Some authors are not born nihilists (and believe me, nihilism is something intrinsic within certain human minds). Some are forced to become that way as a result of their times. Where post-modernism (yes, I know, a very generalizing word) is concerned, it seemed unfathomable that anyone could ever hold a candle to Bret Easton Ellis’ espousal of life’s emptiness. Tao Lin, however, has emerged from the woodwork to upstage the insubordination of Ellis. With 2009’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, Lin’s expression of modern ennui seemed harmless enough—stealing here, G-chatting there—and not nearly as incendiary or ominous as the work of Ellis. But in Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, a world of utter meaninglessness is painted so bleakly that even Patrick Bateman wouldn’t take comfort in the serial killing potential.
Following the drug-addled, average life of novelist Paul (no last name needed), a Brooklyn denizen with, quelle surprise, relationship issues, Taipei wastes no time in establishing a complete sense of the loneliness and isolation that the twenty-first century has wrought. As Paul becomes reconciled to the fact that he’s going to break up with his current girlfriend, Michelle, “he began complaining once or twice a week (that certain things Michelle did were inconsiderate, that he felt neglected) and, by July, most days, was either visibly irritated or mutely, inscrutably despondent…” (8-9). Soon after, he has a romantic dalliance with Laura, a 28 year old (Lin is very specific with age in Taipei) he met at a party after a reading. Laura friends him on Facebook the next day, when Paul realizes she also has a MySpace page. As usual, Lin has no fear of mentioning the entire panoply of social media enterprises, with depressing assertions like, “[She] drank a shot of tequila and most of a Four Loko (for a video she’d told someone she’d post on Tumblr)…” (130) or “’You should tweet it, stop talking about it…’” (232).
Paul’s dating period with Laura is short-lived, ultimately leading him to meet Erin, who he technically “met” on the internet twenty months prior to this in-person encounter. Coming across one another through a mutual friend, Paul and Erin share a semi-equal attraction to one another. And while the narrative of the book is largely about dissatisfaction and doing drugs, it’s also about the never-ending quest to find another person who can even remotely empathize with your hatred for everyone else. As Paul himself says, “’I feel like I hate everyone’” (133).
The self-referential nature of the book is evident in the pull quote from Ellis himself on the back cover of the jacket: “With Taipei Tao Lin becomes the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” While the praise sounds high, it also comes across as hollow—just as much of the novel does. It’s difficult to relate to a character whose “conscious, helpless ongoing lack of recognition” (34) prompts him to flounder through existence using every known drug to numb himself. But then, late twentieth and twenty-first century literature isn’t really about character relatability—it’s about reflecting the era we live in.
Like Ellis, Lin also relies on some of his tried and true prose tricks. For instance, shoplifting remains a symptom of carelessness and entitlement—exactly like in Shoplifting From American Apparel. After stealing one of the CDs from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness double album, Paul is apprehended by a Best Buy security guard. After the ordeal is over, Paul tells Erin, “’I felt ashamed… I feel like I was on shoplifting autopilot. I wasn’t thinking anything. I was just already doing it’” (138). Mirroring the name checking of Less Than Zero, American Psycho and Glamorama, Lin mentions the restaurants and bars of “Brooklyn” (I put it in quotes because the part of Brooklyn Lin references doesn’t even seem real anymore) as though making a laundry list: Legion, Harefield Road, Mesa Coyocan, Sel de Mer and Lodge. The multiple mentions of The Green Table also seem to serve as some sort of foil for Dorsia in American Psycho—that elusive restaurant you never make it to (though Bateman gets in eventually), in spite of it being on the top of your list.
Lin’s propensity for dropping the names of pseudo relevant pop culture references—like Drugstore Cowboy, Half Baked and Trash Humpers—is also evocative of the Ellis modus operandi, no matter what the novel (including lesser favorites like The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park). By the end of Taipei, Paul and Erin are traipsing around the city guerilla filming a movie called Taiwan’s First McDonald’s. This is where it starts to get especially Ellis-esque with its story within a story pastiche. Moreover, Lin is equally fond of promoting the “everything is everything” concept. For example, while on one of his drug binges with Erin, “they pretended to be Wall Street Journal reporters and recorded themselves interviewing strangers about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. Erin meekly asked a large, young thuggish looking man and his smaller friend, both wearing backward caps, if they thought Darth Vader would ‘die in this one’” (140).
The conclusion of the novel, in which Paul is briefly convinced he’s dead, negates Lin’s previous worldview up until this moment as Paul slowly realizes he hasn’t quite crossed over to the other side yet, prompting him to express being “grateful to be alive” (248). It is in this regard, that, well, let’s face it, Lin is much more of a literary pussy than Ellis. At least Ellis always had the gumption to stand by the intensity of his disdain for modern civilization all the way till the end of his novels—instead of trying to pander to the concept of a happy ending that doesn’t totally make you want to kill yourself. Not only does Ellis have this on his side, but he would also never use the word “poop” (though “pink butthole pushes it in Glamorama) so liberally throughout one of his books. The presence of this word alone automatically eradicates any true literary value.