Portraits of Still Lives: A Review
In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Manhattan serves as a catalyst for Holden Caulfield’s maturation. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, literary ambition joins forces with New York in the development (and descent) of Esther Greenwood. In Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, assimilation into a Western culture independent from her parents’ Iran is essential to Marji’s self-realization.
According to this rubric, Tao Lin’s Taipei and Adelle Waldman’s Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. ought to be exemplary specimens of the bildungsroman. New York, immigrant parents, youth, and a literary career: These books have all the bearings of the transformative tale. And yet they are the antibildungsroman, their narratives fundamentally static and their protagonists allergic to growth. The sense of stasis that they develop, moreover, is essential to the project of each. In Love Affairs Waldman voices young literary Nate’s stubbornly prejudiced intuitions, unchanged despite his love affairs and politically correct education. In Taipei, Tao Lin narrates Paul’s wandering and placeless existence, unchanged despite changing circumstances and perception-altering substances. No enlightenments, revelations, or matured under-standings are on offer here. The point is to characterize the way things stay the same.
Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. begins with an en-counter: Nate sees Juliet on the street and starts to make small talk. Juliet responds, Really?, astonished that Nate considers his nonchalant inquiries appropriate given the occasion (what the occasion is, we don’t yet know). Before walking away, she calls him an asshole.
This encounter, it turns out, was the first time Juliet and Nate had seen each other since Juliet’s abortion, after his condom broke. In the pages following his confrontation with Juliet, we fall into the clutches of Nate’s consciousness, which is churning in self-defense, Nate convincing him-self and the reader that he is “a product of a post-feminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education” and that he has there-fore committed no moral misdeed.
This opening scene sets up the central conflict of the novel: Is Nate a misogynistic asshole, or isn’t he? The book’s omniscient narrator presents a Nate who is rational, thoughtful, and critical, but reasonably so. He passes judgment on writers and friends and makes generalizations about women that have just enough of a ring of truth to pass, perhaps, as justifiable. When his girlfriend Hannah remarks that she doesn’t care whether or not people who wouldn’t appreciate Lolita read it anyway, “it flashed through Nate’s mind that Hannah’s position wasn’t very feminine. She sounded more like an aesthete than an educator, and women, in his experience, tended by disposition to be educators. He felt intuitively that she was paraphrasing someone else...and that the someone else was a man.”
Nate entertains the possibility that he’s a misogynist. He admittedly considers women to be uninterested in rational thought and favors “inherently masculine” writing. Yet whenever he’s caught articulating his gender-based prejudices, either aloud or to himself, he does so unquestioningly and almost confidently, at times nearly convincing the reader, too, of their harmlessness. In one instance, Nate labels a woman’s intellect as just another aspect of her feminine allure: “Atheism and Marxism and other such antiestablishment, intellectual isms are sexy in an attractive woman.” The feminist reader is inclined to shudder at the suggestion that men who read Marx can be Marxist, while women who read Marx can only be sexy, as Nate reinserts “antiestablishment” women into the very heterosexual, patriarchal establishment they are presumably rebel-ling against. Yet another reader, less quick to find offense, may accept Nate’s sexual attractions as just another rounding characteristic; don’t we all incorporate our intellectual prejudices into our sexual preferences?
Like Nate’s lovers—Hannah, Greer, and Elise—Adelle Waldman is steeped in the Brooklyn literary scene. Nate is clearly constructed out of bits and pieces of men that she has confronted in her own career and love affairs. Nate, therefore, is uncomfortably familiar and familiarly complicated. Because the narrator cleaves to Nate’s perspective throughout, any assessment of him falls to the reader. This process is aided by the introduction of Hannah, a sympathetic character whose intellect and independence threaten Nate’s preconceptions. Hannah stands her own in conversations with his male friends and with his best female friend Aurit, whom Nate deems the height of female intelligence. She challenges Nate’s confidence in his unwavering intellectual superiority. When Nate finds himself complaining to Hannah about an article pitch that was rejected, he worries: “Between the two of them, he had always played the role of the more successful writer. He had been the one to champion her work, to build her up. For their roles to be reversed, even temporarily, would only add to this sense of indignity.”
A couple of weeks after Nate and Hannah decide their relationship has failed, for reasons neither of them can articulate (but that clearly have something to do with Hannah’s threatening intellect), Hannah writes Nate an email. In it, she expresses her anger and calls Nate out on his transparent misogyny: “Why do you think it was that we had a good time when we hung out with Jason and Peter? It was because they were nice to me—they acted like they actually wanted to hear what I had to say, which you barely did at that point.”
While plenty of writing is described in Love Affairs, it is always seen through Nate’s eyes and related in his sharp critical terms. Hannah’s angry email is the only text that appears on the page naked and unfiltered, lending the reader a perspective independent of Nate. The perception enabled by this distance is revelatory. When Nate finishes reading the email that the reader, too, has read and presumably judged to be reasonable, he feels like doing a number of things: 1) throwing his computer against the wall; 2) running hard for ten miles; 3) reading a “very bracing, very austere, very masculine philosopher” like Schopenhauer; and 4) not getting back together with Hannah. His failure to respond to her email then provokes Hannah to send another, declaring Nate “a bigger asshole than I ever imagined.” The chiasmus between Hannah’s writing and Nate’s response grants the reader perspective, and the author a new voice. Through Hannah’s emails, Waldman briefly exits her protagonist’s consciousness to articulate the reasonable thoughts of the antagonized woman, and nudge the reader along in her assessment of Nate.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a modern novel of manners. As its 19th- century predecessors, it details the social mores of a time and depicts a character striving to adapt to them while searching for a mate. Like the Bennet sisters at a high-society ball, Nate strains to contain his behavior within a taught decorum (in his case, to suppress misogynistic impulses within a politically correct society). In Waldman’s novel, as in all examples of the genre, drama derives from relationships, and complexity from conversation. Yet unlike Pride and Prejudice, the quintessential bildungsroman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is a roman that investigates not a character’s bildung, but rather his resistance thereto. In skillfully conveying Nate’s consciousness, Wald-man examines the stubborn persistence of subtle prejudice in a politically correct society, without exiting the confines of the very mind whose prejudice she reveals.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and Taipei might share, in some rendition, a nearly identical book-jacket description: Young man, in his mid-to-late twenties, with immigrant parents and Brooklyn literary connections, jaunts about the city, falls in and out of love, and remains essentially unchanged by it all. Yet despite taking place in the same city and the same time, the novels seem centuries apart. While Waldman echoes the conventions and concerns of the likes of Jane Austen, Tao Lin’s prose is more like that of Ernest Hemingway, or rather that of @ernest-hemingway, were the author to be alive, drugged, and an avid tweeter.
The opening sentences of Taipei do not introduce a moral conflict, as in Love Affairs, but rather a set of syntactical features. These features lay bare the novel’s style of narration and the difficulty it presents to a compassionate reading experience:
It began raining a little from a hazy, cloud-less-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.’
Whenever a character is introduced, throughout the novel, her name is followed by an age. Hair color, height, and skin tone are often left out, but age is always included. This strictly numerical characterization—a narrative tic that flies in the face of the grade-school dictum, show, don’t tell—is journalistic and, like much of Tao Lin’s authorial style, sourced from the internet. As on any online profile, “26” and “21” serve to flatten Paul and Michelle, reducing them to the single characteristic that is most easily transcribed.
Yet another stylistic refrain appears in the second sentence: Phrases are packaged as quotations —“moving through the universe,” “walking on a sidewalk”—even though they are unspoken. The punctuation suggests that so many expressions in Paul’s world (in our world, as Tao Lin sees it) have become stock phrases or clichés that the author must put scare quotes around them to publicly acknowledge their uncouthness. If the removal of quotation marks from spoken text intimately unites narrator and character, Tao Lin’s insertion of quotations marks around unspoken text (we might call it “Solitary Direct Discourse”) does the opposite. Even the narrator is barred from the genuine expression of the characters whose thoughts it narrates.
As Taipei progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that Lin’s cold syntactical habits—the flattening of characters into quantifiable traits, the division of language into quoted phrases—mirror those of the novel’s protagonist. Paul, it’s announced loud and clear, is not at home in the world around him: “He was becoming isolated and unexplainable as one of those mysterious phenomena, contained within informational boxes, in picture-heavy books on natural history.” And: “He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed.” Dispersed, indiscernible, dissembling, isolated, unexplainable, forgotten, digressed: This is the vocabulary that describes Paul’s sense of himself in the world.
Paul’s relationship to himself is likewise isolated, dispersed, and digressed. He accesses his thoughts indirectly, as though looking at himself through a screen. “Paul became aware of himself analyzing when he should’ve left”; Paul “wanted to ask if this already happened, but didn’t know who to ask, then realized he wanted to ask him-self”; “Paul realized he was...rushing ahead in an unconscious, misguided effort to get away from where he was: inside himself.” Paul analyzes himself analyzing; perceives himself wanting to ask himself something; realizes his own desire to exit himself. He is anywhere but in his own body, and yet, as in the above quotations, he is anywhere but there as well.
Paul’s gratingly persistent “meta”-recognition might be labeled an effect of (or an affect of) the internet, which is aggressively featured in Taipei in the form of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, StatCounter, Gawker, Wikipedia, Tumblr, and Gmail. One could argue that Tao Lin depicts, in the character of Paul, the existential consequences of existing simultaneously in person and online. Facebook, Tumblr, and MySpace allow Paul to observe himself, summarized in a profile and framed in photos, from a removed seat of observation. This mode of self-identification has punctured the boundary between the virtual and the real, leaving Lin’s protagonist with a third-person experience of self and with fantasies of “being able to click on his trajectory to access his private experience.” The internet, then, may be the only place where Paul feels at home: Stretched out on his yoga mat with his Mac-Book on his bent knees (a position he assumes throughout the novel) is just where Paul belongs.
Taipei often feels icy and ungenerous. The narrator is barred from characters; language is barred from expression; Paul is barred from the world and himself; and the reader is left barred from them all.
After splitting up with Michelle at the magazine release party in Chelsea, Paul goes to Taiwan to visit his parents. When he comes back, he goes to a Mexican restaurant, a book reading, and a BBQ-themed party, where he meets Laura, with whom he goes to another Mexican restaurant. A few days later, he and Laura take an Ambien and kiss each other lazily on her bed, until Paul looks at his phone, sees that two hours have gone by, and exclaims, “Jesus.”
Plot moves forward at an aggressively monotone pace. Chapters are broken into sections, and almost every section begins with a description of time or place: “In early June,” “At Legion, twenty minutes later,” “The next night,” “Around 1:30 a.m,” “On UCLA’s campus the next night,” “In his room, around 2:30 a.m.” “Around three hours later.” At each of these locations, Paul takes drugs and makes obtuse observations about aspects of his character or the nature of memory or time. He often buys groceries, frequently pineapple chunks, and eats to console himself: While marching on chronologically, the plot circles back on itself in cycles of consumption. Even when Paul makes grand revelatory perceptions, his character never develops, the drug’s temporarily altering effect always remaining just that.
About one hundred pages in, feeling lonelier, emptier, and more restless by the sentence, this particular reader was about to close the book, scorn Tao Lin, deactivate my Facebook, and go hug a friend, when Taipei took a surprising turn. Erin, 24, whose blog Paul has followed, begins to visit Paul more frequently, to share his drugs and attend his book readings. Erin, like Paul, is understated and wandering; but in each other’s company, their icy expression becomes dryly humorous banter:
“No, Beau,” said Erin.
“Nobo?” said Paul grinning.
“Beau. He said ‘mons pubis.’ Ew.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a part of the body,” said Erin with a worried expression.
Along with complementing each other’s cursory manner, Paul and Erin together develop a more authentic and expressive conversational mode. Paul confesses, “There was a period of like three days when I was really obsessed with you. But you weren’t responding to my email and I kind of lost the obsessive nature,” to which Erin responds, “Whoa.”
The couple’s increasing intimacy climaxes in their spontaneous decision to get married and visit Paul’s parents in Taipei, a place associated, from the outset, with a potential for spiritual transformation. In the first chapter, Paul imagines himself moving to Taipei mid-life and projecting “the movie of his uninterrupted imagination” onto the “shifting mass of everyone else,” thereby accessing a “second, itinerant consciousness.”
The hypothetical power of the honeymoon is quickly deflated: After several days in the foreign country, Paul and Erin confess to one another that they haven’t “noticed anyone” and had for-gotten they weren’t in America. Instead of inhabiting their new surroundings, Paul and Erin spend their time drugged, holding a MacBook in front of their faces, and filming themselves in the local McDonald’s. In some sense, they do realize Paul’s ambition to create a “movie of uninterrupted imagination,” but the outcome is hardly enlightenment. The specific landscape of Taipei serves as a mere backdrop to a static set of places that are not reliant on location: the World Wide Web and a global fast food chain. When Paul and Erin return from their numbed Asian vacation, then, they recommence the rhythm they’d established before they’d left and see each other less often. The novel largely returns to its early frigid-ity and monotonous pace.
Throughout Taipei, Paul remains untransformed and stubbornly seeks out facilitators of stasis—globally uniform restaurants, the quotidian consumption of drugs and pineapple. Yet at the end of the novel, believing (wrongly) that he’s overdosed on mushrooms, Paul declares distractedly, “I think I’m dead.” His false experience of death purportedly serves not as a conclusion, but as a source of revelation and regeneration. When he exits his deathbed, Paul feels running water as though for the first time, “cold, grasping, meticulous, aware.” And the book finishes with Paul saying “that he felt ‘grateful to be alive.’”
This supposedly revelatory ending, unearned by the nonevent that precedes it, identifies the novel not as a bildungsroman but rather a “bildungsromockery.” To conclude with such a facile and uncharacteristic revelation is to gesture at the genre of the bildungsroman, only to indicate what this novel is not. To read it as a member of the genre, as many critics have, is to mistake its very meaning and project. Early on, Paul acknowledges that “he didn’t want to die—less because he had an urge to live than because dying, like knitting or backgammon, seemed irrelevant to his life.” For Paul to conclude by adulating life, then, simply means that he’s grateful to have overcome a passing moment of irrelevance. To continue living, means continuing to do just what he’s done throughout the course of the novel; the epilogue, were there to be one, would chug along in the same static rhythm that defined Paul’s life before and then with Erin, and before, in, and after Taipei. This is not to say that Lin’s novel is devoid of a direction or project, but rather that it indulges in a recognizable modernity, in which perceptions are altered by the hour and statuses are updated accordingly, in which “transformation” is quotidian and not necessarily transformative.