Overcoming Alienation and Discovering Optimism: An Interview with Tao Lin
Art, like history, is best understood from a temporal distance: retroactively, we can observe the movements of history and the reasons that choices—and mistakes—are made. In the contingency of the moment, it is hard to tell anything apart; everything bleeds into the pervasive present. This is why artistic movements aren't put into neat categorizations until years later: we can see, or at least think that we can see, the cogency of it all (given enough time).
It is hard to know what will be made of our present moment in literature. What will we be known for? Alt-Lit? Autofiction? Will we be reflected on at all? All I know is that if we are thought of, Tao Lin will be, or at least should be, part of that reflection.
Lin was, and, to some people, still is, known for the atonal hyper-brevity of his earliest books. Sentences like: “That was wrong.” and “He feels bad.” and “He will never commit suicide.” Going into his work, this is what I expected it would consist of—but it doesn’t. Stylistically, it would be difficult to categorize Lin’s style, which, excluding Trip and his newest novel, Leave Society, are all formally distinct. These two latest books are, at times, brief, direct, almost mathematical—other times the writing is sprawling and beautiful and intimate. Maybe in 30 years, there will be a discrete name for Lin’s current style, like psychedelic realism or auto-precision.
A year after the publication of his critically acclaimed novel, Taipei, in late 2014, amid a purging of the alt-lit community, Lin was ‘canceled’ for a real-life relationship from 2006 that he examined in his 2010 book, Richard Yates, which featured a notable age-gap (him 22 and her 16). While this was legal in the state it took place, it was certainly morally questionable. How will history view this? I don’t know. But it seems the literary community, and major publications that orbit around literary culture, have re-embraced him. If ‘history’ can take place over eight years, then we know the answer.
While Lin didn’t want to talk about that period, saying that he examined it in Richard Yates and that his ex-partner did not want people to discuss it because it was a private matter—his new work does seem to make the implicit argument that he has met the single metric for ‘redemption’: he changed. In both Trip and Leave Society Lin rejects the (male) dominator template that he feels western society adheres to, instead promoting a (female) partnership model that encourages solidarity, charitability, and the Natural. Lin makes it clear that this change comes from a psychedelic-induced insight from 2013, which predates the late 2014 cancellation: he had been writing these books since early 2014 and even had an early version of Trip appear as a Vice column in mid-2014.
The radical alteration of worldview isn’t the only or even the most important thing that changed. It is Li’s (the thinly veiled auto-fictional protagonist in Leave Society) treatment of others that stands out: he fosters an (occasionally contentious) relationship with his parents, helps them with diet and health, and seems to be trying his best with those around him.
All I know, for now, is that Leave Society is a book grappling with the world and Li/Lin has evidently undergone a personal positive change—but maybe in 20 years, we’ll have all the answers.
I talked to Tao Lin (by email) about his latest novel, his views on drugs and society, and emerging from alienation into optimism.
Teddy: If you were not-Tao-Lin, teaching Tao Lin in class, how would you describe Tao Lin's change from his first novel (Eeeee Eee Eeee) to his newest novel (Leave Society)? How would you approach teaching Tao Lin?
Tao: Tao Lin’s books have two distinctive periods so far: (1) everything up to Taipei in 2013 and (2) his two post-Taipei books, Trip and Leave Society, published in 2018 and 2021. In our class, we will read his four novels and one nonfiction book, Trip, as one interconnected autobiography. Attention will be given to his change in tone and content, as well as to what he has retained throughout. There will be no writing assignments, so come ready to discuss.
Teddy: Your earlier books, such as Eeeee Eee Eeee, employed an atonal, kind of ‘skeletal’ prose (with rare paragraphs of exceptions); in Taipei, you departed from this style towards longer sentences, while still conveying a sense of emptiness and alienation. Leave Society, in a way, seems like a return to something between the longer sentences of Taipei, and the inhibited monotone directness of the earlier work. Why did you choose this prose-style?
Tao: I agree Leave Society is a kind of mix of the other two styles. With my earlier books, I deliberately used more extreme prose styles, experimenting, but in my past two books, Trip and Leave Society, I tried to let the content dictate the style, and to let the style enhance the content.
Teddy: One of the most stunning moments of the novel was Li’s first kiss with kay, which is interspersed with facts about a partnership society—Çatalhöyük—and its fall. It was a moment that beautifully infused the two primary things that informed the novel (Li’s life and his research/beliefs). How did you go about balancing those two things?
Tao: Thank you. It was hard to decide where in my novel to insert the non-fiction research I'd done on ancient partnership societies. I tried to insert the research I most wanted to share, and/or that was most difficult to share, into the scenes with the most inbuilt "page-turner" qualities, so that the reader would have a story that would propel them along and the non-fiction passages wouldn't be distracting. The scenes of characters interacting, written with dialogue and concrete details, served as a carrier for some of the non-fiction material.
Teddy: You very rarely mention politics in your books, in your first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, a character calls it a “pretend game”—and it seems you generally view politics as reductive and lacking some basic spiritual or human dimension.
Tao: I think my last two books are very and overtly political, but that I didn't engage in mainstream politics—the elections, the presidents, the politicians. Politics is unavoidable in my view. Interactions between two people are political. A person living their life alone is political. I used to talk about wanting to focus on existential issues, not political issues, but today, I view all my books as political.
Teddy: I agree with you, according to the literal semantic definition, anything is a 'political' act by responding to a set of social-historical-material circumstances and occurring within the social sphere. Why do you eschew mainstream politics?
Tao: Mainstream politics seems to be about division and soundbytes and distracting us from our personal lives and from the reality that we vote all the time, with our attention and money. Mainstream politics seems also to lead to one side angrily thinking the main problem in the world is the other side. This doesn’t seem accurate or helpful to me. Also, it occurs largely in mainstream media, which is around 75 percent funded by pharmaceutical corporations.
Teddy: You also believe in the ‘partnership’ model of society advocated by Mckenna and Riane Eisler. Because politics is impotent in some ways, how do you think we could best achieve this mode of society?
Tao: To achieve a partnership mode of society, we could (1) learn about partnership societies (2) read authors that advocate partnership, like Riane Eisler and bell hooks, and (3) implement partnership values (forgiveness, patience, caring, unity, etc.) in our personal relationships with our friends and family.
Teddy: Are there any aspects of our current society, either interpersonally or structurally, that you would identify as aligning with the partnership model?
Tao: All equal rights movements promote partnership. Nonprofits—that aren't front groups funded by corporations—promote partnership. Independent businesses can promote partnership, as opposed to corporations, which only think a quarter of a year into the future, are focused on profits, and habitually destroy instead of regenerate the environment. Christianity, going by the teachings of Jesus, can be a partnership force. Daoism, which follows nature, is a partnership force. Research into prehistory is a partnership movement in itself. Nature itself is a partnership system that we can learn from.
Teddy: It seems like your research led you to privilege the natural over the ‘synthetic’ (or human-manufactured) in a lot of ways. This applies to drugs as well (with the notable exception of LSD). About a year ago, I interviewed your friend Hamilton Morris and he discussed how the natural/synthetic dichotomy is “pretty much illusory at this juncture” and mentioned drugs such as xenon that manifest naturally but need to be synthesized for human-consumption. What is your view on the natural/synthetic dichotomy in drugs?
Tao: I think the natural/synthetic dichotomy is very useful. Glyphosate didn't exist on Earth until 1950, and there's something like 80,000 synthetic chemicals in the U.S. now, most of them nonexistent before the twentieth century. Natural compounds have been user tested for millions of years by animals and humans, whereas pharmaceuticals are being tested on humans now; so far, the results have been disastrous in my view. Natural compounds come in plant matrixes made of hundreds of other compounds, while synthetic compounds come in pills with ~10 other toxic compounds. Natural compounds come from nature, while synthetics are made by corporations; this is good to remember, because nature doesn't covertly hire public relation groups to defend or promote its drugs, doesn't pay scientists to publish articles and papers defending its drugs, doesn't have a profit motive for its drugs.
Teddy: All of your books are concerned with social and existential alienation and oftentimes it seems inextricably connected to language and speech. Is language, in your view, a tool that can overcome alienation, or is it too limited and instead augments alienation?
Tao: I think language can overcome alienation, especially for people with difficulties in in-person social interaction like me. When I express myself precisely in written language, and other people read it, or even if other people don’t, I feel a bit less alienated. Later, in conversations, I can speak what I wrote and this also reduces alienation.
Teddy: Li’s parents’ toy-poodle, Dudu, is a big part of Leave Society, oftentimes being the subject of discussion, or mediating disagreements. How did the real-life Dudu feel about the novel’s publication and her depiction in it? Did she receive any royalties? Has she considered writing anything from her perspective?
Tao: Dudu loved being written about in my novel. She gets royalties in the form of Ancestral Supplements' organ powders, and Green Pasture's fish oil, which my mom gives her. Dudu doesn't like writing. She enjoys just living. She approves of my portrayal of her, and so doesn't feel a need to express her perspective.
Teddy: Is there anything that you're working on that you'd like to mention? What’s next for you?
Tao: I’ve been working on a ~7.5k-word essay on autism the past two months. I argue it’s caused mostly by environmental toxins and toxicants (synthetic toxins). Since publishing Leave Society, I’ve been expanding on many of its nonfiction parts. I published an essay in Tank on partnership societies, a piece in UnHerd on the benefits of sleep and dreams, and a piece in Document Journal on the Big Bang being wrong. I hope to work all these into one or two nonfiction books.