Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Montreal Cool, Toronto Uncool (Yawn)

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Tao Lin, Taipei (2013)

Taipei, by Tao Lin, is very difficult to get through. Every time I picked it up and started to read, my mind immediately began drifiting to all the more enjoyable things I could be doing with my time, like mowing the lawn, or cutting my fingernails, or having some teeth pulled. The book follows a young novelist, Paul, as he kills time before his book tour, goes on his book tour, loses one girlfriend, marries his new girlfriend, and “ingests” (a favourite word) significant amounts of drugs. (The title presumably refers to the visits he pays to his parents in Taipei, though I suspect it was really chosen for the cover design possibilities it offered when juxtaposed with Lin’s name – see above.)

I assume the novel is autobiographical, not because I know anything specific about Tao Lin’s life and can trace parallels to it in his work, but just because the book seems to have been written by someone who wanted to expend as little effort as possible on writing it, and I can’t imagine he would have bothered to invent anything. Lin’s goal seems to be to write about uninteresting people and events in the most uninteresting way possible, and in that he succeeds admirably. Taipei takes dullness to a level that, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t read it myself. And maybe, in his refusal to impart the slightest bit of interest to his writing, Lin is a harbinger of a coming literary revolution: “The New Affectlessness,” perhaps?

The novel has been both praised and attacked, which I won’t really get into, but I do recommend reading Lin’s own whinging defence against one of his critics (quoted here – scroll down just past the screen caps of the two tweets), in which he essentially argues that people shouldn’t be allowed to criticize his writing because if critics or reviewers convince readers that he’s a bad writer, it might interfere with his ability to support himself and his aging parents with the money he makes from writing.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t even bother to defend his work on artistic or aesthetic grounds, but instead makes this strangely practical, almost careerist argument – all in a very hurt, passive-aggressive tone, as if trying to shame anyone who criticizes him into guilt-induced silence. His whole line of thinking seems to spring from the idea that it is his natural right to support himself as a writer, and that no one should be allowed to criticize him because it might deprive him of the money he expects to earn. Personally, I would make the opposite argument: if you can’t produce a genuinely good book, then you don’t deserve to be able to support yourself, or anyone else, with your writing; you should find another profession.

Of course, there are always too-clever-by-half types who are eager to spin out theories (or, as Lin would call them, “framework-y somethings”) to demonstrate that the badness of a book like Taipei is actually what makes it great: it “perfectly captures the anomie of directionless 20-somethings,” or it “questions everything we think we know about how novels can be good,” or it “[insert your own gasbag theory here]”.

But doing so falsifies the experience of actually reading the book. When you’re not reading Taipei, it’s possible to think of it as some sort of conceptual experiment, and to convince yourself that Lin is deliberately challenging and overthrowing your expectations. In fact, spinning out such theories is more enjoyable and rewarding than actually reading Taipei. But pick it up and read a few more pages, and all theorizing evaporates as you are once again submerged in the weirdly punitive ennui the book engenders, as if you were falling in slow motion down an endless flight of stairs in a monotonously ugly building.

But on to Canada.

An Accidental Mishearing

The first reference to Canada comes during a long, early section of Taipei in which Paul wanders around New York, takes drugs, and goes to parties and bars with various acquaintances. He seems to be trying to find a new girlfriend, though he goes about it in an odd (and ultimately unsuccessful) way. This conversation involves Laura, one of Paul’s “prospects” who doesn’t pan out:

Laura said something seemingly unrelated about cooking.
“You should cook for me,” said Paul distractedly.
“You won’t like it – it’ll be dense and unhealthy.”
“I like pasta and lasagna,” said Paul, and thought he heard Laura ask if his computer was in Canada and was nervous she might be confusing him for another person. “What computer?”
“You said your computer was getting fixed in Canada.”
“Oh,” said Paul. “Kansas, not Canada. Yeah, it’s still there.”  (46-7)

So much for Canada as a high-tech centre for computer repairs. I don’t know that we can conclude much from this passage; “Kansas” and “Canada” do have (phonetically) identical first syllables, and it’s thoughtful of Tao Lin to remind us of that.

Toronto vs. Montreal

When Paul’s book tour reaches Canada, Taipei revives the Toronto vs. Montreal debate that we’ve come across before, though in a somewhat lazy and conventional fashion. Paul visits Montreal first:

In Montreal, three days later, beneath a uniformly cloudy expanse, which glowed with the same intensity and asbestos-y texture everywhere, seeming less like a sky than the cloud-colored surface of a cold, hollowed-out sun, close enough to obstruct its own curvature, Paul walked slowly and aimlessly, sometimes standing in place, like an arctic explorer, noticing almost no other people and that something, on a general level, seemed familiar….
The sky had darkened and was now almost cloudless, like it had been gently suctioned from an interplanetary pressure system. As a red truck, clean and bright as a toy, passed on the street, Paul realized Montreal, with its narrower streets and cute beverage sizes and smaller vehicles, reminded him of Berlin.  (118-19)

At least you can tell he’s trying. The first passage is typical of what happens when Lin revs himself up for some “serious writing”: words quickly get the better of him, and the clauses pile up like cars in a dense fog, apparently ungoverned by even the most rudimentary grasp of the rules of syntax, until the rush of words collapses, exhausted, in an apparently random full stop. Lin writes like someone who decided to become a writer without bothering to go through the intermediary stage of learning the skills that are required to be a decent writer – such as the ability to use words to express thoughts and emotions in a clear and memorable way. (Our current cultural moment, where blog engines (like this one) make it easy for anyone to simply “be a writer,” facilitate this sort of democratization of literature – or is it the destruction of literature? Or are those just two different terms for the same process?)

On the positive side, we can see several conventional ideas about Montreal being worked through here.

First, it’s interesting to note how that reference to an “arctic explorer” sneaks in – why specifically an arctic explorer? Couldn’t a jungle explorer, or a desert explorer, also stand in place and not notice any other people? But of course Lin is an American visiting Canada, which means he has a preconceived notion that Canada is cold, and so his mind goes automatically to an arctic explorer. (Canada is north of the U.S., so Montreal must practically be in the Arctic – right?) The statement that there are “almost no other people” gives the impression that Montreal – one of Canada’s largest cities – is actually a frozen, depopulated wasteland.

In the next paragraph Montreal appears as a quaint miniature imitation of a real city, with a “toy” truck, smaller vehicles, and “cute” beverage sizes – all in contrast to the U.S., where cars and portion sizes are big – as is everything else. The use of the word “clean” touches on another idea about Canada that we’ve noted before, and then we wrap up with the comparison to Berlin, settling on the common idea that Montreal feels like a European city – “European” being a marker of coolness, hipness, and other qualities that cities aspire to.

Then the tour moves on to Toronto:

Paul arrived in Toronto the next night on a Megabus, then rode two city buses to the apartment of a Type Books employee and his girlfriend and slept on a sofa…. He walked to a cafe near Type Books and asked on one of the two threads on 4chan about him that, for some reason, had appeared in the last two days – and, with two to four hundred posts each, 90 to 95 percent derogatory, were the two longest threads on him that he’d ever seen – if anyone in Toronto could sell him MDMA or mushrooms within two hours. Someone named Rodrigo, who’d recently moved here from San Francisco, Paul discerned via Facebook, emailed that he could get mushrooms and maybe MDMA but not until after Paul’s reading.  (124)

This portrayal of Toronto as the kind of place where you can’t get drugs when you need them plays into a typical image of the city as dull and puritanical – usually, as here, in comparison to our more free-wheeling, fun-loving compatriots in the carefree, European-style city of Montreal. A similar impression comes across, for example, in Keith Richards’ account of his adventures in Toronto, where the police just aren’t up on how world-famous rock stars live. There seems to be a general view of Toronto as a large city with a very provincial outlook.

After the reading, Paul goes back to Rodrigo’s apartment with Alethia, a young writer who is going to interview him while he’s on MDMA:

In Rodrigo’s apartment, a few hours later, Paul searched his name in Alethia’s email account – signed in on Rodrigo’s tiny, malformed-looking, non-Macbook laptop – while she was in the bathroom and saw she had pitched an article on him, two months ago, to the Toronto Sun, which had not responded, it seemed. Paul and Rodrigo each swallowed a capsule of MDMA.  (125)

Again, we have the impression of Toronto as a place that isn’t quite as cool as it might be – people actually find ways to manage with non-Macbook computers! The reference to the Toronto Sun is particularly amusing, as it indicates that either Alethia or Lin himself knows nothing about newspapers in Toronto; the Sun is essentially a tabloid which features right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news, endless sports reporting, and pictures of scantily clad women (check out today’s edition). It’s not a newspaper that would ever feature a story on any sort of writer, much less a self-conscious hipster like Tao Lin. Perhaps this is based on a real event and, in writing it down, Lin has simply confused the Toronto Sun with the Toronto Star, a paper that might at least consider a story on Lin.

But this story of the duelling Toronto-Montreal readings has (unusually for Lin) a moral element, in which Toronto is ultimately punished for being a narrow-minded city that doesn’t offer visiting authors the free access to drugs they require. Back in New York, Paul goes online to read some reviews of his two readings:

On Halloween afternoon, in the library, Paul read an account of his Montreal reading, when he was on two capsules of MDMA, describing him as “charismatic, articulate and friendly.”
He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as “monosyllabic,” “awkward,” “stilted and unfriendly” within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.  (128-9)

So Montreal gets bathed in the warmth of Paul’s drug-induced charms while Toronto has to suffer through the monosyllabic, stilted version of the author that emerges when he is sober.

The Nuggets of “the Saskatchewan”

The final reference to Canada occurs while Paul and Erin, having got married on a whim in Vegas, go to Taipei to visit Paul’s parents. To pass the time they take various drugs and then film themselves wandering around Taipei doing whatever occurs to them. At this point they are filming a fake documentary about a McDonald’s restuarant in Taipei, in which they claim that the chicken nuggets are actually made out of children:

“Yeah,” said Erin. “And actually for some … if you pay extra you can get a little bit of a tooth, from an actual child, and you can also get it memorialized, in a locket.”
“If a country pays extra, their nuggets get more gelatin?”
“Yes,” said Erin. “The quality is just slightly raised.”
“I heard that Canada did that,” said Paul.
“Um, just the Saskatchewan. They’re the prime testing markets. Because they eat … they primarily eat teeth there. That’s their diet, I didn’t know if you knew that.”
“The Weakerthans wrote an album about that, right?”
“Yeah, they-” said Erin.
Fallow?” said Paul.
Fallow,” said Erin confidently.
“That was about the teeth-” said Paul.
“The Saskatchewan teeth crisis,” said Erin.  (196)

There’s no real information about Canada contained here, of course, but it does reveal a certain American attitude to Canada in that Paul is just looking for a place to attribute something outrageous to, and he settles on Canada – which Erin immediately modifies to “the Saskatchewan,” as if it were a region, like “the Midwest,” and not the province “Saskatchewan” – which is a place Americans have heard of but know so little about that they will believe almost anything they’re told about it. The added specificity of Saskatchewan is probably just because it’s the strangest Canadian place name they can think of on the spur of the moment.

The Weakerthans are a Canadian band, though actually from Manitoba, not Saskatchewan – but I’m sick of the “garbage-y nothingness” (to coin a Lin-ism) that is Taipei, and I don’t want to think or write about it any more.

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3 thoughts on “Montreal Cool, Toronto Uncool (Yawn)

  1. Pingback: Canada, A Land of Two Seasons | Wow - Canada!

  2. Pingback: Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning | Wow - Canada!

  3. Pingback: Is Canada the Brains of North America? | Wow - Canada!

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