Tao Lin Is Recovering from Himself


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Since Li was young, he and his mother have communicated best in writing. It began with their leaving handwritten notes around the house where he grew up, in Florida; now, even when he visits his parents’ home in Taiwan, he still tends to write them e-mails from his room. Li, in his thirties, has good reasons to view “writing, not speech, as his means to communicate ‘at a deeper level.’ ” For one thing, when he and his parents are with one another, eating fermented vegetables or walking man-made steps up a mountain, they limit themselves to short, simple phrases, speaking a “crude, ungrammatical Mandarin-English mix,” thanks to Li’s halting Chinese. For another, his parents bicker infectiously, often roping him in as a mediator, or collateral damage, or both.

When Li’s parents do attempt kindness, they often require the use of the small family poodle, Dudu, on whom they project emotions too fragile to survive the passage of direct communication. When Li’s mother flaps the dog’s paw to wave goodbye to her business-tripping husband, Li is moved by “his parents’ sly, Dudu-mediated tenderness.” In fact, Li’s parents often unthinkingly refer to their son as “Du,” as if the name were their generic term for a loved one; on his third visit to Taiwan, Li starts doing the same thing to them. In Chinese, du means many things; pronounced with a rising tone, it could, given the prodigious homophony of Mandarin, mean “reading,” “drugs,” or “being alone.”

As it happens, these are Li’s three primary activities in “Leave Society,” the latest autobiographical novel from the author Tao Lin. Lin has spent the past decade novelizing his life in aloof, literal-minded prose; his breakthrough novel, “Taipei” (2013), which fictionalized a drug-fuelled relationship, was apparently pared down from a twenty-five-thousand-page draft of recollections. Lin’s books of autofiction have made him something of a darling in the Alt Lit scene, where their disaffected sincerity has earned him the title of (although we have so many of these now) the “voice of his generation”—namely, the millennial one, with its infinitely mediated sentimentality.

With “Leave Society,” Lin continues his autobiographical project by narrowing its scope even further, until only he and a small handful of others remain. Chronic back pain limits Li’s ability to move and work on his novel (the one we’re reading); to manage the pain, he relies on LSD and cannabis, both of which he takes freely in his Manhattan apartment but must sneak into Taiwan. A doctor at a rehabilitation center eventually diagnoses Li with ankylosing spondylitis, a rare form of spinal inflammation. But Li, distrustful of Western medicine, refuses a prescription for steroids, preferring the holistic approaches he researches on the Internet from his arthritic solitude. He reads about natural health, traditional medicine, volcanic minerals, vegetable capsules. He is…

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