Taipei: A Novel About Nothing For Trust Fund Hipsters

Taipei may be Tao Lin’s most mature work, but that isn’t saying much considering that the thirty year old author has made a literary career out of immaturity. And yet, Lin’s third novel and seventh book has been critically acclaimed more than it has been criticized. Jonathan Kyle Sturgeon of The American Reader even makes the grandiose claim that “Taipei is beautifully cut, to be sure, like a diamond.” Critics from a wide range of pulpits have seemed to come to the conclusion that Lin’s parenthetical comma-filled and dash-riddled run-on sentence style is not only unique, but somehow representational of the millennial generation’s collective thought process.

However, claiming that Taipei best reflects the perspective of an American growing up in the digital age assumes that a majority of the newest generation are try-hard apathetic artists with comfy allowances from mom and dad. This is especially frustrating considering that many young Americans are primarily concerned with financial hardship, (unlike Lin’s proxy, Paul, who does not have to consider monetary troubles). Even critics with negative responses to Taipei (such as Ian Sansom of The Guardian and Annalisa Quinn of NPR) miss the point that “Generation Y” does not mainly consist of pseudo-intellectual, faux existentialist, bourgeois pill-poppers, but rather that this specific audience merely has a significant internet-presence.

Clancy Martin’s overtly positive review of Taipei in the New York Times Book Review refers to the protagonist’s interminable travel throughout the novel as “…Paul’s way of being, much more than his pill-popping (which is also nonstop, but doesn’t seem to have much influence on his way of thinking).” After reading Martin’s review, one wonders whether he had actually read the book at all, because the entire plot of Taipei revolves around Paul experimenting with drugs in order to experience life differently (and consequently perceive, or think differently), relieve himself of boredom, and in order to act “normal” when doing readings for his book tour across the country.

It’s understandable that reviewers get excited about a novel that celebrates alternative consumerism with avant-garde, sometimes even skillful prose-poetry. However, the author’s beautiful but clumsy writing does not mean that at Taipei’s conclusion Paul has believably grown from a self-absorbed womanizer into a human being capable of feeling compassion. Regardless of whatever revelation the main character has, the final passage does little to satisfy the reader, who has endured 248 pages of insignificance in order to find out that Paul is “grateful to be alive”. What is clear is that the protagonist has journeyed from a state of inexplicable dreariness, (signified by the opening words of the novel: “It began raining a little from a hazy, cloudless-seeming sky…”) to a state of semi-awareness, (brought on by a psychedelic trip nonetheless) which still falls short of compassion for other human beings.

The fact that critics are claiming Lin’s style to be delineating of his generation is absurd in that it overlooks the novel’s solipsism (in spite of its third-person narration). Yet this narration is a ruse, as Tao Lin, the internet-obsessed and ironic self-publicizing NYU alumni, has openly admitted to merely transcribing “25,000 pages of memory” into roughly 250 pages of a thinly-veiled diary posing as fiction. Through this, Lin is able to convey to the reader his not-so-profound message that other people’s emotions matter, if only in regards to how he, himself, feels.

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Lin has once again been able to change his diary from first to third person and get it published as a “novel”.

Cycle of Chance

A sack of flesh and bones

controls a machine at a weight

of two tons, (including the sack,

two tons, one hundred and fifty eight

and a half pounds) moving

in spite of all the friction,

at a velocity that can almost

guarantee a different kind of trip

if circumstances, (a bump, a thought,

indigestion, another sack)

cause the mind to shift its own gears

into uncontrollable dimensions.

It’s almost always uncontrollable.

Although somehow that thin blade

between almost and always allows

the sack’s muscles to react

and lets the undeserving mind

go on

on borrowed time.

Breathing While Being Cold and Soaking Wet

Breathing while being cold and soaking wet

The zen of an old man with no time left

You are fighting, desiring death and yet

 

Purposes stem from needing an outlet

When creation fails it will lead to death

Breathing while being cold and soaking wet

 

Thoughts turn to hunger and getting shot at

Hallucinations have committed theft

You are fighting, desiring death and yet

 

You know that you are not worthy of it

Recalling damage done under your chest

Breathing while being cold and soaking wet

 

This is as bad as it’s going to get

The last sand trickles from your hands outstretched

You are fighting, desiring death and yet

 

While waiting for the train brooding you met

A lovely shade and shared a cigarette

Breathing while being cold and soaking wet

You are fighting, desiring death and yet

Poetry, History, and Prophecy

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.
Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

(This article originally appeared in The Gleaner.)

“They now call this place out if its name / After one of their own who trafficked in human flesh”

Philadelphia’s Congo Square lies a block away from the most historic building in America, Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers boldly began their rebellion against the British Empire. The park, more commonly known as Washington Square, is advertised as a somber burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers, Continental and British alike. However, thousands more buried in the square remain overlooked, including slaves, free blacks, Catholics, and victims of various epidemics. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the centerpiece monument of the park, marginalizes the unmarked graves of the oppressed by barely mentioning their presence underneath. This is in spite of the fact that the square had been a “stranger’s burial ground” (and consequently a gathering place for what Steptoe affectionately calls saltwater Africans) for almost a century before the Revolutionary War began. Through “Meditations in Congo Square” American Book Award Winner and Pew Fellow poet, Lamont B. Steptoe, undertakes the daunting task of providing a voice for disregarded human beings buried in the dregs of American history.

Steptoe’s poetry uses meditation and spiritual creativity in order to shed light on the everyday life of not only his African ancestors, but also everyone else buried in Congo Square, including, “…the hearts brains and bones [of soldiers]…” and “the corpses felled by plague.” The underworld of Philadelphia’s hidden history comes alive from the very first line of Steptoe’s book, when he proclaims, “I dance with the ghosts of Congo Square / Meet and marry what isn’t there.” Readers come to understand that writing Meditations in Congo Square was no mere pet project for Steptoe, as the poet mentions in the book’s introduction that his three days a week meditation schedule on the burial ground lasted for a period of five years. Each poem in the collection conveys the poet’s psychological descent into an otherworldly realm, while managing to guide the reader along with him much like Virgil did for Dante in Inferno. Throughout the book the poet digs deeper and deeper into the square’s sacred grounds until his voice ultimately becomes one with the departed, culminating with the collection’s final poem, Untold Stories, in which Steptoe calls for the whispers of the forgotten dead to be “…loud enough to enter history’s ears!”

Reading Meditations in Congo Square is not a front to back cover endeavor, as many of the poems in this short book can easily stand on their own. This is because Steptoe’s “Meditations…” functions not only as a testament to colonial people’s history, but also often as a warning against war and oppression in the present and the future.

Steptoe’s ability to translate the humdrum of an average day into existential prophecy is frankly impressive, “…we are snowflakes falling on a / summer day vanishing in air while the unborn await their turn / to imagine our lives we are empty vessels dreaming of fullness.” In another poem Steptoe muses that when he was young he never would have thought the subject of weather would be a topic of conversation for him, let alone a metaphor for the transcendence of physical to spiritual. In this respect, Steptoe refers to the path of tropical storms originating in West Africa and crossing the Atlantic, the same route that saltwater Africans were forced to take. In No Name Worthy to Claim Steptoe speaks for a dead African joyous of being able to journey back home across the Atlantic, “I rushed across waves and plowed through storms / I entered the tabernacle of my youth.” Altogether, Steptoe’s Meditations… focuses on balancing historical and contemporary forms of life and death in Congo Square, and his unique method of meditative writing transforms the mundane into something spectacular.

(Steptoe recently read on campus in support of Rutgers Camden professor Ewuare Osayande’s anthology Stand Our Ground and stated that it is important for Meditations in Congo Square to be made available everywhere. The book is currently on sale at La Unique bookstore on 6th and Market in Camden, and the Penn Book Center on 34th and Sansom in Philadelphia.)