Alt the Lonely People

Leave Society by tao lin. new york: vintage. 368 pages. $16.

The cover of Leave Society

THE STORY GOES THAT ONLY FORTY PEOPLE attended the Sex Pistols’ first concert, but each of them went on to form a band. A similar thing might be said of Tao Lin; his first few books had small readerships, but those who read them went on to write their own plotless, autobiographical novels in which emotionally stunted twentysomethings communicate on their laptop computers via Gmail chat. Lin’s early style was deceptively simple, a robotic deadpan marked by an absence of figurative language and a lack of abbreviations (always “laptop computers,” always “Gmail chat”) that captured a particular strain of millennial ennui. Born in 1983, Lin is of the micro-generation marooned between the slackers and the smartphone set, and though he’s often associated with younger writers, his work feels marked by this cusp-ness. His 2009 novella Shoplifting from American Apparel successfully rendered the dissolving boundaries between on- and off-line life, in part because Lin brought to the writing both the techno-fluency of the digital native and the anesthetized defeatism of someone who caught the tail end of Gen X. The generational tug of war between sincerity and irony was an animating force behind Shoplifting, as well as Richard Yates, the 2010 novel that followed it, in which a twenty-two-year-old Tao Lin–like author named Haley Joel Osment dates a sixteen-year-old named Dakota Fanning. It was difficult to tell to what degree Lin was trolling; one sensed he wasn’t sure himself.

Lin’s acolytes aped his style—some even named their characters after celebrities—in works of fiction with titles such as Eat When You Feel Sad and what purpose did i serve in your life. These books were published on indie presses, including the Lin-founded Muumuu House. They were discussed on the website HTMLGIANT, “the internet literature magazine blog of the future.” An IRL scene formed around this coterie, which was dubbed Alt-Lit, and then, in 2014, that scene imploded under allegations of sexual misconduct against a number of its associated authors, including Lin.

Meanwhile Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and others had begun publishing novels that, like Lin’s, not only blurred the line between fiction and non-, but took as a subject their own composition. These novels were categorized as autofiction and hailed as a new literary vanguard at the same time that Lin himself appeared to be moving in a different direction. His fascination with Terence McKenna, a post–Timothy Leary advocate of psychedelic drug use whose lectures Lin watched on YouTube, led to a VICE magazine column in which Lin documented his own experiments with psychedelic drugs through the lens of McKenna’s philosophy. He also began drawing mandalas—geometric configurations that some Eastern religions believe can be used to induce trance states—and spending less time online. In his 2018 nonfiction book Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, Lin documents his decision to “leave society.” While under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms, he deleted his various websites and social media accounts, cut the cords connecting his modem and router to the internet, and tossed his computer in a dumpster. He bought a new computer the next day, but his online presence has been considerably diminished in the years since. These days, he occasionally pops up on Twitter to extol the virtues of alternative medicines, speculate about alien life-forms, express his reservations about the COVID-19 vaccines, and post photos of his cats.

Plenty has been written about all of this, including deep dives into Alt-Lit’s implosion, and endless debate about what, exactly, autofiction is—I’ll see you on the other side of that Google wormhole. I bring all of this up to point out that Tao Lin’s been around for a while, and that, whether you love or hate his work—few seem indifferent—his impact on the last two decades of American fiction can’t be denied. And now, at thirty-eight, he’s verging on midlife.

As befits a book by someone his age, Leave Society, Lin’s first novel in eight years, concerns bodily decay. It opens in a doctor’s office in Taipei, where Li, another Tao Lin–like novelist, is discussing his lifelong “chest deformity” with a surgeon. Li suffers from a condition called pectus excavatum in which a misshaped sternum crowds the heart and lungs. The surgeon recommends a corrective procedure involving the implantation of metal rods. He tells Li that without the surgery he’ll have a sixty-year-old’s heart by the time he’s forty. Li, who took a mild dose of LSD before the consult, finds this prognosis “uncompelling and somewhat vague.” He decides against the surgery.

What follows is Li’s odyssey into the world of holistic health. Over the four-year span covered in the novel, Li travels back and forth between his New York City apartment and his parents’ home in Taipei, armed with books such as Cure Tooth Decay: Heal & Prevent Cavities with Nutrition; Bugs, Bowels, and Behavior; and, The Untold Story of Milk. He microdoses cannabis and LSD (“his only reliable reprieve from pained disillusionment”), eats raw food, and ferments his own vegetables. He blames environmental pollutants for a variety of issues including frequent urination, an oversized tongue, and self-diagnosed autism, which he believes can be cured through diet.

Tao Lin, mandala 4, 2014, graphite and ink on watercolor paper, 8 x 8". Courtesy the artist
Tao Lin, mandala 4, 2014, graphite and ink on watercolor paper, 8 x 8". Courtesy the artist

Much of the novel concerns Li’s attempts to impose his enlightenment on his parents. He worries that the mercury in their dental fillings is poisonous, and convinces them to consult a holistic dentist about getting the fillings removed. He pressures his father to stop taking statin, a drug prescribed for high cholesterol, which Li blames for his father’s twitchy eye. Li’s parents put up with this behavior, but it’s hard not to take umbrage on their behalf. Though Li grandstands about trusting one’s instincts rather than tacitly accepting the common wisdom, he expects his parents to bow to his authority. When he finds a crumb of what he thinks is a statin pill in their kitchen, Li subjects his father to an aggressive third degree. “Li disliked trying to change others,” we’re told, but he makes an exception for his parents, who “seemed near dementia and other miserable problems.” In the grand tradition of adult bullies, he claims to have their best interest at heart.

The impulse to seek control and the struggle to relinquish it are common themes of Lin’s work. In Richard Yates, Haley Joel Osment coerces his teenage girlfriend into counting calories and maintaining a severe diet. In Trip, Lin records the precise dosage of each drug he takes, a behavior shared by Li in Leave Society. In fact all of Li’s behavior is measured and meticulously logged, often to comic effect, as when Li, after smoking DMT, “left space and maybe time for five minutes.”

Both Li’s control issues and his distrust of Western medicine would seem to have roots in an adolescent trauma: Li’s right lung collapsed three times while he was in high school. In the novel’s most moving section, Lin describes the variety of seemingly medieval treatments to which Li was subjected, including the botched insertion of a chest tube. After the lung collapsed seven more times while he was in college, Li developed an interest in alternative medicine.

Now Li considers himself to be in “recovery,” not only from a “drug phase” (during which he abused heroin, cocaine, and prescription narcotics) but also, in the larger sense, from the “dominator society” that’s poisoned his body and numbed him to nature’s beauty. He considers psychedelics medicinal, and believes they help him get closer to what he calls “the mystery.” If Lin’s earlier books felt voiced by a human resigned to becoming an automaton, then this one speaks in a voice of resistance, albeit a deluded one. One afternoon in Washington Square Park, Li sees “flitting, ephemeral, glowing dots that seemed not in the air, the sky, his mind, or his eyes.” He calls these dots “microfireflies” and speculates that they’re “the other-dimensional flickerings of a personal, specieal, or global emergent property.” He goes on to wonder if this flickering is perhaps the product of “an infant overmind, made of minds as animals were made of cells, [that] was self-preservationally downloading partnership ideas into society, in part by sprinkling them over urban parks.”

It’s hard to know what to make of a passage like this. The generous read is that Lin’s poking fun at the half-baked ontological musings of a dude who’s taken way too much acid. But my sense is that Lin expects readers to give Li’s theory of the “overmind” serious consideration.

When autofiction is successful, it’s not because the author has a particularly interesting life to draw from, but because the author uses life experiences as a framework or launching point for exploring ideas about art, politics, relationships, etc. Often, it’s a framework for a meta-consideration of the narrow subjectivity of human experience, the impossibility of truly grasping any perspective but one’s own. Lin has always struck me as a master of the latter, and if his novels can feel claustrophobically horse-blindered, that’s the trade-off for the accuracy with which they represent their author’s self-involved worldview. For this kind of novel to work, however, the tensions usually generated by plot must be replaced by internal ones, and the novel’s ideas must be stimulating enough to sustain a reader’s interest. Unfortunately, here, there’s nothing to push up against Li’s zealotry, or to suggest that his druggy epiphanies are anything but profound.

By the end of the novel, Li has fallen in love with Kay, possibly the only woman on earth who wants to split a “kratom-tobacco-egg-almond pancake” with him while they watch documentaries about how the Big Bang never happened. Li and Kay go to Hawaii, where the toxins are fewer, and Li feels finally content now that he’s found a partner who willingly subscribes to his unorthodox lifestyle and self-punishing diet. I’m happy for them, though less so for Lin’s readers. At one point earlier on, Li concludes that conflict isn’t “necessary for art.” Leave Society suggests he might reconsider.

Adam Wilson is the author of three books, most recently the novel Sensation Machines (Soho Press, 2020).