Friday, February 15, 2019

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Why Did Alt Lit Cross the Road?

Tao Lin, Taipei (2013).

Just think, up until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of or read Tao Lin, 29 (going on 30), the American novelist of Chinese-Taiwanese parentage, whose latest novel, Taipei (named after the Taiwanese capital), will, I think, be reassuring to plus-60 elderly people.

Not to have even heard of Lin is simply a measure of how totally out of it one can get, living here in the Alfred Kazin Home for Almost Retired Critics, with its spotty Internet connections. But then, luckily, I ran into New York Times book critic Dwight Garner’s pretty favourable review of Taipei, which he calls Lin’s “strongest book.” “At its best,” says Garner, “it has distant echoes of early Hemingway, as filtered through Twitter and Klonopin: it’s terse, neutral, composed of small and intricate gestures.” For those of you who are also out of it, Klonopin is a drug for epileptic seizures or panic attacks that the staff occasionally feeds us at Kazin HARC (and Twitter, of course, is… what it is). Garner allows that “at its lesser moments,” Lin’s book is “hapless, like a poorly lighted mumblecore movie.” I’m not sure I know what a “mumblecore movie” is, though Garner provides a helpful hyperlink I was too lazy to click. You sure do have to keep up a lot these days in order not to be totally out of it (see Dwight Garner, “A Literary Mind, Under the Spell of Drugs and a MacBook,” New York Times, June 4, 2013). Garner’s review, by the way, was characterized by a fellow critic as a “semi-rave.”

Taipei begins, “It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless-seeming sky as Paul, 26, and Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea to attend a magazine-release party in an art gallery. Paul had resigned to not speaking and was beginning to feel more like he was ‘moving through the universe’ than ‘walking on a sidewalk.’ He stared ahead with a mask-like expression, weakly trying to remember where he was one year ago, last November, more for something to do than because he wanted to know, though he was not incurious.”

The opening contains a lot of the tics that punctuate this novel about “Paul, 26,” a New York (Brooklyn) novelist, travelling in hip, 20-something, sub-cultural, artsy circles. All the characters are introduced by first names followed by a journalese-style age listing, although that’s about it for descriptions of people. Michelle is soon replaced by a couple of other equally forgettable sort-of girlfriends, who are ultimately succeeded by Erin, 24, to whom Paul eventually gets married in a quicky ceremony in Vegas (I hope I’m not giving away too much; I guess I’ve gotten a little rusty living in the ARC rest home, where assignments don’t come along all that frequently these days.)

Lin is also big on vagueness; skies are “hazy,” “cloudless-seeming,” but nonetheless drizzling; the characters are staunchly inarticulate and often say, “I don’t know”; a lot of what they experience has to be encased in quotes because although they might in fact be “moving through the universe” or “walking on a sidewalk,” these are also verbal cliches whose irony the character is self-aware of even while performing such quotidian acts. There’s plenty of drug-taking, which Garner says they use in order “to feel authentic, or to feel anything.” But I’m not planning to be snooty about their drug-taking, considering the amounts of “meds” we gobble down at our present location.

Lin’s favourite word is, for some reason, “grinned,” although it doesn’t appear in the first paragraph, but turns up a couple of screen-clicks later (I’m reading this on an antique Kindle that doesn’t have page numbers, but only a percentage bar, which is what they give to us ARCs because you can easily increase the font size to compensate for failing eyesight). So, “he sort of glanced at Michelle and was surprised to see her grinning, then couldn’t stop himself from grinning.” And after that there are literally hundreds of instances of grins, grinning, and “he grinned,” maybe even while saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t know why there’s so much grinning unless it’s a perceptual malfunction and Paul needs to get his prescription contacts updated.

(Jeez, for the last five minutes, I’ve been trying to remember the name of an ARC whose work I admire technically but don’t really like all that much, whose last book was called One for the Books… Joe Queenan! That’s it. Christ, my memory for names is shot. Anyway, you can find me, and Joe and a bunch of other old geezers on the front porch of HARC in our rockers, clicking away on our Kindles, grinning. Of course, John Leonard passed on, so he’s not around anymore to brilliantly over-write his reviews, and his grin is more of a rictus.)

Tao Lin offers a spoof self-portrait in "The Stranger," a parody of "Time's" cover story about Jonathan. Franzen.

Tao Lin offers a spoof self-portrait in “The Stranger,” a parody of “Time’s” cover story about Jonathan. Franzen.

The next day, reading a blog on the Guardian’s book pages, I learned that the kind of writing Tao Lin does is known as “Alt Lit” (“alt” for “alternative”), and that “Tao Lin is the poster boy for Alt Lit — a relatively new literary community firmly grounded in the culture of the internet… ” and that Bret Easton Ellis has praised him as “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” (Richard Lynch-Smith, “New alternatives for Alt Lit,” Guardian, June 6, 2013,) Since Taipei is published by Vintage, in its hip Vintage Contemporaries series, Lynch-Smith’s post mainly asks, “As mainstream publishers switch on to Tao Lin, what next for Alt Lit?” The blog post, oddly, doesn’t mention that there was something like this, about a quarter-century ago, a “transgressive” kind of writing known as the “New Narrative,” that featured writers like Dennis Cooper, Robert Gluck and Dodie Bellamy. Cooper published a half-dozen novels about S&M sex with underage kids, including plenty of drug-taking and techie-hipness, that sold pretty well, but the “New Narrative,” although it had its moment, around 1990, never quite caught on as a way of challenging the conventions of style and subject matter in writing.

The reason I’m including all this filler (apart from hoping that maybe I’m being paid by the word, or byte) is that not a lot happens in Taipei that needs describing. It’s about Paul, 26, and his friends partying, hanging out, “working on things” on their computers, ingesting drugs, struggling with relationships. There’s the aforementioned quicky marriage to Erin, 24, an author’s book tour, and a c0uple of visits to Paul’s parents (whose names and ages aren’t given) in Taipei, and that’s about it.

I think 60-plus readers are likely to find Lin’s book reassuring, because although the characters are pretty pathetic, vapid, bland, what have you, they’re at least thoroughly unthreatening. These are not people likely to campaign for cutting off Social Security benefits or sending the elderly off on ice floes (even if ice floes still existed, which they don’t, because of global warming). These are people who can’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag, as we used to say; that’s part of whatever charm they possess. To paraphrase one young critic, Only a real codger would say this, but if this is the output we can expect from one of our bright young things, I don’t think we have much to worry about. Actually, the unparaphrased young critic said, if this is what “we can expect from one of our bright young things, we’re fucked” (Lydia Kiesling, “Modern Life is Rubbish: Tao Lin’s Taipei,” The Millions, June 5, 2013). Oh well, same difference (almost).

Oddly enough, the one thing about Paul, 26 — Tao Lin’s novelist protagonist — that isn’t believeable is that he’s a novelist. All the other stuff, from his family background to his permanent state of emotional/intellectual confusion, to his compulsive partying and drug-taking, seems perfectly plausible. You say to yourself, oh yeah, that’s probably pretty much how life is among a particular segment of New York artsy young people, and indeed, Lin conveys it not only accurately but with a style of seeming artlessness that matches the consciousness of his characters.

Even though Paul has apparently published a couple of novels (as has Tao Lin) and is about to go on a publisher-sponsored author’s book tour, he just doesn’t seem much like a novelist or writer of any kind, or even more broadly, a person interested in intellectual things. He seems more like a clerk in a convenience store or in a failing video store that’s being wiped out by Netflix or some other form of movie “streaming.” Or, maybe he might be a design consultant for Ikea. Lin reports all the stuff going through Paul’s mind (the trip through Paul’s mind must take up a good 50 per cent of Taipei), but none of it has anything to do with thinking about writing. Okay, none of it has to do with thinking much about the actual world (most of Paul’s thoughts are a kind of offbeat rumination on metaphysics, or maybe they’re just druggy thoughts, like getting fixated on imagining how dots of light might be seen making irregular trajectories across representations of abstracted cities as viewed from some position in outer space or… well, you sorta get the idea, right?). Most working writers that I know (including those of us writing for the Old People’s Review of Books) spend a good bit of life thinking about writing, working at writing, developing insights about particular angles on topics they might write about, etc. But Paul doesn’t evidence any of this. Maybe he just writes in the same fits of distractedness that attend his partying.

Nobody else in Paul’s circle seems to have much contact with the world, either, apart of course from contact with each other and some elements of culture that they share. But in Taipei, a book about educated, artsy, 20-somethings in contemporary New York, there’s no Occupy Wall Street, no Syrian civil war, no drones in Pakistan, no global warming, no Great Recession, no Obama (well, there is one unexplained reference to Hillary Clinton’s hair in relation to the edges of a piece of lettuce in a MacDonald’s outlet in Taipei… ). There’s not even any baseball seasons, or Final Fours, or poker on television, or much sex, and the latter is strictly orthodox heterosex. There’s just Paul and his pals, on their way to and from partying and hanging out. You could non-judgmentally characterize these people as narcissists since they’re so self-absorbed, but it might be more precise to describe them as self-hating narcissists, since their self-absorption doesn’t seem to be in service even of themselves. Or maybe that’s too harsh. How about self-doubting narcissists? But as the poet Robert Creeley said long ago in “The Immoral Proposition”: “… the unsure / egoist is not / good for himself.”

Lin’s modus operandi in terms of characters and plot is a cross between early Bret Easton Ellis (the young-nihilist-Less Than Zero-period of the mid-1980s) and Charles Bukowski (1920-1994; best known for his gritty accounts of L.A. “lowlife,” as it was then labelled). Though Lin’s characters get as shitfaced as Bukowski’s, the level of psychological and physical violence is but a shadow of that found in rougher literary worlds. In fact, what violence there is in Taipei doesn’t rise above such unsavage acts as, say, “unfriending” someone on Facebook, or the vague possibility that one of the stoned characters might walk off a fourth floor Brooklyn roof.

The big attraction of Lin’s work is probably the thinking that Paul does. Despite the bleak subject matter, the writing occasionally feels fresh and new, something like the effect of Dennis Cooper’s early novels (again, back in the 1980s), which are likely the Ursprung of “Alt Lit.” Lin is relatively easy to read, even when some character’s thoughts, usually Paul’s, become hopelessly convoluted. For the contemporary reader, Lin’s prose is excitingly hip (you feel the mild thrill of, Wow, I’m reading Alt Lit) and simultaneously rather harmless (you don’t have the sense of, Aw-oh, this is going to change my way of looking at the world, that readers of, say, Hemingway or Kerouac, experienced when their work first appeared). For Lin’s age mates, the attraction is in the off-beat metaphysical riffs about life which are likely experienced by such readers as fairly “profound.”

Here’s a characteristic one. Paul and Erin are sleepily riding in a bus going toward Taipei, and staring at the lighted and sometimes animated signs attached to various buildings, and that leads Paul to the thought

“… 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 with one or two robot dogs and one robot maid, would live in self-sustaining, underwater, glass spheres by something like 2004 or 2008. At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated, implanting little computers into people’s brains, or other methods Paul had probably read about on Wikipedia, until it became the distant, shrinking, nearly nonexistent somethingness that was currently life — and life, for immortal humans, became the predominate distraction that was currently death — technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollaby fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the sole purpose, it seemed, of increased functioning, until the universe was one computer.”

It goes on like that for quite a while, and though it probably sounds better on Adderall or MDMA or whatever Paul and his recently acquired wife, Erin, are on, it’s not uninteresting as metaphysical speculation. Lin wraps it up like this:

“When Erin woke, seeming depressed and confused, avoiding looking at anything as she sat up, Paul patted his lap and she lay there again. Paul asked if she could think of a newer word for ‘computer’ than ‘computer,’ which seemed outdated and, in still being used, suspicious in some way, like maybe the word itself was intelligent and had manipulated culture in its favor, perpetuating its usage.”

“I’m still thinking,” she said after a few minutes.

“I don’t think my question made sense,” said Paul. “There can’t be a newer word … for the same word.”

End of riff. At which point you might want to butt in and suggest the word “machine,” as in E.M. Forster’s story, “The Machine Stops” (1909), but that probably would only confuse matters, and it’s just best to let Paul and Erin head into Taipei for whatever epiphanies it might produce.

For me, the climactic sentence of the novel occurs late in the book, while Paul and Erin are visiting a Taipei McDonald’s restaurant in the middle of the night, stoned on LSD, making a documentary-cum-science-fiction movie on Paul’s MacBook machine, and the computer’s battery is announcing that it’s “depleted,” a term that quickly takes on metaphysical significance for the duo. So, “Around 4:30 a.m. they walked twelve blocks to the apartment, holding hands and concentrating on and reminding each other of the task — to walk to the apartment without getting lost or hit by a car.” Even detractors of Lin’s work have to concede that at this point, 81% into Taipei according to my Kindle counter, we’re pretty much in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up territory. Yes, the “task” is to cross the street safely, using the important techniques you learned in childhood or in Robert Fulghum’s 1988 inspirational self-help best-seller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Like the old riddle: How did the chicken cross the road? Answer: stoned. Admittedly, any other literary critic might select any other sentence as the climactic one of Taipei, but I think I’ll stick to mine.

Before that, however, as I reached the 50-something per cent mark in the book, I was informed that Lin is already old hat. Canadian writer, and Esquire magazine culture columnist Stephen Marche boldly announced that Marie Calloway’s “work is way, way better than Tao Lin’s.” (Stephen Marche, “The New Bad Kids of Fiction,” Esquire, June 10, 2013.)

Marche, a younger critic who has not yet arrived at the Alfred Kazin HARC-the-herald-angels-sing, as we sometimes joke, not only links us to Lydia Kiesling’s really negative review of Lin in The Millions, but heartily recommends, in Lin’s stead, Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life (2013), defying “anyone who picks it up to try putting it down.” Calloway, 23, is already slightly known for having posted one of the pieces from the book, an enthusiastic account of sexual self-degradation, on the net. Marche thinks this posting caused “a major Internet explosion,” rather than something more modest, such as “minor notoriety” in a sub-culture of shameless self-promotion. “If you are going to read any example of the ‘Asperger’s style’,” says Marche, Calloway’s book “is the real thing.” It is, “in its own way, a minor masterpiece.” Marche seems unaware of the Alt Lit label for this kind of writing, which is odd for such an on-top-of-it guy. As for his own clunky attempt to dub it “Asperger’s style,” I’ll be surprised if that meme sticks.

Oh yeah, there’s one final little twist to this adventure in literature. Even though I said at the beginning of this piece that I’d never even heard of Tao Lin, while reading Taipei, I had a nagging feeling. So I plugged “Tao Lin” into the search box at The Old People’s Review of Books, which used to be Dooney’s Cafe ( back in the old days before we updated the site to reflect the very latest demographics, and whaddaya know?, bingo! It turns out that my home base site ran a piece, “Tao Lin: American Dork,” reviewing his previous novel, Richard Yates, a few years back (see, Caleb Powell, “Tao Lin: American Dork,”, Oct. 24, 2010), which is where I must have heard of Lin, but forgot all about it for a while.

Last word: I realize some Old People readers of Tao Lin are going to be tempted to worry about all that drug taking. In fact, that’s the main worry of his mom back in Taipei, who keeps sending Paul, 26, e-mails urging him to lay off the dope. The NYT reviewer, Garner, lists “Ambien, Seroquel, LSD, Adderall, Oxycodone, cocaine Flexeril, Percocet, psilocybin mushrooms and codeine” among the drugs they ingest (he forgot the heroin and MDMA).

But I don’t think the drug stuff is such a big deal, even though Paul and Erin and the others are drugged out for pages on end. After all, modern youngish people have been engaged in a “systematic derangement of the senses” ever since Rimbaud, Baudelaire and a few other daring, artsy types invented the idea of “modernism” in the mid-19th century, and the same is probably true of Paul and his friends even if they haven’t even heard of the 19th century. Lin’s characters may be rather pathetic, but they seem pretty harmless, except for whatever harm they may be causing to themselves. Anyway, by now, much of the general population is taking drugs of one sort and another on a daily basis. As for Paul and his pals getting mixed up about which drugs they have or haven’t taken, well, even here at the Alfred Kazin HARC, from time to time, we get a bit confused about our meds. It can happen to anyone.



Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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