In memory of C.T. Hsia
"There is more separating us from posterity than the digital age"
A paradox of our times: apparently nobody can sit down and read a whole novel anymore, and yet people are still writing the damn things. A lot of ink and anxiety is expended over the first proposition—considerably more than over the latter, though the latter is far more interesting. Two prominent examples, from nearly opposite points on the globe: Tao Lin, based in New York City, and Murong Xuecun, the handle of Hao Qun, from Beijing. Both writers initially made their reputations on the Internet. Through Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, Tao Lin has created an omnipresent, exhibitionist, and frankly irritating web presence that overshadows his novels. Murong Xuecun first became involved in Chinese online bulletin-board service (BBS) culture around 2000, and started serially publishing a novel on a BBS site in 2001. And both have written novels about young men wandering through cities as their marriages collapse: Tao Lin's Taipei (Vintage, 2013), and Murong Xuecun's Chengdu, Please Forget Me Tonight, translated by Harvey Tomlinson as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (Allen and Unwin, 2009; Make-Do, 2013). These novels tend to be read in the context of the Internet cultures in which they were produced. However, the stories of alienation that they tell point to older concerns—anxieties over modernity that, even in this supposedly postmodern era, our societies have not yet outgrown.
As befits this post-print era, the protagonists of these novels are writers who don't write. The main character of Taipei, Paul, is ostensibly a novelist, but we rarely see him working on a novel. Attention is lavished on Paul making videos of himself, or gchatting with his friends, or thinking about a tweet, but when it comes time to do writing in the traditional sense, we get one sentence that tells us he retreated into NYU's Bobst Library: a black hole of narrative information. Murong's protagonist, Chen Zhong, and his best friend Li Liang were once part of their university's literature society, but their writing days are long past. Li Liang's poems are quoted for laughs, and Chen Zhong himself explains that the society "was the perfect front to bed many literary college girls." He now devotes his literary talents to crafting bureaucratic reports in order to oust his company rivals.
The writers of these novels themselves share a similar aversion to literary pretension. Tao Lin's works are infamous for the intense flatness and monotony of the prose. The diction in Taipei is limited and repetitive: characters are constantly "grinning." And then there are the phrases bracketed off by quotation marks ("he walked robotically into the dark, crowded gallery thinking 'lost in the world'"; "he felt 'alienated,'" "fourteen or fifteen years of 'overprotectiveness.'"). With these, Lin draws attention to those inarticulable feelings that come to be covered over in fiction with the clichés of novelistic prose. Lin's style is not artless; many of the metaphors in this book are clearly labored over and beautiful. Rather, he is anti-literary, adeptly satirizing a contemporary American short fiction tradition about which he knows a great deal. Murong strives for a plain style, what he calls a "flat narration, like a group of friends sitting together, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and aimlessly chatting." Tomlinson, the translator, manages to find apposite (if British) equivalents to the slang in the original and a comfortable conversational idiom for the dialogue, and otherwise does a fine job for a tractable text that gives a translator a lot with which to work. He uses dialect and obscenity to puncture literary pretension. A character quotes a line by Shu Ting, a writer from a previous, more romantic generation: "The view from a mountain peak for one thousand years can't compare to crying on a lover's shoulder for one night." Another character then rewrites it as "Jerking off for one thousand years can't compare to one night of fucking."
What is left is plain text: text meant to function like photographs—to capture the surfaces that can be seen. Several of Murong's chapters begin with definitional descriptions of Chengdu: "The Chengdu I knew was like a chaotic courtyard inhabited by hundreds of different families"; "If cities were people, Chengdu would be a happy drifter with a complete lack of ambition"; "This Chengdu, as familiar as my own palm, was a place of danger, turbulence, and uncertainty." These narrative resets, perhaps necessitated by the original serial publishing of the chapters on the Internet, serve as snapshots—here is where we are now, here is what you are looking at. In one of the novel's most poignant moments, Chen Zhong carefully examines "masses of photographs" that his friend Li Liang took on a visit to their old college dormitory, and he vividly relives the scene associated with each place. Tao Lin's narrative philosophy is expressed through digital language, but it is no less static or sequential than Murong's: "Most mornings...he wouldn't exactly know anything until three to twenty seconds of passive remembering, as if unzipping a file—newroom.zip—into a PDF, showing his recent history and narrative context." In Taipei, Paul becomes obsessed with the city's Mass Rapid Transit subway system, which transforms the city into a neat collection of circles and connecting lines on a map—or sites in a web. The curve of human life becomes an infinite number of points in a function.
These novels remember the original promise of modernity: that, freed from tradition, the modern person would have access to innumerable permutations of experience. The twin obsessions of these novels—with drugs in the case of Taipei, and with sex in the case of Chengdu—pay tribute to that promise. For Paul, who over the course of the novel takes just about every conceivable drug known to man in quantities that shock the conscience:
there was no such thing as a "drug problem" or even "drugs"—unless anything anyone ever did or thought or felt was considered both a drug and a problem—in that each thought or feeling or object, seen or touched or absorbed or remembered, at whatever coordinate of space-time, would have a unique effect, which each person, at each moment of their life, could view as a problem, or not.
Chen Zhong, who claims to be unable to remember much, remembers "girls of every shape and size lying with me, waiting for dawn in the curve of my arm." This flâneurization of human experience—the transformation of into a continuous series of windows passed by and peered into for a moment—may be less an innovation of the digital age than of the digital age's realization of a very old dream. These novels are visions out of the Futurist Manifesto of 1909: a vertigo-inducing world filled with "great crowds agitated by work, pleasure, and revolt."
Yet, unlike the Futurists, these contemporary novelists have no illusions about the promise of modern life. Relationships fall through the gaps between the points of experience. Chen Zhong's marriage collapses and his best friends desert him; Paul's relationship with his wife Erin disintegrates shortly after their honeymoon to Taipei. When your own identity is in question from minute to minute, how can you make guarantees to anyone else? The modern age has not provided substitutes for the old bonds: as many of us far-flung travelers know too well, Skype is a medium through which love transmits imperfectly. Entropy becomes the keyword, a word explicitly cited by both Paul and Chen Zhong to describe the dissolution they feel.
These problems have less to do with the Internet than with the scale and mobility of globalized existence. In a story that parallels Tao Lin's own, Paul's mother and father move from Taiwan to Florida to raise Paul, then back to Taipei after Paul is grown. The novel implies that his social difficulties are connected with his childhood struggles with a new language and culture: in preschool, he is "shy and 'disengaged, sometimes'" with his classmates, but loud and hyperactive at home, "where mostly only Mandarin is spoken." Paul moves from Florida to New York, and from there, travels throughout the country over the course of the book. Chen Zhong cuts a smaller circuit around Sichuan in Chengdu, but in many ways, his fate is worse. Having left Chengdu for university, he returns to a city that no longer belongs to him: "People from outside the city came to Chengdu with their hopes and dreams, while I, a native son, lived out my nightmares to the sound of their footsteps." Murong himself has lived in practically every major city in China. This peripatetic lifestyle is an experience of place that is increasingly the norm rather than the exception. I grew up in New York City, then moved to St. Louis, then to Taipei, then to Boston. I now write these words from a New York City in which I no longer live.
And yet, though we are separated from who we were by oceans and decades, these books exist as a valiant effort to redraw the memory that once served as the line between the points. As Tao Lin writes (emphasis my own): "memories, he'd realized at some point, were images, which one could crudely arrange into slideshows, or, with effort, sort of GIFs, maybe—but now, unless he wrote about it, storing the information where his brain couldn't erase it...he probably wouldn't remember this in a few days." As Chengdu carries Chen Zhong to the depths of abjection, the quotations of old poems and songs—fictional ones by Li Liang, real ones from the Chinese tradition—become more and more insistent, and more and more nostalgic, as if in an attempt to resist the tide of the dissolution of the present through furious writing. Perhaps these writers return to a longer form because the shorter forms cannot project the sustained experience of selfhood they are trying to re-create. A longer work provides a sense that life cannot be consumed in one sitting. In a novel, a life is all one narrative: a narrative that continues between and beyond all the posts, the tweets, and even the short stories; a narrative that brings together multiple places and times.
The project itself is hopeful; the stories are not. Both Chen Zhong and Paul end up alone. Without human connections or social context, they drift through the places they were promised as if they weren't actually there. That is to say, they end up as ghosts. Like so many of us, they have no home to which they can return, no one place to which they belong, and nowhere left to go. "Would all this life that was a compound of hundreds of accumulated lives be like the skin on my hands, flaking away bit by bit in the cold autumn?" Chen Zhong asks. He hopes for an answer in the negative, but despairs of it. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will—it is the motto of this neo-modernism, and the most that those of us not yet ready to be posthuman can sincerely believe.