Stuart Walton finds something missing in this self-directed narrative of psychonautic exploration.
Tao Lin, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change (Vintage, 2018), 308pp.
The advice given out in creative writing programmes the world over, to write what you know, has hung like a millstone around the necks of promising and unpromising aspirants alike in the most recent generations. In the online course in Advanced Creative Writing run by Oxford University, tutors at least invite candidates to discuss this proposition at the outset, so that its limiting principle, which might circumscribe an entire career if you let it, can be subjected to scrutiny before one has embarked on one’s first exercise. If writers had never written imaginatively or analytically beyond the bounds of their own immediate experience, there would have been no War and Peace, no Dracula, no Robinson Crusoe and no Bible, not to mention the chasm that would suddenly gape where the science fiction library now stands.
Tao Lin has imbibed this injunction to the last droplet. His work in novels and shorter fiction, his gnomic poetry, and now with this curious hybrid work – part confessional memoir and part fanboy tribute – he has moved into territory that fits him as seamlessly as any non-fiction literary genre ever fitted anybody. If Paul, the protagonist of Lin’s most recent novel, Taipei (2013), bears an uncanny biographical resemblance to Tao Lin, the Taiwanese-American author of aimlessly ruminative postmodernist fictions, critical convention demands we pretend he doesn’t. That said, the latest work, explicitly presented as a companion piece to Taipei, in that it documents the author’s most recent access of self-examination, dating from the period of the novel’s composition, is properly impossible to disentangle from the novel itself. In one sense, this makes for a complex trajectory. In another, its transparency is shatteringly facile.
The tribute element of Trip is a sustained encomium to the late California ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, one of America’s more creative apostles of natural psychedelic substances, a deeper and more serious thinker than his preposterous predecessor Timothy Leary, but one quite as given to flights of absurdity when hallucinogenic experience demanded it. Lin discovered McKenna’s work in 2012, shortly after he had finished writing Taipei, and found in it the inspiration for a qualitative turn in his own habitual drug regimen. Having previously had a voluminous predilection for benzodiazepine tranquillisers and amphetamine analogues, which he took in mutually antagonistic combinations, Lin has now turned to psychoactive plant materials such as DMT, the short-acting but torrentially intense alkaloid of various South American flora, psilocybin mushrooms, salvia, and cannabis, the last not smoked but swallowed for its significantly more potent psychotropic delivery.
The effects have been dramatic, if a trifle prosaic in their yielding to the cosmic gibberish that has characterised so much psychedelic discourse since the 1960s:
The blipped passage of my life – a dot of thirty years in a landscape of billions – seemed like a microscopic span of capillary inside the furred ear of an animal on a planet I was rocketing away from in a vessel that had entered a wormhole and departed the universe.
He was sitting on his bed at home, in fact, but there is hardly any point in doing trippy drugs if you are going to remain dully literal about where you are on them. Lin has perfected a whole series of formats for reporting on his mental voyages, entering notes in an online .rtf file, setting his MacBook to video himself, engaging in discontinuous exchanges with fellow trippers, and of course writing Trip.
In the book’s lengthy Epilogue, he goes to meet Kathleen Harrison, McKenna’s former wife, and their son and daughter. They live in Occidental, California, where Harrison teaches a botanical drawing class, in which Lin partakes for a day, asking the family a series of what he suspects are tiresomely journalistic questions. As a result of this transformation, Lin reports that he now largely stays in drawing mandalas in order to avoid getting into situations that will make him need to take the very synthetic drugs he now wants to stop using. In an earlier chapter, he retails McKenna’s theory that the illegality of psychotropic drugs is premised on their potentially revelatory powers. McKenna was capable of fulminating against stimulants and alcohol as lustily as any nineteenth-century salvationist, but hallucinogenic drugs are to be treasured ‘because they catalyse intellectual dissent’.
If so, it’s hard to see the dissent emerging in Lin himself. His profoundly affectless voice, the unmistakable tone of that current that flowed in American literary culture from Raymond Carver through David Foster Wallace to Denis Johnson, but has meandered through numerous lesser lights also, is not the tone of dissent at all. It is true that Lin is moved to dump his computer in the aftermath of one psilocybin trip, but then he promptly goes out and buys another. One of McKenna’s greatest insights was his definition of telepathy not in terms of hearing what other people think, but in seeing what they mean, but Lin’s attempts to share drug experiences with others are anything but strikingly pellucid. Having invited a woman he doesn’t know to come to his apartment to share her DMT with him, he begins by asking her whether she intends to poison him, and later, under the effects, becomes convinced she could be an agent of the CIA. When she texts her boyfriend, who is apparently pacing around outside Lin’s Manhattan apartment awaiting her, Lin imagines she is receiving instructions from her spymasters.
None of this makes him sound like the sort of companion you want on a journey into cognitive reconfiguration. Indeed, people like this are a familiar type of nightmare on such occasions. One of the problems – and it is a problem that saturates Lin’s entire oeuvre – is that he is relentlessly self-obsessed. In an effort to distract the reader from this trait, the Epilogue of Trip moves into a coy third-person narrative, but as an objectification strategy, its efficacy is nil.
Tao could move only four of his ten toes. Staring at five toes, he was unable to mentally focus in a manner causing the middle three to individually move, but, partly because sometimes one or two would twiddle a little, he sensed the skill existed. He’d never noticed this inability until recently, and it had seemed strange and interesting.
It is absolutely not interesting. Again, the intellectual dissent stubbornly refuses to show itself, and instead the terrible drivel, which people who wouldn’t touch psychedelic drugs with a twenty-foot bargepole have heard is the result of taking them, is allowed full spate. Lin’s favourite qualifier for his state of mind at any point, in both fiction and non-fiction, is “confused.” Where McKenna offered a prolonged manifesto for psychonautic exploration, Lin can find only sustained befuddlement.
What is lacking is any objective consideration about drugs and what they do to you. Experiences with other kinds of intoxicants to the officially sanctioned ones are worth reflecting on for their psychological and emotional potentialities, as well as their hedonic value. There is none of the liberating joy of psilocybin here, its capacity, by reflecting existing reality in another kind of distorting mirror to the one that socialisation holds up to it, to trigger exhilarating releases of laughter and sensuality, of profoundly affecting commonality between users. In his studious manner, this at least is what Aldous Huxley attempted with mescaline, or, more suggestively still, Walter Benjamin with hashish. Here, there is only the banal phenomenology of quantities taken and moods inarticulately reported, consumption as a mere matter of cause and effect, rather than the means to subvert the normal dynamics of instrumental logic, to disrupt the prescribed air of universal anomie to which intoxicants could, if we let them, be one of the antidotes. Succumbing to the pointless tug-of-war of combining Xanax and Adderall, though it isn’t Lin’s regime any longer, is the very image of self-cancellation.
This is an especially disappointing book because there are glimpses, scattered sparsely through Lin’s work, of his possibilities as a writer – if he would just stop examining his toes. Reflecting on the inadequacies of memory, its teasing failure so often to find its apposite form, the narrator of Taipei reports that “he probably wouldn’t remember most of this in a few days and, after weeks or months, he wouldn’t know it had been forgotten, like a barn seen from inside a moving train that is later torn down, its wood carried elsewhere on trucks.” The temporality of the image is what gives it wings. His perceptive analysis of his father’s personality, on a visit to his parents in Taipei, reveals a more enlightened understanding of other people than ever emerges from his own self-address.
Elsewhere, though, there is only the dead end of unproductive negativity. Reflecting on his early dissatisfaction with French existentialism, Lin traces the roots of his scepticism to his pre-existing teenage alienation.
I was chronically not fascinated by existence, which, though often amusing and poignant, did not feel wonderful or profound but tedious and uncomfortable and troubling. Life did seem mysterious, but increasingly only in a blunt, cheap, slightly deadpan, somehow unintriguing manner.
If you are existentially nauseous avant la lettre, Sartre isn’t going to teach you anything. Even psychedelic drugs might not, unless they come, for Lin at least, with the imprimatur of Terence McKenna. The Terence McKenna that is whose flights of intellectual fancy nonetheless include such statically undialectical observations as the notion that if you believe something you preclude yourself from ever believing the opposite, despite the fact that the administered world of global capitalism, not to mention the hallucinogenic experience itself, requires precisely that skill of most of its clients.
Stuart Walton is a journalist and the author of many books including Out Of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and a new novel, The First Day in Paradise. He also writes on food and wine and spent many years writing for The Guardian.