Books

Existentialisms: A Review of Tao Lin’s Taipei and Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Book One

Breaking with tradition usually means breaking form. For two contemporary authors, scrapping the tradition of received notions of the novel has led them to interesting and perhaps unprecedented literary success, and works of preeminent existential crisis. Tao Lin, enfant terrible of a certain internet literary set, who has established a reputation for self-promotion almost without peer, sets out in the novel Taipei to carefully deconstruct a reputation, and document its beguiling spontaneity. Karl Ove Knausgård, a celebrated Norwegian novelist whose My Struggle began with the author’s need to wrestle with his deceased father, dissects his own life within a six-volume, several-thousand-page novel.

These two authors, in their respective prolificity, have taken on the questions that lead to the comfortable rabbit holes—and warrens—of fiction’s ambivalent genesis. To further obscure proceedings, are these novels or memoirs? Both works are considered novels by their publishers, memoirs by their authors. For this reader, the initial impulse was to feel shocked and dismayed at the news, but then to acknowledge that Lin and Knausgård, each in his own way, have aborted tradition in a back alley.

 

Tao Lin’s Taipei

The aimless-seeming plot of Taipei belies the immediacy of the narrative which manages to engage across 250 pages by the familiarity of its ennui to anyone who has made a difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood. Taipei is at times disorienting, as the narrator casually describes protagonist Paul, who sounds a lot like what readers have come to know of the author Tao Lin.

There are drugs, and sex, and rampant, casual consumerism, and more drugs taken to have sex, and some taken to inhibit it. Taipei is so much like a Bret Easton Ellis novel that Ellis even blurbs it on the back copy. Unlike Ellis, Lin may be a bit more forgiving to his characters, but not overly so. An Ellis novel can often feel like it is about to topple into menace, and this tone can seem the main point.

With Lin, you begin to wonder about the strategy at play: Will change occur for this character at all? Is there a plot? The oddly compelling interactions (scenes, more or less) are punctuated with their tally of drugs ingested, much the way Hemingway’s novels were larded with magnums of champagne and cases of Marsala, all before lunch. As if in an alternate consciousness, Paul seems to barely inhabit his own body. Taipei documents his alienation, amused or nonplussed at how indifferent the world is, accepting that his life can never mesh with anyone else’s.

The actions of others are often cryptic to Paul, and a source of doubt as to his own motives in light of those actions; in the rendering of these ancillary characters, mannerisms become empty signs. Paul, unsure of himself, can only ask, receiving what the reader takes to be signposts of an endemic lack of feeling. Lin’s descriptions evoke the dulled affect of characters aswim in drugs. There are no feeling descriptions in the novel, just non-sequiturs and Lin’s accounting of results: crying, frequent grinning. His descriptions often evoke childhood memories and investigations, or dreaded scenarios of anomie and drift, as when Paul feels himself in a kind of spaceship pod cast from earth. In a typical instance, Paul walks “beneath a membraneous and vaguely patterned sky like a faded, inconsistently worn red-and-blue blanket lit from the other side.”

This focusing gaze—in third person, nonetheless—evokes a safety in burrowing down, physically, into the psyche, and the solace of words, and is as often happening in the confines of a room during a mid-day sleep. Dulled by substances, the narrator’s metaphors provide surreal anecdotes that read like cosmic quasi-existential koans.

Lin sustains this amnesiac’s log, but rarely is there a traditional descriptor of an emotional life. Because of the inhibiting drugs Lin’s characters take, emotion is leached from their humanity. Again, where in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels this is the oppressive tone of peril, in Lin’s it becomes a kind of purer, truth-seeking objectivity via subjectivity.

Lin is a proponent of ur-irony. Setting in quotes familiar words and phrases such as “backup prospect” and “obsessed” is a way of expressing an unrelenting grip on irony, and in the context it would have called attention to itself in any case, but here more so. It is as if the narrator, only too aware of his audience, has to provide an added wink to acknowledge he is far too self-aware and well aware that his readers are, too.

As a reader we begin to accept, if not understand, the motivations for all the drugs, variable in their capacity to make one feel less, or more. Paul’s relationship breakdowns are deliberate, as of the games of a protagonist whose behavior most would not tolerate for long.

Paul’s negotiation of the world pits him in a slightly latent adolescent phase. Paul is obsessed with a woman from a chance meeting at a party. He remains so until he possesses, and his project becomes essentially to find any way possible to demystify the object of that obsession. In this way, the turning away from the preoccupations is managed with drugs, or a frequent turn to technology. As begets his adaptability, when Paul and his wife Erin are fighting—which occurs frequently as their marriage’s half-life begins to degrade—they communicate by email.

The height of this disaffection is portrayed while Paul waits in line to use a restroom. He decides then, “from a certain point onward—beginning with his book tour maybe—he would only appear in public if he’d ingested sufficient drugs to not primarily be a source of anxiety, bleakness, awkwardness, etc. for himself and/or others.”

In one of many preoccupations (what else to do with all that time on his hands?), Paul and Erin set out to film Taiwan’s First McDonald’s, which becomes a day-long excursion to film themselves in an absurdist play provoking strangers.

Lin is so media-savvy and naively charming in this persona that it’s easy enough to forgive and see through his guise. Self-reference has become common, so pervasive is its use in contemporary literature. Lin’s Wikipedia page—let’s get meta, for a bit—seems to document the experiments detailed in the novel: Paul is a writer well-known enough to have his own Wikipedia page which he checks constantly. The distance Lin sets up in third person, perhaps as a mask, might be seen as a way of tolerating or confronting his own, whether real or make-believe, lacerating hyper-self-consciousness.

 

Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Book One

Early on in Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Book One, the author states: “The only thing I have learned from life is to endure it, never to question it, and to burn up the longing generated by this in writing.” As a model of memoir, Knausgård shows how small and messy daily incidents of a life—and not necessarily the major ones—can drive a narrative. (Though of course these small details are components of the major ones.) Knausgård is excessively, painfully prey to consciousness, and My Struggle is in the line of great memoirs whose central conflict is a battle with a lost power figure—think of My Dark Places and the decades-long jag that fueled James Ellroy’s avoidance of his mother’s brutal murder. The truth of Knausgård’s insights makes the pain of self-awareness so much more acute. His trenchant observations reveal a tortured soul who has experienced a shift in awareness brought about by trauma. But what is that trauma for Knausgård, exactly? It would seem to be the domineering hold his father held on young Karl Ove as he went through adolescence. In Book One, this is the vehicle for an engaging self-examination, manifested in shame over his father’s drinking, a quiet legacy with which Knausgård also wrestles.

Knausgård strives to understand his differences in light of his family and friends. The struggle of the title is also one of avoiding the fate of his father, as drinking is an addictive salve for Knausgård that he uses to cope. As Knausgård fights his alienation while he comes to grips with it, he seems to imply that the sources of comfort might be outside you, inaccessible, but ultimately you are always alone. Alcohol is what eventually kills his father, and its enticement hangs over Knausgård’s every dread thought of this knowledge of himself.

In an interview in Bookforum, Knausgård described the genesis of My Struggle:

What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be? I then did the same thing with every other rule. Show, don’t tell? What happens if you do tell, really try to tell EVERYTHING, and don’t give a damn about subtext? Something else happens, something you can’t control.

The power is usually in what is left out. In Knausgård’s hands, it can almost seem that there is a cumulative power from inclusion. Where traditionally sit evocations of succinct, almost staged-seeming scenes, now all is a continuum. Any event or no event fulfills the narrative a priori. The scene, chapter, is the orderly framing of a story. This is not a story, but a life. Knausgård can write 100 pages or more of a scene, defying a reader to deny its impact. Heedless in its focus on the mundane and minutia, Knausgård would have seemed to set himself up for a futile failure of a project. Out of the frustration that initially blocked him, he wrote to upend his own expectations. Characteristic of this approach was to push himself further, however uncomfortably, into the unknown.

I would suggest that in this way, the writing might be seen as a replacement salve for the legacy. This is what lends the work not only its immediacy, but suggests the challenge and a grasping at evolution, if not revolution in a novel that reinforces this fascinating, and versatile, perhaps even infinitely alterable, literary form. With the immediacy of technology, craft as we might think of it is jettisoned in favor of something more media-related, or just immediate. This point is expressly admitted to by Knausgård in the Bookforum interview. It could almost be said that Knausgård is not beholden to the preciosity of craft, and the tortured belaboring of prose is no longer a prerequisite to a literary work. Though this is not to doubt the sincerity, or the quality, of Knausgård’s estimable work.

Novels, dealing with the living, are essentially about death. The vitality of that life can, on the page, often only remind you of death, of the absence of life. If those words are doing anything in fiction, they are surely calling attention to death, waiting in the wings. This specter haunts Knausgård’s headlong tale.

In particular, Knausgård’s acute fear of his grandmother, which takes up the second half of Book One, can seem peculiar: Just what in his experience of her makes him dread her presence when he and his brother prepare for their father’s funeral? Her behavior seems nothing more than typical, or expected for someone in advanced old age. His resistance to her tunes the reader into his self-conscious, analytical straight jacket, though clearly, his grandmother could safely be said to be in her own world. In the novel, it is the fear of what he’s going toward (death) in the presence of the undertaker (the father’s mother).

Although anecdotal musings on his adolescent trials with girls spice the first half of the novel, these become, at the end, merely another mile-marker in this novel of coming to terms with the great, uncontainable paterfamilias. Knausgård as an observer of his earlier innocence has matured enough to be objective about it.

There was a time when the kind of related experience of Knausgård or Lin, told in narrative, was verboten. Which either says anything goes now; or sooner or later, everything is allowed. This is characteristic of the malleability of the novel and its endless variations. It provides ample evidence for a trend that may be a byproduct of our times, and the persistence of all too frequently narcissistic pursuits. In their self-consciousness narratives (note: that’s self-consciousness, not self-conscious, though it may be that also), Lin and Knausgård probe extremes of subjectivity. Another word for this could be narcissism, lending some validity to recognizing the part the loss of shame plays in our collective self-regard (reality TV programs, social media, etcetera, in their virulent, negative forms; which might be having an equal and liberating effect in any of their positives).

Perhaps any narrative that is from a notoriously celebrated author is going to delve into the rituals and thwarting of the inevitable book tour (Lin), or the perception of frustration at having to deal with day-to-day caretaking of children when what he’d prefer would be the solitude to write (Knausgård). With Lin, his preoccupations can come off as poking his finger in the face of the establishment he has done his best to court, although this approach is apparently no different from how he got there. Such as when, faced with the ritual of an interview, Paul selects from his pharmacological trove merely to document the experiment. In any case, each author has been ushered into the world of internet hegemony, embracing it willfully (Lin), or warily reluctant to do so (Knausgård)—age and generation gap being an easy explanation (Lin is thirty years old to Knausgård’s forty-four).

Ultimately, for anyone who tackles the grueling writing of a novel, reading Knausgård or Lin can feel invigorating, and a personal challenge to not shy away from exploring narrative possibilities. And to exploit that most available material on hand, one’s self.

 

Taipei index

Plot synopsis: Taking drugs to get through life

Genre confusion: Novel disguised as memoir

Substance(s) of choice: MDMA, LSD, Adderall, psilocybin chocolates, etc.

Substance mentions per page (on average): 0.4

Object of struggle: Mother, society

Struggle’s first appearance: When mother is caught taking sugar in her coffee

Specter: Existence / death

Unfortunate and persistent tic in narrative: Protagonist’s excessive grinning

Quote that encapsulates novel (paraphrase): “Paul was unable to think anything.”

 

My Struggle: Book One index

Plot synopsis: Overcoming the father

Genre confusion: Memoir disguised as novel; or, novel that does not pretend to be anything other

than memoir

Substance(s) of choice: Alcohol

Substance mentions per page (on average): 0.2

Object of struggle: Father

Struggle’s first appearance: Breaking boulders in the garden

Specter: Death

Unfortunate and persistent tic in narrative: Grandma always tells the same joke

Quote that encapsulates novel (paraphrase): “Life is to be endured, never questioned.”

Robert M. Detman has fiction and reviews in over two dozen journals. His short story collection was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press.