SEPTEMBER 20, 2021
TAO LIN HAS CITED Lorrie Moore as a major literary influence. In Lin’s fourth novel, Leave Society, his protagonist, Li, teaches one of Moore’s short stories to MFA students at Sarah Lawrence. Though Li had read the story, “Willing,” “around ten times since college,” he had not realized, until then, that the last nine lines are intended to be taken literally rather than metaphorically: “She was gone, gone out the window, gone, gone.”
Moore is an interesting choice of lodestar for a writer like Lin. Though often staging in her stories the question of which aspects of life should and should not be written about (especially in “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” which Lin has said “made me feel, more so than anything I had read before”), she draws a clear distinction between her life and her fiction: “I’m never writing autobiography,” she told The Paris Review in 2001; “I would be bored, the reader would be bored, the writing would be nowhere.” Lin does not share the same concerns. Each of his novels’ protagonists — Andrew in Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), Haley Joel Osment in Richard Yates (2010), Paul in Taipei (2013), and now Li — arrive as flashing, partial representations of the author himself, bounded by the particular period of his life from which Lin draws them.
If you type Tao Lin and Sarah Lawrence into Google, you will discover that Lin did teach a class on the contemporary short story there in 2015, which suggests that he and his protagonist are once again closely affiliated. At the end of a short story, readers expect, if not resolution, then at least something arresting — a feeling, a figure, an idea. For Lin, this release need only be metaphorical; it is enough that Moore’s protagonist, Sidra, simply imagines going out the window to flee her unfaithful boyfriend. Lin’s reading of “Willing” is a key to understanding his conception of his own work. Writing, in his view, is as important as living; in fact, life is valuable mostly as something to be written about. Going out the window, leaving society, only gains significance — or, indeed, becomes fully real — once it is transmuted into metaphor, into text.
Lin’s previous main characters were united through their bleak, depressive worldviews. They pass their days engaged in minor acts of violence, casual drug use, and failed attempts at connection. In Leave Society, Lin introduces a radical shift in outlook, a change from a posture of boredom to one of awe. After finishing his third novel, the character Li retreats from his former lifestyle, viewing himself as recovering “not just from pharmaceutical drugs but from nearly everything.” Now, he consumes only cannabis, DMT, LSD, and psilocybin. He tries to engage with the natural world and struggles to be healthy. He is celibate and rarely masturbates. His reading habits have reoriented toward nonfiction, especially Merlin Stone’s book about goddess-worship, When God Was a Woman (1976), and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade (1987), which suggests an alternative model for society: the prehistoric “partnership model,” when men and women lived peacefully in matrifocal households, as opposed to the “dominator model” that introduced war and sexism to the planet and which predominates today. These references make Leave Society feel more capacious than Lin’s previous novels, which were tightly trained on their protagonists to the exclusion of most external perspectives.
To understand this turn, it is worth considering the synaptic space that separates Leave Society from Lin’s last novel, Taipei. In 2018, Lin published Trip, his first book-length work of nonfiction. In its introduction, he describes the “zombielike” state he found himself in after completing the final draft of Taipei in 2013. While absently watching YouTube, he discovered Terence McKenna, the celebrated ethnobiologist and mystic who spent his life studying, consuming, and advocating for the use of psychedelic plants. Alone in his room for a week, Lin watched around 30 hours of lectures and interviews with McKenna, finding himself “excited and delighted by topics I’d just finished expressing in my novel as sources of bleakness and despair and confusion — technology, drugs, human existence, the future.” Trip is the embodiment of Lin’s effort to draw closer to this way of perceiving the world, and Leave Society is its more metaphorical, literary expression — two branches bifurcating from a single trunk.
I would also infer a secondary motivation behind Lin’s decision to heal himself “from the mental and physical effects of dominator society, which included himself,” as he puts it in Leave Society. (His revelations about the negative force of misogyny are one of the few aspects of the book that feel tritely handled since this reality is already blindingly obvious to most.) In the fall of 2014, the thinly fictionalized events of Lin’s second novel, Richard Yates, which explores an emotionally abusive relationship between a 22-year-old author and a 16-year-old aspiring writer, were wrenched into public consciousness when E. R. Kennedy, upon whom the younger character was based and who has since come out as a trans man, posted a series of tweets describing the emotional abuse he had suffered during the relationship. Lin, he wrote, “took credit for my words, for my painful memories, for my story.” The tweets have since been deleted and the statutory rape charges against Lin dropped. Lin posted a statement on Facebook explaining that he had checked whether Kennedy “was okay with what I was writing about” and, after the allegations, had offered Kennedy the royalties from Richard Yates, or to stop selling the novel entirely, if that was what Kennedy wanted.
Why draw attention again to statutory rape allegations that have since been abandoned? When a writer bares so much of their private life in their work, there is obvious value in interpreting any absences. With its emphasis on the partnership model of gender relations, Leave Society often reads as a veiled attempt to redress Lin’s past failures, particularly his abuses of power, in relationships. “Li’s dad’s older sister said something implying it was common knowledge that all of Li’s girlfriends had ‘run away,’” Lin writes at one point, before continuing, vaguely, “Li didn’t correct her.”
The events in the novel take place between November 2014 and the start of 2019. During each of these years, Li spends the winter months at his parents’ apartment in Taipei and the rest of his time in Manhattan, mostly alone. This chronological structure, with each year given an overarching thematic name — “Year of Pain,” “Year of Mountains,” etc. — provides the story with a gentle, undulating rhythm, distinct from the seemingly random lurching between locations that had marked Lin’s previous novels.
The two sets of relationships at its center are the strongest elements of the narrative, acting as centripetal forces holding Li in place as his increasingly mystical, psychedelic interests threaten to unmoor him. Where the parents played a peripheral role in Taipei, they are foregrounded here. Chapters in Taiwan are close and domestic: Li, Li’s mom, and Li’s dad (as they are called throughout) spend most of the time “bickering,” either over meals or on long walks through the forested mountains that surround Taipei, together with their beloved “seven-year-old, four-pound, white poodle,” Dudu. As part of his efforts at self-betterment, Li tries to mediate between his parents, as well as improve his own relations with them (“I’ve only yelled at you two once this year. Next year, I’ll yell even less”).
These scenes are elegantly structured, with Li’s meditations guiding the reader through the delicately shifting dynamics among the three of them, like a particularly sensitive weathervane. In one interaction, Li’s dad and Li watch Li’s mom from across the street as she covertly buys a cup of coffee, which Li had expressly asked her to stop drinking for its “toxic forms of sugar and milk” (Li incessantly emails his parents about his latest research — everything from the benefits of fermented vegetables to the dangers of mercury in tooth fillings). Li’s dad tells Li to “pretend we didn’t see her,” protecting his wife’s need for privacy in a way Li finds heartening. But this solidarity is reversed an hour later when Li’s dad tries to “provoke” Li into berating his mom about the coffee, a change that “seemed unstable in a way that Li felt he knew well.”
Li’s other relationship is with Kay, who in real life was the editor of Lin’s 2014 Granta essay “Final Fantasy III” — a beautiful piece about his parents, which reads like a testing ground for the more intertextual mode of Leave Society. At the heart of Lin’s other novels, there is usually a destructive relationship — or unrequited love in the case of Eeeee Eee Eeee — which breaks down by the narrative’s end. Here, the trajectory is inverted: Li gradually enters into a romantic, mostly symbiotic, relationship with Kay. This isn’t to say their partnership is free from turbulence — Li obsessively types up his fluctuating feelings for her, trying to restrain himself from sending negative messages when they arrive in his head. Writing, for Li, becomes a powerful tool for articulating, and then letting go of, unwieldy, unkind feelings.
To achieve the novel’s naturalistic dialogue, Lin’s main character records and transcribes real conversations. He records his parents on walks and at dinner. He records their snoring. He records Kay, too — just once, afterward promising he won’t do it again (“Kay thanked him and said he could if he wanted; it wasn’t illegal”). When he doesn’t record conversations or copy them down, their omission is noted in the text. He cannot remember how his mother responded when he asked if she had recently gotten cosmetic surgery, recalling only her “balled fists in front of her cheeks, as if trying to hide.” This is suggestive of Lin’s process: what is not recorded cannot be improvised, as if to do so would compromise the story’s authenticity.
How does Leave Society stack up against Lin’s other novels? Of the four, Richard Yates feels the thinnest, its plot narrow and horizonless, while the sentences are bland and unfurnished: “He walked into the kitchen listening to music from his iPod through earphones. He was alone in the apartment. He stared at the common room.” Lin’s first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, is livelier and more surprising — not for the talking dolphins and bears, but for its earnest attempt to move between perspectives, a device that does not occur elsewhere in Lin’s oeuvre. On several occasions, the narrative departs from the point of view of its protagonist, Andrew, to dwell instead with a female 10th grader.
In contrast to the style of Richard Yates, and most of Eeeee Eee Eeee, Taipei is built of long, twisting, complicated sentences. Commas drive through clauses in unexpected places, rendering thoughts jagged, as if echoing the way its characters are unexpectedly isolated from one another, despite their physical proximity. But though its images are ambitious, they are not worked through hard enough, and so often come across as impenetrably abstract rather than nuanced. For example, Lin describes Taipei as:
[A] fifth season, or “otherworld,” outside, or in equal contrast with, his increasingly familiar and self-consciously repetitive life in America, where it seemed like the seasons, connecting in right angles, for some misguided reason, had formed a square, sarcastically framing nothing — or been melded, Paul vaguely imagined, about an hour later, facedown on his arms on his dining tray, into a door-knocker, which a child, after twenty to thirty knocks, no longer expecting an answer, has continued using, in a kind of daze, distracted by the pointlessness of his activity, looking absently elsewhere, unaware when he will abruptly, idly stop.
This is close to becoming an extraordinary observation without quite reaching it. While the language in Leave Society remains stark in places — Lin’s descriptive skills are greatly inferior to his ability to capture mood and generate humor through dialogue — there is a subtlety to his observations that feels like a progression from Taipei. When walking with his parents and Dudu, he includes a simple, geometric image: “‘Look,’ said Li. ‘We’re walking as a square.’ He moved right, toward Dudu, and everyone shifted a space, counter-clockwise, continuing ahead in the same shape.” To develop one’s style so extensively, and with such success, over four books is no mean feat, a testament to Lin’s fastidious editing process.
Many of the ideas offered up in Leave Society are murky, bordering on conspiracy theory. After watching a documentary arguing against the plausibility of the Big Bang, Li buys Eric Lerner’s The Big Bang Never Happened (1991), which has been widely discredited since its publication. What is interesting in Leave Society, however, is not the truth or falsity of its arguments — this is marketed as a work of fiction, after all — but how such arguments inflect character. By the story’s final quarter, Li no longer views himself as going “down ‘rabbit holes’” but “tunnelling up out of the small, underground, man-made hole where he’d been born.” Gravity is reversed, what was below now somehow above. Li imagines the trajectory of his research leading him up and away from society; at the same time, the pace slows down toward the novel’s end. “This year I’m writing,” he informs his mom in the final “Year of Unknown,” “[s]o I don’t want to gather too many more […] things. So I’m talking less.” This simultaneous process of slowing down and rising up makes it seem as if Li is climbing a mountain: near the precipice, each step is drawn out so that he can savor the experience of the clearer air, knowing all the while that very soon he will be offered a view of the city that is his life, a view that might finally make sense of it all.
“Will this be leaving society?” Kay asks when she and Li travel to Hawaii at the novel’s close, with the intention of moving there permanently the following year. Li responds that he has started “viewing leaving as a relative thing. They lived in midtown Manhattan, so almost any change would qualify.” On one level, this could be read as an almost laughable bathos, reducing the book’s premise to a matter of “getting out of the city.” But, to return to the meaning of the window in “Willing,” the physical location was always going to be arbitrary for Lin; the metaphorical significance is what counts. Like Moscow in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, some places function as dream-spaces, symbolically standing in for the idea of “not here; anywhere but here” — an imagined land that allows the characters to escape their present lives, with all their inherent dissatisfactions.
The final sentence of Leave Society — “Li took a leaf” — echoes an earlier scene in which Li offers a leaf to his brother’s son. “What is it?” his nephew asks. “A leaf,” Li tells him. “It’s just a tiny leaf.” Literally, just a leaf, something that provokes awe by being nothing more than what it is. On my first reading of Leave Society, I did not know what, if anything, to make of the homophone “leaf” and “leave.” On the second reading, when I was better accustomed to Lin’s humor and his delight in multiplicity, it seemed to me both metaphorical and literal, playful and quite serious, a brilliant, almost perfect ending.