An Excerpt from Tao Lin's 'Taipei'
May 28 2013
Over the past month or so we've been publishing a whole slew of iPhone photos Tao Lin took on a recent visit to Taipei, the place from which his new novel takes its title. Pictures are all well and good (and we'll be publishing another batch of them tomorrow), but to give you a real idea of what Tao's new book is like, we thought it fitting to publish an excerpt. This is the first glimpse of Taipei Vintage has released, and it concerns the main character, Paul, and his difficult upbringing in Florida.
Taipei will be released on June 4 from Vintage and is available for pre-order now.
Paul’s father was 28 and Paul’s mother was 24 when they alone (out of a combined fifteen to twenty-five siblings) left Taiwan for America. Paul was born in Virginia six years later, in 1983, when his brother was 7. Paul was 3 when the family moved to Apopka, a pastoral suburb near Orlando, Florida.
Paul cried the first day of preschool for around ten minutes after his mother, who was secretly watching and also crying, seemed to have left. It was their first time apart. Paul’s mother watched as the principal cajoled Paul into interacting with his classmates, among whom he was well liked and popular, if a bit shy and “disengaged, sometimes,” said one of the high school students who worked at the preschool, which was called the Discovery Center. Each day, after that, Paul cried less and transitioned more abruptly from crying to interacting with classmates, and by the middle of the second week he didn’t cry anymore. At home, where mostly only Mandarin was spoken, Paul was loud and either slug-like or, his mother would say in English, “hyperactive,” rarely walking to maneuver through the house, only crawling, rolling like a log, sprinting, hopping, or climbing across sofas, counters, tables, chairs, etc. in a game called “don’t touch the ground.” Whenever motionless and not asleep or sleepy, lying on carpet in sunlight, or in bed with eyes open, bristling with undirectionalized momentum, he would want to intensely sprint in all directions simultaneously, with one unit of striving, never stopping. He would blurrily anticipate this unimaginably worldward action, then burst off his bed to standing position, or make a loud noise and violently spasm, or jolt from the carpet into a sprint, flailing his arms, feeling always incompletely satisfied.
Paul’s first grade teacher recommended he be placed in the English-as-second-language program, widely viewed as for “impaired” students, but Paul’s mother kept him in the normal class. His second grade teacher recommended he be tested for the “gifted” program and he was admitted and began going every Friday to gifted, in which most of the twenty-five to thirty students, having begun in first grade, were already friends. Paul felt alone on Fridays, but not lonely or uncomfortable or anxious, only that he was in a new and challenging situation without assistance or consequence for failure—a feeling not unlike playing a difficult Nintendo game alone, with no instruction manual. Paul played chess one Friday with Barry, who suggested Paul’s second move. Barry knew more about chess, so was being helpful, Paul thought, and did as suggested for his third move also, then watched an extremely happy Barry dash through the rectangular classroom telling groups of classmates he’d beaten Paul in a four-move check-mate. Paul told three classmates Barry had “tricked him,” then returned to the floor and put the chess pieces away and, with a sensation of seeing a spider crawl out of view inside his room, felt himself reassimilating Barry into the world as a kind of robot-like presence he would always need to be careful around and would never comprehend. In third grade, one morning, Paul finished telling something to his friend Chris, who was strangely unresponsive for a few seconds, then with an exaggeratedly disgusted expression told Paul his breath smelled “horrible” and “brush your teeth,” then turned 180 degrees, in his seat, to talk to someone else. Paul mechanically committed to always brushing his teeth and adjusted his view of Chris to include him, with Barry and 90 to 95 percent of people he’d met, as separate and unknowable.
In fourth grade Paul spent two days with Lori, a second grader in his neighborhood. Lori kissed Paul’s cheek in a tree, then in her room showed him a Mickey Mantle card from her father, who’d said Mickey Mantle had the record for most RBIs. Paul, who collected baseball cards, said Hank Aaron had the record for most RBIs. Lori said he was probably right, because he was really smart. At dusk, the next day, rollerblading on the longest street in the neighborhood, Lori said she needed to try harder than Paul to go the same speed, because her legs were shorter, which Paul thought was insightful.
Entering middle school, sixth to eighth grade, Paul wanted to play percussion like three of his friends, including his “best friend,” Hunter, but his piano teacher said percussion would bore him, so he chose trumpet, which he disliked, but continued playing until the summer before high school, when he switched to percussion on the first day of “band camp,” which was ten hours of practice every weekday for two weeks. During lunch break, that day, Paul was practicing alone by silently counting and sometimes tapping a cymbal with a soft-headed mallet when a senior percussionist, the section leader, began teasing him from across the room, saying he was “so cool” and something about his baggy jeans, which his skateboarding brother, at college in Philadelphia, had left in Florida. Paul was unable to think anything, except that he didn’t know what to do, at all, so he committed to doing nothing, which the senior incorporated into his teasing by focusing on how Paul was “too cool” to react, continuing for maybe thirty seconds before commenting briefly on Paul’s hair and leaving the room.
Believing that all the senior’s friends and acquaintances, which included almost every person at band camp, now viewed his main effort in life as wanting to be “cool,” which he did want, to some degree, but which now seemed impossible, Paul became increasingly, physically, exclusively critically, nearly continuously self-conscious, the next few days, in ways he hadn’t been before—but probably had been in latent development since preschool—and which affected his musicianship. His middle school friends, including Hunter, among whom he’d been most fearless and at least equally competent at whatever sport or video game, watched him fail every day to play the simplest parts, usually tambourine or triangle, of each piece. The percussion instructor that year punished everyone with push-ups if one person, usually Paul, played something incorrectly more than once. Paul’s friends—subtly, then openly, with confusion and frustration—began to express disbelief at Paul’s inability to count to a number and hit a cowbell or cymbal. Paul was too embarrassed, by the end of the first week, to speak to his friends—all of whom seemed to have easily befriended the section leader and other upperclassmen—and by the second week had begun committing, in certain situations, to not speaking unless asked a question.
Two months into freshman year he had committed to not speaking in almost all situations. He felt ashamed and nervous around anyone who’d known him when he was popular and unself-conscious. When he heard laughter, before he could think or feel anything, his heart would already be beating like he’d sprinted twenty yards. As the beating slowly normalized he’d think of how his heart, unlike him, was safely contained, away from the world, behind bone and inside skin, held by muscles and arteries in its place, carefully off-center, as if to artfully assert itself as source and creator, having grown the chest to hide in and to muffle and absorb—and, later, after innovating the brain and face and limbs, to convert into productive behavior—its uncontrollable, indefensible, unexplainable, embarrassing squeezing of itself. To avoid awkwardness, and in respect of his apparent aversion to speaking, Paul’s classmates stopped including him in conversations. The rare times he spoke—in classes where no one knew him, or when, without knowing why, for one to forty minutes, he’d become aggressively confident and spontaneous as he’d been in elementary/middle school, about which his friends poignantly would always seem genuinely excited—he’d feel “out of character,” indicating he’d completed a transformation and was now, in a humorlessly surreal way, exactly what he didn’t want to be and wished he wasn’t.
He ate lunch alone, on benches far from the cafeteria, listening to music—his sort of refuge that was like a tunneling in his desolation toward a greater desolation, further from others and himself, closer to the shared source of everything—with portable CD players and earphones, feeling sorry for himself, or vaguely but deeply humbled, though mostly just silent and doomed. Sometimes, thinking of how among fifteen hundred classmates only two others, that he’d noticed, were as socially inept as he—a male in his grade, an obese male one grade lower—Paul would feel a blandly otherworldly excitement, like he must be in some bizarre and extended dream, or lost in the offscreen world of some fictional movie set in an adjacent county.
In Paul’s sophomore or junior year he began to believe the only solution to his anxiety, low self-esteem, view of himself as unattractive, etc. would be for his mother to begin disciplining him on her own volition, without his prompting, as an unpredictable—and, maybe, to counter the previous fourteen or fifteen years of “overprotectiveness,” unfair—entity, convincingly not unconditionally supportive. His mother would need to create rules and punishments exceeding Paul’s expectations, to a degree that Paul would no longer feel in control. To do this, Paul believed, his mother would need to anticipate and preempt anything he might have considered, factoring in that—because Paul was thinking about this almost every day, and between the two of them was the source of this belief—he probably already expected, or had imagined, any rule or punishment she would be willing to instate or inflict, therefore she would need to consider rules and punishments that she would not think of herself as willing to instate or inflict. Paul tried to convey this in crying, shouting fights with his mother lasting up to four hours, sometimes five days a week. There was an inherent desperation to these fights, in that each time Paul, in frustration, told his mother how she could have punished him, in whatever previous situation, to make him feel not in control—to, he believed, help solve his social and psychological problems—it became complicatedly more difficult, in Paul’s view, for his mother to successfully preempt his expectations the next time. Paul cried and shouted more than his mother, who only shouted maybe once or twice. Paul would scream if his mother was downstairs while he was upstairs, in his room, where some nights he would throw his electric pencil sharpener and textbooks—and, once, a six-inch cymbal—at his walls, creating holes, resulting in punishments, but never exceeding what, by imagining their possibilities, he’d already rendered unsurprising, predictable. The intensity of these fights maybe contributed to Paul’s lungs collapsing spontaneously three times his senior year, when he was absent forty-seven days and in hospitals for around four weeks.
One night, standing in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, when his father was on a months-long business trip, crying while shouting at his mother, who was supine in bed, in the dark, Paul heard her softly and steadily crying, with her blanket up to her chin in a way that seemed child-like. Paul stopped shouting and stood sobbing quietly, dimly aware, as his face twitched and trembled, that he felt intensely embarrassed of himself from the perspective of any person, except his mother, he had ever met. He said he didn’t know what he was talking about, or what he should do, that he was sorry and didn’t want to complain or blame other people anymore, and felt an ambiguous relief, to have reached the end of a thing without resolution and, having tried hard, feeling allowed—and ready—to resign. He didn’t stop blaming his mother, after that, but gradually they fought less—and, after each fight, when he would revert to his belief about discipline, he would apologize and reiterate he didn’t want to blame anyone or complain—and, by the last month of senior year, had mostly stopped fighting.
On one of Paul’s last days of high school he and Lori were both getting rides home from Hunter, who due to a difficulty in refusing requests from people who could see him—in elementary/middle school, whenever a mutual friend rang his doorbell, he and Paul would pretend no one was home—sometimes spent ninety minutes driving classmates home after school. The past eight years, since Lori kissed Paul on the cheek, they’d spoken maybe three times (the day after they rollerbladed together she had begun hanging out with a boy with a “rattail” hairstyle), and the most intimate Paul had been with another girl was a ten-minute conversation, at an “away” high school football game, with another percussionist.
Lori repeatedly asked Paul why he wouldn’t speak and, not receiving an answer, began provoking Paul to “say anything,” seeming as committed to eliciting a response as Paul was to not responding. Lori was loudly asking, with genuine and undistracted and bemused curiosity, which Paul felt affection toward and admired, as he stared away from her, out his window, why he couldn’t speak—and if he could just “make any noise”—when Hunter, who’d been talking to someone in the front passenger seat, sort of forced Lori to stop by aggressively asking about her current boyfriend. As he had consistently, the past eight to ten years, Paul felt endeared by Hunter, who used to be an equal, but now—and for the past three or four years—was like an overworked stepfather or sensitive uncle to Paul, the mentally disabled stepson or silent, troubling nephew.
Taipei will be released on June 4 from Vintage and is available for pre-order now.
For another excpert from Taipei head over to Thought Catalog.
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