‘Leave Society’ by Tao Lin: Our 21st Century Malady

Zack Ravas

If part of the success of any novel involves timing, Tao Lin perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better moment for Leave Society (352 pages; Vintage) to have come out than during an extended pandemic. Though the story takes place over several years prior to 2020, its main character maintains a hermetic lifestyle many of us can relate to at present, whether we’d like to or not: “… isolating himself in his apartment in Manhattan, replacing pills and friends and most of culture with cannabis and books, and finding new interests…” Leave Society continues Tao Lin’s tendency for autofiction by following a barely-disguised stand-in, a millennial novelist named Li; as the book opens, we find Li determined to make changes in his life following what he finds to be a toxic cycle of drug abuse (“He’d been addicted to amphetamines, benzodiazepines, and other pharmaceutical drugs for three years”) and unhealthy relationships with both his wife (their divorce procedures extend over much of the novel) and his parents.“In four of his five relationships, he’d gotten depressed,” the book tells us, “leading, through general negativity and his blaming habit, to complaints, causing everything he thought or said to seem like a veiled or open insult, as in his parents’ relationship.”

Li begins this journey toward wellness by cutting himself off from most social contact, including romantic entanglements; narrowing his drug use to carefully portioned amounts of cannabis and LSD; researching topics such as world history and natural health; and spending several months out of each year with his parents in Taiwan in an attempt to repair the strain his past behavior placed on their relationship. Li’s synthesis of the nonfiction books he reads make up a large part of Leave Society, as authors like Terence McKenna cause him to cast doubt on the traditional historical narrative; and health-related books inspire him to convince his parents to alter their diets and have the mercury removed from their dental fillings: “Li said modern people should feel unhappy, due in part to toxification. A 2005 study…had found an average of two hundred types of industrial compounds, including car emissions and banned pesticides, in the umbilical cord blood of American babies, he told his mom.”

Not long into the novel, Li begins drafting two books: one of which we assume to be Tao Lin’s 2018 nonfiction title, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, and the other we take to be the book we are in fact reading. This creates something of a paradox, in that so much of Leave Society is about its own drafting process—Li’s writing practices, notes from his editor, transcripts of conversations with his parents that he records for content—it at times feels like there’s no real novel here, merely an outline:

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Working on his nonfiction book’s second draft for five hours each morning after a brief job and two hours each night after dinner, Li entered a flow state, which he viewed as whenever life felt enjoyable, he wasn’t idle or bored, and he didn’t seem to be ignoring his problems but addressing them in a long-term, premeditated manner—times when, easing into resonance with nature, minutes to weeks passed in a novelty-clouded, calmly emotional, deathward trance.

Those hoping for a more traditional narrative like Tao Lin’s 2013 Taipei, in which he captured the highs and lows of his character Paul’s young marriage in a cringe-inducing level of detail, may be disappointed.

Fortunately, the same level of lacerating honesty in Taipei is present in Leave Society, which keeps the narrative compelling. (Despite the autofiction tendencies of his work, one never has to worry about Lin attempting to paint his protagonists in a flattering light.). More than that, Leave Society introduces the reader to two of the most endearing literary characters in recent memory: Li’s parents, simply referred to as Li’s mom and Li’s dad—and their beloved family dog, Dudu, who serves up a great deal of comic relief.

…Li’s dad said, “Calm water flows deep,” quoting someone from Three Kingdoms. Loud, talkative people were shallow, like river rapids, he explained. Deep people were quiet and still.

“I’ve never met anyone who talks as much as you,” said Li’s mom.

“The saying doesn’t apply to me,” said Li’s dad.

Li’s mother and father bicker with each other, they grow resentful of one another; they argue about household chores or Li’s dad running behind schedule; they share tender words. We sense this is what a decades-long marriage looks like: beneath the daily squabbles, there remains a bedrock. (We are told Li’s father spent time in prison due to money laundering schemes and now Li’s mother manages all of the family finances).

At times, Li proves a stabilizing force for his parents, seeking to patch over their arguments; at other times, he stirs the pot by consciously pitting one parent against the other. It’s not the portrait of the doting son—it feels more candid than that. And we see the grace notes a beloved pet—even a dog named Dudu—can bring to a family by providing laughter when moments grow tense or offering a welcome distraction in the midst of illness. The dog’s companionship proves so integral that one of the book’s running jokes is the family’s tendency to accidentally refer to each other as “Dudu.”

Because of its nonfiction focus and more popular subject matter, it seemed like Lin’s Trip reached a wider audience than his prior novels. (Anecdotal, but I recall being surprised to see a copy on my hairdresser’s counter.) Given how much Leave Society concerns itself with research and history, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where Tao Lin drifts away from the novel and fully pursues nonfiction.

As such, Leave Society offers an opportunity to consider Lin’s contribution to the form. He was a central figure of the “indie lit” scene of the aughties precisely because he tapped into and articulated a sense of early internet malaise—his characters expressed a desire to form meaningful relationships, even if they were mediated by a computer screen, while grappling with the moment-to-moment grip of anxiety and uncertainty. We see this pattern appear again once Li resumes dating toward the end of Leave Society: “…Li excitedly emailed himself while hanging upside down, ‘I felt we were doomed five days ago, but now I feel the opposite.’” And while Li makes considered effort to untangle from most social ties, the truth is Li doesn’t present as fundamentally different from Toa Lin’s previous protagonists, who were more actively seeking connection. We sense the same fundamental aloneness to all of them, a kind of spiritual sickness that Leave Society attributes to the ways in which humanity has poisoned the natural world (“plastics, pesticides, phthalates, PFOAs, flame retardants, heavy metals, brake dust, and other toxins”) and impacted our brains’ healthy functions. Li’s research in Leave Society indicates we have come close to diagnosing our 21st century malady. But there remains another distinct possibility, one Tao Lin has always been skilled at reminding us of in his fiction: that those pervasive feelings of loneliness, of being constantly ill-at-ease and second guessing every unregulated emotion, might simply be the status quo in a technology-driven era that has finally commodified human connection.

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