After Tao Lin and I decide on a place and time to meet and discuss his new book, Taipei, exchanging cell numbers “just in case,” the author sends me a screenshot of a text conversation from October 10, 2010, accompanied by a lone “Lol.”
Me: “Hey! Indeed we are in LA. You?”
Lin: “Yes, think ~5 ppl are getting brunch in a few hours, want to join?”
Me: “Thanks, but just grabbed brunch. We’re exploring bars tonight, so we’ll let you know where we end up – you’re welcome to bring yer 5 people.”
Lin still had my contact info entered into his device from when we met IRL for the first time, at a panel we were on together three years ago at UCLA titled “Look At This F*CKING PANEL: A Sociological Investigation of the Hipster.” I was on the panel because I was the co-author of the blog and book Stuff Hipsters Hate. Lin, presumably, had been invited because his books mention American Apparel, Whole Foods, and drugs.
I had blocked the existence of that panel until three years later, when I was dog-earring my review copy of Taipei at some pretentious wine bar in Park Slope. Page 111 begins with the following: “On UCLA’s campus the next night, Paul photographed a piece of computer paper, taped crudely to a column, that said HIPSTER PANEL with an arrow pointing literally at the sky.”
In Taipei, Paul is the protagonist, a young writer in New York City drifting through a year of book tours, trips to see his parents in Taipei, and a kaleidoscope of transient relationships, one of which ends in marriage and, inevitably, mounting disinterest.
I’m not mentioned in this short account of the hipster panel, but I’m there on the periphery. It starts off backstage, where Paul reveals that he has consumed one and a half capsules of MDMA, two Ritalins, and an energy drink. Paul spends most of his time pre-panel telling the other panelists that he is going to “dominate the panel.” These other panelists included my co-writer and me; Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes; Alexi Wasser from iamboycrazy.com; Mark Hunter, a.k.a. The Cobrasnake; a UCLA professor; and an assistant editor from N+1. In my memory, however, Lin sat quietly behind me for a while, then started poking me in the arm for no reason until Wasser came by to interview him for her blog.
It was Gavin McInnes who had truly “dominated” the panel, showing up shirtless and shoeless, carrying a 40oz, hassling everyone in the room. Later he would flash the camera during the group photo. My friends and I consequently came up with a pretty catchy drinking song called “What Would Gavin McInnes Do?” that we sang during the long, long drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Sample lyric: “What would Gavin McInnes do?/Gavin McInnes went to the bar and met a jerk/Kicked him the face and rolled in the dirt/That’s what Gavin McInnes would do!”
In Taipei, McInnes – simply referred to as “the co-founder of Vice — is touting a 20oz beer and is baffled by Paul, resulting in “maybe an intimidation-based attempt at a non-antagonistic guardianship.” In my memory, McInnes frequently yelled at Lin during the panel for every once in a while uttering a non sequitur into the microphone. I think we all kind of wanted McInnes to like us at that panel, in the same way you want the mean popular kid to accept you. I remember being kind of happy when he patted me on the back and said “good job.” Right before I saw his ball sac.
Both Paul and Lin received the most questions during the Q&A. Most of the questions were openly antagonistic, which was not surprising for a panel dealing with hipsters. “Almost all [questions] were negative and partially theoretical, including why he kept writing after the ‘excrement’ that was his previous book,” Paul says in Taipei.
While reading Lin’s other books, I always got the sense that the author was hiding behind the decidedly non-Chinese names he gives his main characters. His books always have an uncomfortably real quality, like watching someone’s grainy home movies. But when I saw that roughly page-long account of an event that I had lived through, with Paul sitting in for Tao, I started to wonder how much fact plays into Lin’s fiction – or if one could really call his book fiction at all.
I agree to meet Lin on the South side of the fountain in Washington Square Park. Lin gives a kind of half-aborted wave as I approach, and we decide to grab beverages at the nearby Think Coffee. (In the book, Think Coffee is where Paul and romantic interest Erin buy plane tickets to Las Vegas, to get married.) After paying for our drinks, we settle on a bench a few yards away from where a homeless man is happily nonsensing to himself in front of Bobst Library, where both “Paul” and Lin like to write.
I ask about the hipster panel, specifically the sign opening the scene on page 111.
“It had an arrow pointing at, like, the sky,” Lin says in a monotone, seemingly speaking to the bushes in front of us.
“I don’t know whether that was purposeful or not,” I offer. It was a “hipster” panel, after all. Part of being a hipster is purposely being kind of shitty.
“You mean how shitty it looked?” he asks.
“Probably not,” he says.
“You don’t think some UCLA student was like, ‘I’m just going to make this look as shitty as possible?’” I ask. Lin’s eyes wander over to my copy of his manuscript, scrawled with interview questions, and then he addresses the bushes again.
“That’s like standard, though,” he says. “Students just doing stuff like that. There was something about the tape. I wish I still had the pictures. My iPhone lost all the pictures.”
I look down at the phone in his hands. The screen is cracked like a lazily assembled stained glass window. Lin’s hand is shaking slightly as his calloused thumb wanders over it. Later he tucks it into his sock and forgets it there.
The bushes then lose Lin’s attention as he leans over the manuscript in my lap, pointing to one of my notes next to the “Acknowledgements” page, “No friends,” he reads, laughing.
He had thanked no one but his editor, Tim O’Connell and his agent Bill Clegg. Lin set out to acquire Clegg as his representation via a to-do list for 2011 in Paper magazine. He wrote: “Gain literary agent representation from Bill Clegg for ’120,000-word/concrete-literal memoir of Mar. 2009 to Dec. 2010 that uses real names and has a large, guidebook-like index.” A 2011 article in the Observer announced that Lin could check off that “to-do,” and that the book would be called Siddhartha 2. This became Taipei, a decidedly shorter book in which no real names are used. And, Lin asserts now, it’s not a memoir.
“So, is this book an autobiography?” I ask. “Is it all supposed to be true?”
Lin shakes his head at the greenery. “No. Definitely not. I could have probably called it a memoir and put it in first person, and people would accept that, but I used my memory as a first draft that I had not written down yet, but that I had memorized. Having that, I edited that into a novel, and I didn’t leave stuff out or put stuff in based on what was in the first draft. I allowed myself to take stuff out and put stuff in and move stuff around. The first draft already I wouldn’t view as nonfiction, because my memory is changing all the time. I misremember stuff, forget stuff. I’m sure there’s not one line of dialogue that I remember verbatim for the entire year of 2010.”
“But it’s based on your own experience, rather than an imagined person’s experience?”
“Well, I could argue that if I’m remembering something, I view that as the same as imagining things, because I’m not referencing something outside of my mind for either of those,” Lin replies.
“But what about that whole, ‘This is a work of fiction… any resemblance to real people is accidental, etc’ thing in the beginning of the book?” I press.
“Well, that’s not true – it’s not accidental,” Lin says. “That thing is just in every single book for some reason. I would just call it fiction. But, probably, most people have a different view of fiction than I do. There’s a lot of fiction I read that most people would call autobiographical fiction and have strong distinctions between that and fiction.”
“What’s the biggest distinction?”
“Just how big the first draft is that is used to edit into the final draft,” Lin says, “I can tell when something is autobiographical just by how must information seems left out of autobiographical fiction. I feel like I can tell that by reading a book. Do you feel like you can tell that?”
“Like how everything in fiction needs to be resolved?” I ask.
“Like they might reference something that implies a huge subplot that they don’t talk about. But if they’re consistent throughout the entire book with mentioning stuff like that, then I feel like I can tell that it’s based on probably their memory. But, in a fantasy book or something, they had to make up the first draft out of nothing.” Lin pauses for a moment.
“Like if someone looked at this frame for like five minutes,” he says pointing at the building in front of us, “and then they looked at the same thing, but in like Second Life. They’d probably be able to tell that this frame implied much more information than the Second Life frame. Just by the way those people walked by – like they all seemed real.” He gestures at a group of students enjoying the sun on their faces. “It’s just really hard to write a novel and have everything be consistent, and the stuff that doesn’t make sense, to have it seem like it’s not just nonsensical out of laziness, or not making it fit. It’s nonsensical because that’s how the world is sometimes. And if you’re writing based on memory you can trust that certain things that don’t make sense, if you make it consistent throughout the entire book, are gonna seem real.”
Taipei is full of ghost characters, appearing once or only by name and then retreating out of Paul’s life with as little fanfare as their entrances. Characters rarely get physical descriptions – just ages – a choice that Lin made to render the book more conversational, like telling a story to a friend. In a way, it’s like reading one of your old diaries and seeing a mention of someone named “Tim” or “Dave” or “Sarah” accompanied by no other defining features and wondering who they were to warrant a mention in your catalogue of days. They don’t get their own arc in your life, they just make an appearance.
When I ask Lin if people often recognize themselves in his books, he offers up Shawn Olive, a well-known poet who never actually shows up in the flesh in Taipei, as a character that friends have asked about. “I had actually not based it on anyone, or like a few different people,” Lin says. “But in the book it says that Paul lived with him at one point. But most of the stuff about that character was taken from some other guy who I never lived with. So it can be easy to think that this is who and be wrong about it. That’s why it’s fiction. Otherwise people would be like, ‘Oh, this guy is this guy and he did this horrible thing and I hate him in real life now.’ And that’s not good.”
“Has anyone ever been upset by the way a character they thought was them was portrayed?” I ask, thinking of the ex-girlfriends and friends whose sex lives and drug habits are on full display throughout the course of the book. Some of the characters’ identities are surely not as obfuscated as Shawn Olive’s.
Lin continues not to look at me. “I feel like I’ve been upset by the characters. Rereading it, I don’t approve of Paul’s behavior a lot of the time.”
Hearing Lin admit that Paul is less than palatable – he breaks up with a girl by telling her “I’m just naturally losing interest” and openly admits to using friends as gateways to romantic relationships – is a little unsettling. I remember being surprised – and impressed – that Lin was so willing to make Paul look less than likeable much of the time. I had wondered if Lin was aware how poorly the character came off, or if he still agreed with all of Paul’s actions, if these were in fact based on his own.
“I was going to ask you about that,” I venture. “Paul seems like kind of a jerk.”
Lin goes on. “I don’t approve of the way some of the other characters were portrayed, but in the end I do because it’s fiction and it’s presented as fiction, it’s not meant to like say so and so is good or bad. But, yeah, I dislike Paul – rereading it… I disliked him at all times. But I don’t dislike him like – if I really disliked him, I would just, like, kill myself, right? I mean, everyone dislikes some stuff that they’ve done. That kind of dislike is what I feel.”
I ask him if people ever try to hang out with him to get into his books (they do, but those people never become characters) and about his stylistic choice to pepper his writing with quotation marks (he’s mimicking how academics use them, to make sure he’s being as specific as possible), but it’s Lin who brings the conversation back to the hipster panel.
“What did you think of that scene?” he asks.
I think back to the one page in the book that I had experienced first-hand. I’m silent for a moment. “I thought it was interesting that you focused on Gavin and talking to Gavin. What did you feel about your interactions with Gavin?”
“He was the most obvious thing standing out,” Lin says.
“What did you think of the question and answer?” I ask.
“I just remember that they were all negative towards me,” Lin says.
“No, someone called you the only real hipster on the panel,” I remember suddenly, cringing a little at the memory of the whole ordeal.
“I don’t remember that,” Lin says to the bushes.
After parting ways, Lin and I decide that we’ll both look for pictures from the panel, pictures of the now-iconic arrow-in-the-sky sign that we had discussed upon first sitting down. A few weeks later, I scroll through years of Facebook photos captioned with long-ago-forgotten inside jokes. After sifting through three years of filtered memories, I find it. Instead of a crudely scrawled sign with arrant arrow, the photo shows a neatly printed-out poster with a decidedly straight arrow pointing directly toward the room where the panel had been held. I looked at it for a moment in confusion. Hadn’t the sign been scrawled? Hadn’t the arrow been pointing – as Lin and I both remembered – directly toward the sky? Where had this false, clear memory come from? Had we both misremembered the same detail, or had Taipei replaced fiction with fact?
Lin later tells me that he thinks there was another sign, but he couldn’t find the image on his cracked phone. It’s quite possible that there exists such a photo. Still, looking at that picture I couldn’t help but grudgingly think to myself, “Fine, Tao Lin, I see what you mean. Memory makes fiction writers of us all.”