My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Leave Society, whose widely discussed imminence inspired me to revisit Tao Lin earlier this summer, has had an unusually generous reception for an experimental literary novel: a respectful landing in mainstream media, a cult following among an emergent subculture, and even admiring reviews in the right-wing press. With this broad appeal, it is—even though it really isn’t, if you read it—the kind of American novel that used to be more common, a book of our time, a book every literate American read and wanted to discuss because it seemed somehow to explain ourselves to ourselves. Maybe something wasn’t permanently lost to our literary culture, besides of course their irreplaceable individual talents, with the deaths of past masters like Philip Roth and Toni Morrison. Except that Leave Society is not much like Morrison nor even the often autobiographical Roth, because they wrote novels immersed in American history and public life, in the headlines—in short, novels about society, not the leaving of it.
Lin’s individual books are parts of an evolving autobiographical whole, and Leave Society follows on from 2018’s nonfictional Trip (which I have read) and the 2014 novel Taipei (which I haven’t yet). Lin received the message “leave society” on psychedelics shortly after releasing Taipei, as recounted in Trip, yet instead of taking to a Romantic hermitage or to the Unabomber’s cabin, he decides instead to exit our modern damage on an inner voyage, one that improves the outer world too when it’s externalized as attentively cooperative behavior and beautifully ramifying literature. He alters his aesthetic: “He didn’t want to specialize in embodying and languaging confused alienation anymore, as he had for a decade, writing existential autofiction,” like Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009).
Leave Society is still autofiction, albeit in the third person and about a Lin-like novelist named Li, but it does eschew “existentialism,” Lin’s label for the negative modern worldview emphasizing our alienation and isolation, our Heideggerean “thrownness” into a meaningless cosmos. Instead of his previous style—stark, affectless, stripped-bare prose—he proliferates creative coinages (like “languaging” above) throughout the novel, and produces surreally poetic descriptions like these:
In child’s pose at the end of class, he synesthesiated perspiration as a crunchy, oceanic blare.
They sat on a barnacled, algaed square at the end of the tube, amid convolving water. Glimmering solar veils fell through the sky, which was partly dark with storm clouds.
The novel narrates about four years in Li’s life and dwells particularly on his improving relationship with his parents over the course of four long annual visits to their home in Taipei, a city he finds closer to nature and less ruinously inorganic than New York, where he lives the rest of the year. He alters his diet and pressures—sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently—his parents to do the same; he likewise rejects most tenets of modern medicine and cures himself of ailments from tooth decay to ankylosing with psychedelic drugs, yoga, natural eating, and more humane and holistic thinking. His growing intimacy with his parents manifests itself undramatically in everyday acts of affection and communication, often mediated through the novel’s scene-stealer, the family’s toy poodle Dudu (see Timothy Wilcox for more canine analysis). With this homecoming to a family from whom he’d previously felt distant, he furthers what he calls his “recovery” from the damage of modern life; when he falls in love, late in the novel, with a New York neighbor and fellow writer named Kay Yoshida, his recovery progresses still further.
Leave Society also tells the story of its own composition, as Li uses both audio recording and intensive note-taking to capture his life as it happens, a mass of material he selects and re-arranges into the very book we read, with his parents providing comic input into their own representation. Yet this thread of the narrative never feels like a jokey postmodern gesture; instead, it deepens the novel’s realism by showing us how it emerged from the very quotidian stuff of life it describes.
Li began to feel like he was in a realistic, many-scened, calmly mystical novel in which he and his parents were sympathetic, amusing characters.
For Lin, a convert to psychedelic goddess-worship and indigenism, the existential mood in literature is only another in a long line of violent, avaricious, masculinist “dominator” ideologies that conquered the planet when we started worshipping sky gods instead of earth goddesses and building cities where nature should freely flow. Worse than existential literature, for Lin, is modern science, with its profit-driven destruction of human health and nutrition, its pumping the environment full of toxins, and its erection of a totalizing medical edifice that only treats the insalubrious effects of its initial chemical insult with yet more poisonous chemicals.
To leave society is, first, to alter one’s diet away from processed foods, refined sugars, and other inflammatory agents; second, to stop consuming licit and illicit non-psychedelic drugs, whether doctor-prescribed or street-acquired; third, to start taking psychedelic drugs; fourth, to research our way out of the scientistic-existential mindset and toward a healthier, saner vision. In Lin’s view, knowledge of our primordially cooperative psychedelic matriarchal pre-civilization—a knowledge he derives from such dissident thinkers as Terence McKenna, Riane Eisler, and Marija Gimbutas—allows us to shape a new human narrative that will empower us to awaken from the nightmare of history into the beauty of the imagination:
It seemed egregious to have forgotten and auspicious to have remembered, changing the story’s theme from “confused struggle in a grim world” to “recovery toward a former harmony.”
Hence the conservative connotation of the word “recovery” even when used to describe so radical a hope. Our access to mass online communication—in the novel, Li regularly emails his mother even when she’s in the next room—and the spread of debilitating chronic illness as a result of modern toxification both serve to get us out of our bodies and societies and onto the redemptive immaterial plane:
Humans everywhere were being nudged and shoved and pulled and lured away from matter, toward the increasingly friendlier dimension of the imagination—away from inflamed, deformed, poisoned bodies and the ad-covered, polluted outdoors, and into beds, books, computers, fantasies, dreams, memories, and art.
Because the imagination is more beautiful and complex than reality, like a novel or other work of art in relation to the world, literature itself becomes Lin’s vehicle not only to escape society but to introduce imaginative ideas into society, ideas ramifying through other minds into new ideas in a feedback mechanism producing what the novel calls “emergent properties,” complex births of better worlds within the world. Fiction is so powerful for Lin it can even travel through time:
Working on the novel daily over the next two and a half years, he would sometimes feel almost able to see the final draft, which from somewhere in the future was bidirectionally transmitting meaning and emotion, backward toward him and ahead to the end of his life.
I welcome such an ambitious spiritual mission for the novel in an era that can find no better uses for literature than depressingly pedagogical incitements to “empathy” or “critical thinking.”
Thematically, Leave Society has an exciting untimeliness, at least for people who like their novels to challenge dominant ideology. I’m sure when Lin was writing it over the last few years, he couldn’t have known how a passage objecting to flu vaccinations—on the grounds that “there were safer ways to increase immunity than with shots containing” a long list of chemicals I won’t reproduce here—would read in 2021. Now more than ever, skepticism about the dictates of “science”—an epistemological process now swollen monstrously into a set of ever more unaccountable authoritative institutions—is for us what “heresy” was to the monotheist dominator societies Lin complains of. I’m grateful this book hasn’t been banned (yet) as “misinformation.”
I contested some of Lin’s sources and conclusions in Trip, because I wasn’t too impressed that Terence McKenna hallucinated a menacingly Malthusian lecture from a wisecracking mushroom who seems to have read the Georgia Guidestones. But under a novel’s sign of the hypothetical, the virtual, and the make-believe, what Dean Kissick calls Lin’s “n-dimensional Asian-futurist visionary romanticism” proves more persuasive, as scenes of filial affection, animal endearment, and inventive natural description lap gently over us in the wash of Lin’s slow prose. Kissick links Leave Society to the “emergent property” of politically inscrutable spiritual youth movements that have embraced it and made Lin something of a cult hero:
The imagination as he describes it seems like a sort of heaven. As such, it mirrors other ascending spiritual movements of the past decade, from the popularity of shamanic ritual and ayahuasca ceremonies, on the West Coast in particular; to the revival of churchgoing among New York’s it girls and literary bratpack; to the cult of Angelicism (who notes, on his blog, “According to Leave Society, cosmology is kinda MKUltra, that is, what Badiou calls an ideology of finitude. In other words, any fear of extinction is just a default horror trope, and needs to be worked through”) or the nascent movement of “Network Spirituality,” which might be framed as a virtual heavenly community that rejects old models of individuality and reality. It’s in the imaginary realm, Lin suggests, that we can be free.
Similarly, writing in the conservative Washington Examiner, Alex Perez congratulates Lin for escaping the total “progressive” ideological consensus that dominates literature today and seeking not its opposite but another way of life entirely, yet one with a traditionalist resonance:
Leave Society is indeed about leaving a sick society, but more importantly, it is about reentering a different kind of society, the healthy society of family, love, and nature. Only through leaving, Lin seems to be saying, is one able to live.
Leave Society is a quintessential American novel. While I was reading it, I perused a dilapidated old paperback I found in a Little Free Library: The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature (1965) by Tony Tanner, a study arguing that American writers from Emerson and Whitman through Stein and Hemingway to Salinger and Bellow disparage reason and elevate instead a child-like attitude of receptive unknowing:
It has shown itself, perhaps, too suspicious of the rational intellect, too disinclined to develop a complex reaction to society, too much given to extreme reactions, too hungry for metaphysics.
Yet for all that, Tanner salutes American literature for “its compassion and generosity…its reverent love for the world.” So we might blame and praise Leave Society as well. And if Kissick finds it “Asian-futurist” instead of American, I suggest these aren’t as easy to separate as they might appear. Emerson (who wrote of the “Over-Soul” as Lin writes of an emergent literary “overmind”) read Vedic literature, and Pound invented American modernism by translating poetry from the Chinese and Japanese. It’s no contradiction for a quintessentially American novel to be set mostly in Taipei and to hail east over west:
Despite four millennia of autocratic patriarchy, China hadn’t fallen as deep into domination as the West, though, it seemed to Li. Confucianism hadn’t violently spread across the planet. After Confucius, Daoist texts had revived archaic partnership ideas. Zhuangzi referred longingly to a time when people cared for their mothers, weren’t aware they had fathers, and didn’t think of harming one another. Daodejing, a five-thousand-word, poetry-collection-like book by Laozi, promoted the return to a former egalitarian society; viewed de, nature, as the most faithful expression of Dao; and called Dao, which seemed to be synonymous with change, the underlying creative, maternal source of everything.
The novel’s final line, “Li took a leaf,” alters the title’s meaning from injunction to playful pun. Taking leave becomes taking leaf. Instead of literally leaving society, the novel suggests we build a new society of leaves, both “leaves of grass” (as our national-universal bard would say) and the leaves of books, through whose literary language we remake ourselves and our universe into worlds more pacific, more imaginative, and more beautifully strange.