The Short Version: A year and a half (give or take) in the life of Paul, a novelist in his mid-twenties who “works on things”, takes a lot of drugs, and traverses life from a strange muted distance – even when he’s close to someone.
The Review: So I feel a bit out of the loop – I did not, until this book came out, know who Tao Lin was. I mention this because Clancy Martin’s NYTimes review implies that this means I must be over 30 and that review was the first real contact I had with criticism of this novel beyond its mention as a book-to-look-forward-to this year. I’m not over 30. In fact, I’m right at the age that this book should hypothetically be most affecting: just a little younger than Mr. Lin / his possibly-semi-autobiographical narrator. And there’s another before-reading-the-book hook that caught my attention: no less a luminary than Bret Easton Ellis has touted Lin as the “prose stylist of his generation.” And the similarities between this novel and Less Than Zero / The Rules of Attraction are strong enough to see Lin as, if not living up to that title, at least probably taking up the detached, drug-using numbness mantle that Ellis has lately dropped. It’s similar to the Lindsay Hunter / Chuck Palahniuk thing I mentioned: they’re not the same, but there’s a similar feeling here – an unexpected jolt of that same freshness.
The thing about this book, though, is that I honestly don’t know if I liked it or if I didn’t like it or if I just… sort of felt numbed by it. It affected me deeply, I can say that much: the sort-of-depressed haze that Paul seems to operate under for most of the novel (although that could also just be the monotone narration) seemed to creep into my life as I was reading the book and for minutes, sometimes even hours after putting it down, I found myself not wanting to interact with anyone and wanting instead to just curl up inside myself. Not sad, just… blank. And I think that, if anything, is the takeaway sensation or reaction from this book: a sense of being blank. Not empty, but blank.
The plot, insofar as there is a plot (and I suppose there is), revolves around Paul screwing up relationships by virtue of being, well, a twentysomething in Brooklyn. Tao needs to show up as a guest star or something on the next season of Girls – because he feels like a character not out of that world but rather out of the shadow-world that Lena Dunham has created around herself (or is it the other way around?). He goes to places that I go to – he also goes to lots of places I would never go to, probably because I find hanging out with people like Paul to be as interminable as Paul would probably find hanging out with me. He does a lot of drugs. He writes a bit, he makes some strange (and admittedly hilarious sounding) movies – usually on drugs.
The drug use is so clinical – there’s even a strange meta-moment where two characters mention how they’d probably be perfect candidates for a prescription for Xanax (or Zoloft or something) – that it’s only in the last 50 or so pages that the reader really starts to feel it. Perhaps it’s just that drugs have become an accepted (well, ‘accepted’) part of our cultural moment that they aren’t shocking anymore, much as certain curse words are just simply not as shocking to my generation as they are to my parents’ – but there are, still, words and drugs that feel more taboo. And when one of them shows up – with violent results (comparatively, anyway), you start to all of the sudden feel in a way that the novel hasn’t yet provoked. And while I found Paul’s… whatever-you-want-to-call-it at the end of the novel to be too plot-driven and too much like an attempt at redemption that wasn’t necessarily earned, it was also fitting considering we’re primed to actually feel something. But even writing that just now, I realize that I felt primed. It didn’t happen organically, it felt all of the sudden like things were happening in order for the novel to wrap up.
Because – and I say this with no judgement – the book honestly could’ve gone on indefinitely. Moments begin to blur together pretty quickly and although you can separate the first half of the novel from the second by the introduction of the character of Erin, the moments on either side of that demarcation feel entirely interchangeable. Paul and Erin, at one point, talk about how Taipei is so much quieter than New York – but their actions and the places they went felt almost totally the same. Similarly, each time Paul went to do a reading wherever he’d go do a reading, all of the moments just blurred together. There’s a cloudiness to the book (quite possibly the best example of what these characters, on these drugs, are feeling like – if Mr. Lin’s various profiles of late are any indication of the level of autobiography here) that makes it all just go down a little… well, impactlessly.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’m wrestling with this. On the one hand, the way the book made me feel – instinctively, under my skin feel – is worth a higher rating, even though it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. But on the other, I don’t know that I’m really going to remember this book for that impact. There’s something artificial here – something a little too hipster, a little too twentysomething-Brooklyn for me to believe Lin deserves the hype. It feels, like any drug, as though it will fade all too quickly. But I also can’t deny that the book was fascinating and that Lin – whether through his publishing arm at Muumuu House or in his own writing, novel/blog/poetry/twitter – is a dynamic voice in a time when so many authors feel flattened. It’s just a question of whether or not he’s writing what you want to read.