What It's Like To Be In A Tao Lin Novel
You never expect to be in a novel. Even when your friends are writers, you don’t expect to be in a novel. You are too insignificant. You know this. You live your life, hang out with your friends, work, party, do stupid things, get into trouble but try to stay out of it and have as much fun as possible doing anything and nothing with people you like, always knowing that everyone’s life is as, or more interesting than yours. And sometimes, in spite of all that, you still find yourself in a novel.
Almost immediately upon opening the package containing a copy of Tao Lin’s new book, Taipei, I took a picture of my roommate holding it and texted it to Tao, telling him we were excited to finally read it.
“Jesus. Galley is 200hrs of work behind final. Lol,” Tao responded.
“Looks like we’ll have to read it 2x.”
I sat in the chair in my living room and started to read. Then it happened. Around page 23. I appeared in the novel. I was in Tao’s book. A part of me transcribed, novelized, recreated in the minds of everyone who will ever read it. I grinned, and said, “Oh shit,” out loud so my roommate could hear but really just because that was the only reaction I was capable of, “I’m in the book.”
A weird realization you have when you find yourself inside of a novel is that — while it’s cool as shit to know that so long as copies exist, so will a snapshot of your life — you will also live in readers’ minds not as yourself but as a character, reliving the same scenes over and over again, trapped in some kind of infinite time-loop, for as long as there are people around who will read it. Thousands of people, or maybe more, will picture a face for your character that isn’t yours, imagine mannerisms that don’t belong to you, hear your voice in their head that is not at all your voice. You are now imagined, a piece of fiction, a construct in these readers’ minds. Composited together from various people they have known and met along the way. Just a character, on paper and in their imaginations, doing stupid things with his friends.
I’ve always wondered what it was like for people friendly with, like, Hemingway and whatnot. These authors, like Tao, write pretty closely to their personal experience. Yet one rarely hears the story from the girl or the best friend or the teacher. And maybe we don’t really need to, because those people are basically just us. Everyday people, friends (we all have them), characters that happen to find their way into an author’s life. These authors just show us the world we/they live in through their filter, in a way we can relate to, a way that resonates. And while Tao gave me a different name (which I appreciate), and this is a ‘fictionalized’ version of events, those nights were not fiction at all.
I finished reading Taipei within 24 hours. I stayed up until 4 a.m. reading. Went to sleep. Woke up at 9 a.m., made myself some coffee, and continued reading until I was done. I read it so intensely not because I was in it — I was only in the first third of the novel, before Tao takes off for his book tour and gets married — but because it is a beautiful work by an amazing author. I’m not here to to write a full-on book review — I’m just here to write about the unique personal experience I had reading about myself in a friend’s novel — but I will say that Taipei is beautiful and I hope you take the opportunity to read it.
Taipei begins with Tao (“Paul,” in the novel) finishing his previous book and going to Taipei, Taiwan to visit his parents, where he decides he’s going to start an “interim period” — during which he “would mostly be alone” — that would continue until the book was released. Immediately upon this declaration, he and I (“Mitch,” in the novel) meet again for the first time since high school. That same night, we both meet Thomas (“Daniel”) – a night that went from a low key reading to getting thrown out of a party at Sam Lipsyte’s house somewhere in Chelsea or the West Village to filming a ‘music video’ for one of my songs on the L train to closing down a bar called Daddy’s. And that night would be the start of Tao’s real “interim period” — not an interim period during which he “would mostly be alone,” but one where Tao, Thomas and I hung out together almost all the time until he left for his book tour. Despite my ego, I actually enjoyed Taipei more once I was out of the picture. There’s a certain excitement in watching your friend set off on adventures across the country, finding love, and getting married in Vegas, a type of excitement that nostalgia, in all its power, just can’t provide.
When you’re reading a novel in which you are a character and actual things that happened in your life are written about, it’s difficult to read what is actually being written. It’s easy to get swept away thinking about all the nights that weren’t written about, the dialogue that you remember a little differently, the simple moments of connection, the way things looked to you as they were happening, the smell of things, the sounds, the way you felt. You may even wonder if maybe you sound like an idiot to the reader — and you probably do, but that’s fine, you sound that way in real life, too — but one so rarely gets to experience such a view of themselves from the outside that you can’t help but appreciate it.
Much like a movie adaptation of a book, a book adaptation of your life will definitely omit some of your favorite scenes. Even though some of the best nights I had during this time were nowhere to be found — like the night Tao and I snuck into a rooftop party and ate all the food and almost got thrown out until the host realized he liked us, or the night when I told Tao that I was going to (and then did) steal a piece of his art from an art gallery that was showing his work and he freaked out in an excited, kind of ecstatic but faux-exasperated way, or when Tao, Thomas and I all passed out on my bed after being out until 5 a.m. and I woke up just as Tao was leaving and he looked at me as I opened my eyes and smiled a cheerful sort of smile and waved goodnight as he walked out the door, or the conversation Tao and I had walking home late one night where we agreed to partake in an experiment where we would close down Union Pool every night for a month and see how each night ends differently, a sort of Groundhog’s Day for bars (we never did this) — you realize it doesn’t matter because not every memory needs to be written down when you know them by heart and that it makes sense that the moments that would’ve filled your story were not the ones that would fill your friend’s.
I will treasure this book for the rest of my life not because my friend wrote it, or because it’s the best book ever written (goddamn is it good, though), or because I’m in it and so are a lot of other people I care about, but actually because of a scene I’m not even in. Six simple lines of dialogue.
“You said you only go to like one party a month. But you’re at almost every party,” [said Daniel].
“This isn’t normal at all,” said Paul. “Before we met I probably did less than one thing a month.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Probably because I met people I like.”
Daniel hesitated. “What people?”
“You, Mitch, Laura… Amy,” said Paul. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
When you’re reading a book in which you are a character, a book written by a friend, this seemingly innocuous exchange becomes a simple declaration of friendship. To know that I was at least partly responsible for Tao’s happiness and his sudden desire to not be alone — as he had been planning — but to be out, with us, his friends, living his life, it’s meaningful to me. All you could ever want from your friends is to know that you are as much a part of their happiness as they are to yours.
So some advice, from me to you: if you ever find yourself reading a book in which you are a character, try to be in the present moment. Stop yourself every once in a while and attempt to understand how amazing it is that you get to read this all from your friend’s point of view. Recognize the strange beauty in it, like having an out of body experience. As if you’ve experienced mitosis and split into two people and you’re at the same place but a few feet apart, or in the same room but different parts of the room, or in completely different apartments but you understand how you’re affecting each other. You finally get to be that fly on the wall. Take it all in. See it all from a new view. Like 3-d glasses for your brain. Let your world get filled in a bit more vividly. Enjoy it.
Taipei is out June 4, on Vintage.
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Last week I got to meet a man in the last six hours of his life, although I obviously didn’t know that at the time.
Donna’s Coffee Shop, 800 N. Charles Street, Mount Vernon.
Soon, your honger — your hungry anger — will drive you to eat that Jumbo Slice and/or pack of nuggets as though it dishonored your family name and this is feudal China.
What I said: “Oh yeah! I’m sorry I’m just really out of it. What’s your name again?”
What I meant: “I’ve never met you before and you just want pity in the face of tragedy.”