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the novel as a kind of organism: an interview with Tao Lin photo

Late in the book, Li makes the following observation: “He could feel his notes and novel pushing him to do things, generate novelty.” I was awestruck by this line because it revealed the entirety of the novel as a kind of organism—a living unit that could enact real change, a member of an ecosystem in which the reader is also a member—and also as a piece of performance art, which novels, generally, aren’t. The “point” of the novel, then, is not merely to be an archive of time spent and things learned, an inert past, but rather an active present and a dynamic imagined future in which the energy set forth by the novel gathers momentum and continues writing itself, writing the world.

Strange that even with the root of the word right there, it’s so radical (to me): that a novel can “generate novelty”—that it can not only change or deepen thought patterns, but actually create new outcomes. Somehow it seems to be the opposite of Wordsworth’s view of poetry—“emotion recollected in tranquility”—the poem as a jar for storing feeling. LEAVE SOCIETY, I think, nudges feeling toward action, actually transmogrifies feeling into action. There is a kinetic quality to it that comes from its insistence on building new modes of survival, from breathing and eating to caregiving and loving.

One way in which the “quest for novelty” is very clear is in your use of language, or more specifically, in your development of new language (“metaphysical microbiome”) to capture new experiences and a renewed consciousness, neologisms such as: brainwardly, metatwinkling, deshoeing, everyone-stabilizing, Yahwehistly, bathroomward—as well as idioms that create a delightful vernacular for Li and his small circle that includes his parents and Kay (YGs, microfireflies, Yoshida Effect, phubbing). The number of squiggly red lines that I encountered while reading this draft on my computer made me happy because I thought—yes, we need new words, newer and more refined words to capture the highly specific insights of each person. Only in this way can language be “living.” A dead language isn’t just a language that is no longer spoken; it’s a language that doesn’t exist because that culture it belonged to no longer exists. For our language to remain alive, our culture must remain alive also—which means it has to change, evolve. For this reason the spirit of the book strikes me as eminently hope-filled: to resist cliché is to embrace life and believe in its progress.

I haven’t asked you a question yet.

Despite Li’s crippling bouts of worry, physical pain, and moroseness, there is a very moving resilience that goads him out of each abyss and back into the ring, the ring here being the realm of consciousness that Li continually seeks to know better, to expand, to care for more effectively. I felt emotional each time Li emailed his mother to attempt to explain his anger or stress, to apologize for hurting or disappointing her, to invite a fuller and more measured conversation—that is, to achieve peace. Thematically, LEAVE SOCIETY seems invested in the power of humility and painfully acute self-awareness. At points, the degree to which Li would comb through his actions, record them, dwell within the memory of them, felt overwhelming to me—I felt debilitated as Li felt debilitated. A paralyzing idea: that each word, each action, each bite of food or breath of air or dollar spent, could have billions of micro-effects on the people and flora and fauna around us. Enough to make me want to stay in one room forever, alone. Enough to make me want to leave society.

And yet, particularly by the end of the book, as Li and Kay deepened their relationship, professed their love, yearned toward “the mystery” together, the phrase “leave society” felt less like an ominous dictum and more like a playful experiment, and moreover a proposal to the reader—to me—to think hard and carefully about the kind of society I was interested in. It also reveals itself as a choice: one can stay, or one can leave. We can keep to the society that we find ourselves in, or we can find—create—something new. For Li, the leaving could be understood as physical—leaving New York for the less familiar landscape of Taiwan, leaving Taiwan for the less familiar landscape of Hawaii. But, as in TRIP, the journey is always interior, first and foremost. Traversing the outlying frontiers of information, for example, via books and articles, and the outermost edges of consciousness via mind-altering substances, and also through the alchemizing effects of physical and emotional pain.

I still haven’t asked you a question.

One of the many passages I highlighted was this one:

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, into beds, books, computers, fantasies, dreams, memories, and art.

 

In the margin I typed: "imagination as new society." Because I'm constantly being made aware of the damaging consequences of “too much screen time” and perpetual connectivity, I’ve rarely stopped to consider the world of computers—the internet—as a kind of curative for the ailments of modernity and materialism. In bed with a book or computer is where I would choose to be 99% of the time, probably—pan out millenia and compare that to our human forbears and the dissonance is striking. Almost as if: we forsook nature, built cities, and then became trapped inside of them. The only respite, then, becomes the immateriality of our minds at work, for better and for worse, as Li’s timeline throughout the novel demonstrates—moments of almost rabid epiphany, juxtaposed with the familiar chafing of self against life. The paradoxes are many: Li’s cultivation of a kind of wildness of mind (“dream accuracy,” as he puts it), while also seeking varieties of discipline and order (nutrition, exercise, regimented work on novel, strategies of living with and enjoying his parents); the bifurcated desire to find connection and meaning through relationships, while also preserving his solitude (“ten days alone wasn’t enough to detox—he needed months, seasons”). The draw of New York City and the aversion to it. The ultimate truth, ironically the biggest cliché of all: wherever you go, there you are.

The book ends with the taking of a leaf, which made me catch my breath because of its simple beauty, because I have seen, via social media, the evidence of your foraging, the careful collages of leaves and other plant life, always a welcome moment during my mindless scrolling, where I also pause to take a breath and really look. But it also struck me because my mom, whose mind has gone sideways as the result of close to twenty years of leukemia medication, has recently become very fixated on leaves. She collects them and photographs them too, and when I call her, at some point our conversation usually turns to leaves. She asked me the other day “did you ever see a leaf? Did you ever measure the centimeters between their veins?” She insists that their perfect architecture “could only come from God.” Whether God or the mystery, whatever that other dimension is, the one we might find ourselves in or surrender ourselves to if ever we leave society—maybe the blueprints are right there on the leaf, and we just need, like Li, to take it.

Here are some questions or question-like prompts. Recently, during our virtual event, I did a “word association”-type game with Melissa Broder, where I offered a word or phrase and asked her to say the first thing that came to her mind. Maybe you’d like to do something similar here, except maybe instead of one word you can just respond instinctually with a sentence or two, without giving it too much thought or worrying about how it sounds.

 

1. GENRE

Makes me want to think of a list of genres. Horror, romantic comedy, dark comedy, dark romantic comedy, self-help, realism, magical realism, Kmart realism, autofiction, I-novel (Japan), science-fiction, fantasy, history, journalism, investigative journalism, magical dark romantic comedy, magical self-help, fragmented self-help, modern, postmodern, science-fiction comedy, magical autofiction, metafiction, meta autofiction.

 

2. NIHILISM

I feel like I used to know what this meant, and used to use it in my writing, but currently I can’t define it exactly. I think it has to do with meaninglessness, thinking that everything is meaningless.


3. HARARI

The last name of the author of Sapiens, the mega-best-selling book that I feel gives an inaccurate view of human history, authoritatively saying that humans have always been male-dominated and war-addicted. I read Sapiens while researching the dominant model of human history for my novel. Sapiens includes these sentences:

 

            “Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark.”

 

            “Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world.”

 

“Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war,”

 

But other researchers have found that humans were peaceful until around 6,500 years ago. Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist, wrote, “It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine warfare as endemic to the human condition.” Riane Eisler, a social scientist, tweeted this in 2019: “99% of the human genus’ past was spent in small-band hunter-gatherer bands who represent a partnership system that fosters cooperative, generous and largely peaceful persons.”


4. “MY MOTHER IS A FISH” (VARDAMAN) vs. “BECAUSE I’VE BEEN A FISH” (LI’s DAD)

 I haven’t heard of “My mother is a fish.” I thought Vardaman was, based on its sound, something in       Hinduism, but I just searched it and see it’s in Faulkner. I don’t think Li’s dad has read Faulkner. I like   seeing the two quotes together. Fish seem funny and good to me.


5. RAYMOND CARVER

I remember liking Carver when I first encountered him because he seemed funny and deadpan on topics like despair and confusion, and because of how simple his language was. Favorite Carver stories: “Preservation,” “Vitamins.” I like his endings. The end of “Vitamins”:

 

I couldn’t take any more tonight. “Go back to sleep, honey. I’m looking for something,” I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine cabinet. Things rolled into the sink. “Where’s the aspirin?” I said. I knocked down some more things. I didn’t care. Things kept falling.


6. “TRANSCEND[ING] THE LOOP”

Makes me imagine people being in loops that they need to exert energy to transcend, at which point they get into other loops. 


 7. FREE ENERGY

A term I first heard in maybe 2017 that I keep hearing more and more about as I research government secret projects, the U.S. military, UFOs, aliens, Nikola Tesla, John Hutchison, 9/11, and certain other topics. It seems that there is a suppressed technology that can be used (1) for propulsion/antigravity (2) as a weapon capable of destroying whole planets (3) as a source of clean, inexhaustible, cheap energy or, as people call it, “free energy.” The suppression of this technology, which Tesla worked on in the late 1800s, seems to be why we don’t have flying cars and aren’t living on the moon. Part of the suppression has to do with the world’s militaries—governments routinely classify any patents relating to national security—and part of it has to do with it being a threat to fossil fuels. Energy, not pharmaceutical or military, I’ve learned, is the largest industry.


  8. Çatalhöyük*

*the section during which Li is transcribing the “early romance” between him and Kay, interspersed with details about the mounds, was tremendously moving to me; I found myself teary at a few points.

I first heard of Çatalhöyük from Terence McKenna in 2013. It’s the largest and most advanced known civilization of the Neolithic—the period when agriculture developed. It’s in south-central Turkey. It wasn’t excavated until 1961, when James Mellaart excavated around 3 percent of it. Around 8000 people lived there. It was a giant mound, with houses built really close together. Mellaart called a third of the buildings “shrines” and wrote that “a goddess was the principal deity.” For its whole existence, from around 9,100 to 7,500 years ago, there was no evidence of war, and there were no defense fortifications. It was egalitarian and classless. Sapiens only mentions Çatalhöyük once—“By 7000 BC the town of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals. It may well have been the world’s biggest settlement at the time.” 


   9. DUDU

Dudu is my parents’ tiny toy poodle. She weighs 4 pounds. She was born in 2007. I barely paid her any attention—I only bothered and annoyed her, staring at her until she got upset and growled at me—until 2017, when I started being nicer to her and she became my friend. We reached a climax of closeness that year—she lay with me in bed. Since then, we haven’t been as close, but we’re still friends, I think. I only see her when I visit Taiwan, since she lives in Taiwan.


  10. “HIS NOVEL SEEMED TO THINK THE RELATIONSHIP SHOULD CONTINUE.”

Li experiences a lot of doubt about his relationship with Kay, partly because he isn’t sure, after three or four years of celibacy and not thinking about romance but just trying to fix himself and recover from years of heavy drug-use, if he is ready for a relationship yet. To try to allay his doubt, or figure out of it’s real, he mentally consults his in-progress novel, as if it were a friend. He intuits, in an intuition described by the line you quoted, that his doubt is wrong, is habitual and self-sabotalogical.


  11. “THE CURSE”

Li feels this near the end of the novel, when he is in a bad mood. He’s “cursed,” he finds himself thinking, to be unhappy in relationships. Elsewhere in the novel, in calmer moments, he thinks that everyone in dominator society is cursed, has absorbed large and unrelenting amounts and types of damaging material—physical and mental—from culture since birth. 


  12. What is your hope for this novel?

I don’t know. Maybe that it has helped me, and that it will continue to help me, be a happier and kinder and more stable and helpful and grateful person—someone better able to spread joy and calmness and clarity, instead of despair and confusion and negativity, to my readers and friends and family.


  13. Do you ever eat “junk food”?

I haven’t in a long time, no. It affects my mood and inflammation levels and digestion and sleep too much, while offering little reward. Also, I can get the same pleasure from, like, honey and other nutritious food.


  14. What’s your opinion on orthodontia?

My mouth would probably look ghastly without it. I had eight teeth pulled as a child, and the rest were prised into alignment by orthodontics. While researching for Leave Society and my previous book, Trip, I learned of an alternative called orthotropics, though, which could have also prevented my mouth from looking ghastly, but in a less harmful way. In orthotropics, the jaw is widened to fit all the teeth. Almost everyone in industrialized society, I’ve learned, has an undersized jaw due to malnutrition; it’s why wisdom teeth need to be removed.  


  15. What do you believe constitutes a happy childhood?

I’m not sure. This question seems hard. A child with everything could be unhappy, while a child with little resources could be happy. There seem to be many factors.


  16. Do you think “health” looks different for each individual?

Yes. I think people are pushed to be more healthy by pain and discomfort, and that because everyone’s body is unique and because the body is so complex there’s a huge range of responses that bodies can have to modern society. Some people will malfunction severely; others will withstand it without bothersome symptoms. People who already feel happy and fine, or who feel great, generally aren’t going to go out of their way to do something healthy for themselves, it seems to me. I only changed my diet throughout my twenties because I was depressed and weak and anxious and in pain.


  17. Once or twice I found myself thinking: the amount of work it takes to scrub one’s life of   toxins—it seems to constitute what we’d call, in capitalist terms, a full-time job.  

It does seem like a full-time job—one that is impossible to complete. It seems impossible to return to the pristineness of 20,000 BC. But it has felt to me like a worthy and rewarding project—detoxifying mentally and physically—to include in my life.


  18. And then I thought, maybe our life’s work is supposed to be a sort of sloughing off, an     unlearning and relearning, the thing we are to devote all our energy to, as saints “trained themselves” to devote all of their energy to the divine. Is this possible?  

I think so. I think it’s possible to devote one’s life to unlearning and relearning, especially if one can get paid for it, like I feel I’ve done with my last two books.


  19. Is the aspiration enough—to do one’s best, knowing one cannot do one’s all while living in conventional society? 

I think it’s enough. 


  20. More bleakly: if the ultimate success is longevity, increasing our life span by, say, 5-8   years,  is that worth it? Is it more important to live better or live longer? 

I think Li is less concerned with increasing lifespan than with increasing quality of life. In his most rational moments, he doesn’t care about extending his life, because he’s come to think of death as a natural and positive transformation, instead of as a terrible event. So to him it is more important to live better. His focus on health has a side effect of increased lifespan, though.


  21. Li's extensive involvement in his parents’ health*, for example—what is the goal, for Li?

 

*Li’s parents’ embracing of Li’s health advice and methods was another very moving component of the book.

 

The goal for Li is to just do something positive and sustainable. In his previous life, the one that is mentioned but not much described in Leave Society, he was addicted to pharmaceutical drugs and had a bleak worldview. He often had nothing to live for besides for drug binges and gaining a bleak pleasure from describing sadness and loneliness and despair in a variety of tones in novels and short stories. He’s involved in his parents’ health in part because it brings him closer to his parents. His mom, particularly, always stressed health—so it’s a topic they share, and can connect on. Li’s problem, sometimes, is that he gets fixated on health and loses sight of the other things that make life worth living—friendship, connection, love.

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