TAO LIN'S TAIPEI is very different novel than the Brooklyn author's last work, 2010's Richard Yates, but the two books share common elements. Both are about a disaffected—to the point of catatonic—author who vaguely resembles Lin (in Taipei's case, a young man named Paul); the plots revolve around his inability to function socially, though he tries, nonetheless, to build a relationship with a similarly distant young woman.
I liked Taipei more, though. Lin's writing has matured: His style is still characterized by prose so bland and straightforward it could be in a technical manual, but here Lin does, at times, go beneath the surface to describe his character's inner life. Any word too vague or idiomatic is surrounded by quotations, but long, circuitous descriptions of abstracted, depressive thought patterns are thoroughly conveyed: "He didn't feel connected by a traceable series of linked events to a source that had purposefully conveyed him from elsewhere, into this world. He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it had digressed and was continuing ahead in a kind of confused, choiceless searching."
The plot follows Paul's "choiceless searching" before and after a book tour. One relationship dissolves and another begins, culminating in a sudden marriage and a trip to visit his parents overseas. For Paul, Taipei is a place where his natural inability to communicate with people becomes a literal reality, and the disconnect brings him comfort and hope. "[He] imagined moving alone to Taipei at an age like 51, when maybe he'd have cycled through enough friendships and relationships to not want more."
Paul's depressive tendencies could stem from mental illness, or they could be a side effect of the rampant drug use that escalates as the plot goes on: from a nightly Klonopin, to cocaine, to daily regimens of MDMA, mushrooms, LSD, Adderall, zero-calorie energy drinks, and whatever. If the magnitude of drug use portrayed is anything resembling reality, it makes one worry about the longevity of entire swaths of Williamsburg.
Even some of Lin's biggest fans call him boring, but his writing is honest, even brave, in the way it portrays the agonizing self-paralysis of the characters. The tension and interest in Taipei comes from the inexpressible need to relate to people, and the difficulties inherent in sustaining connections. Through drugs, through sex, through art and the internet, Paul struggles to even understand his life. It's one of the more interesting modern novels I've read, and there's no reason to think Tao Lin won't keep getting better at this.