prose so precise it cannot be anything but excruciatingly honest. At times, Taipei feels like an experiment, a study on how to use (and abuse) your brain, with Paul communicating in a way that almost feels scientific - he's a scientist studying the strange thing called his self, or an alien who experiences human consciousness as if he were test-driving a brand new technology. It is this detachment which allows Lin to render, in a very pure, very visceral way, what the fringe feels like, a displacement or distance from the center, from your own heart, the psychological impossibility of going to some real or imagined home. Taipei renders all of this with a brute and direct force, and I admit at times that force caused me to flinch. This kind of experience is why I read, though - to be challenged, to be confronted, to experience something completely familiar that has been made entirely new.