On Addiction and Writing in the Work of Tao Lin

Tao Lin is a trip! Trip (2018) is his hands-on study of psychedelics, and of their previously preeminent proponent, Terence McKenna. In 2009, Urban Outfitters began selling Tao’s novella Shoplifting from American Apparel in its stores. For Richard Yates, he arrived at his characters’ names, Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, by clicking Select All.

Tao Lin’s visionary getaway novel Leave Society (Vintage Contemporaries, 2021), is a freak-quel to his Taipei (2013). “All aboard for fun time,” as Iggy Pop once said. In a candid, tell-all take, we fire up Leave Society’s mind-bending light-speed flight though time from Dominator to Partner culture.

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Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle: First, I’ll excerpt your new fringe novel, Leave Society. “Li had suspected since middle school that he was constantly being poisoned and/or that he was cursed. Tracing his feelings back to things and culture, to molecules and ideas, the past two years, he’d sometimes felt a surreal wonder, realizing that both and more seemed to be true — he was radioactive, malnourished, dysbiotic, degenerate, brainwashed, brain damaged.” 

Tao, are you brain damaged?

Tao Lin: I think so, yeah. It seems accurate to me to view almost everyone alive right now as brain damaged when compared to our ancestors from decades and centuries and millennia ago. People now are dealing with so many more toxins — physical and mental, in food and air and culture — and nutritional deficiencies and “evolutionary mismatches,” like staring at screens and being so sedentary, lacking sunlight and soil microbes, that everyone reading this is pretty severely brain damaged, in Li’s view, and also in my view. 

GC-H: Both you and your hero Li were addicted to amphetamines and benzodiazepines in the years before your novel starts. How much brain damage did that do?

TL: Some. I’m not sure how much. Seems hard to estimate. People can read about the first half of that part of Li’s life in Taipei.

GC-H: Paul is the protagonist in Taipei. So, Paul/Li, and you, take what we call the City Cure. Who are “we,” I hear you ask. We are addicts. That means, we quit shooting heroin, then start smoking crack. We kick oxy by taking benzos. Sleight of hand. Then you make it even easier.  At some point you call only non-psychedelic drugs “drugs.” You stop taking “drugs.”  Which leaves you free to gorge on psilocybin.

TL: Yes, at some point I started differentiating between “drugs” and “psychedelics,” which also are drugs. I feel like there’s a way out of switching heroin with crack, by switching from non-psychedelics to natural or semi-natural psychedelics, like psilocybin and LSD. These are less toxic and have better pro/con profiles than pharmaceutical drugs. More people get addicted to benzos than psilocybin. On benzos, you might feel okay for an hour or two, then feel worse for the rest of your life, but on psilocybin you’ll feel very different for a day, then possibly slightly better for the rest of your life.

GC-H: What is Existentialism?

TL: Existentialism, as I understand it, is the belief that nature is mute, that nature — the universe, everything — doesn’t offer any meaning, and so we, as humans, must make our own meaning. I think I used to subscribe to existentialism. Now I think nature is not mute, that it is filled with meaning, but rather, as Terence McKenna has said, it is humans who are deaf.

G C-H: Thirty years ago we rolled out of our hammocks and picked psilocybin mushrooms fresh from the morning dew. Usumacinta River, impenetrable jungle, deep cover Yucatán. One hundred miles by jeep, then canoe. Indians with rifles and outboard motors. Money meant nothing. Give ’em good knives. Toys for their kids. Even the adults had never seen paper airplanes. 

They knew we didn’t want anything from them. That’s the crucial difference. Hippies, then yuppies came down chasing fairy tales and ruined the lives of brujas just looking to be left in peace. Thick visuals. Patterns? Soak ’em in honey, gives you streaming power rituals six hours long. Fucking hieroglyphics. You can’t get there from here. That whole area is threatened by hydroelectric dams. It should be closed and protected, pronto.

TL: Psilocybin empowered me to change my life, and I haven’t used a dose as large as I had when it especially did that, in an experience from 2013 that I wrote about in Trip, since.

The same with other larger doses of psychedelics, like smoking DMT. I don’t feel addicted to psilocybin or DMT. I’ve gotten addicted to LSD, but to small-to-medium doses of it. I’m addicted to caffeine, like many people. I’m addicted to cannabis, but it has many benefits, especially over, like, Xanax. Some people say cannabis makes you lazy, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve been productive on it, publishing two books since I started using it daily in 2014.

Now I view addiction in a more general way. I think addiction is a part of life. We get addicted to things in ways that each have pros and cons. We’re all addicted to sleep, which seems like a good addiction. 

GC-H: I’m not prepared to call sleep an addiction. Carpe noctem — seize the night. In Taipei, your hero’s brother suggests Paul has too much self control to become addicted to drugs.  

TL: Yes. I remember that. He tells it to their mom. It seemed nice to say, to try to relieve their mom’s worry. To me, now, Paul was addicted to pharmaceutical and other drugs, but while addicted he didn’t want to view himself as addicted, in part because he wanted to stress his own willpower, which he used in other ways.

Paul plans the exact drug regimen he’s going to use for each event on a long book tour. Counting, measuring, and timing the dose is one sign that he already is an addict. Leave Society acts like a sequel to Taipei, published eight years later. But in Leave Society, it’s Li who keeps counting.  

He keeps track of what drugs he uses. He uses different drugs than Paul. Paul used Adderall and Xanax the most. Li uses cannabis and LSD the most. They both use caffeine. 

Tao Lin (photo by Yuka Igarashi)

GC-H: An obsessive-compulsive furiously churns to keep everything the same. One critic christened you a hypochondriac. Like Parsifal, you must be cured by the sword that cut you. What are the benefits of sleep?

TL: My favorite is that sleep improves your mood. I read about this in The Twenty-Four Hour Mind by Rosalind Cartwright, which I reference in my book. Cartwright started to research sleep and dreams in the ’60s. Her book, published in 2010, covers her whole career. She opened her first “sleep lab” in 1963. In the ’90s, she did a study where she had people sleep in a lab, and she woke them throughout the night whenever they were in REM to ask them what they were dreaming. She found that people’s dreams got increasingly positive throughout the night, as if the mind edits frustrating and troubling stories into more hopeful, positive, back-storied stories each night, over three to five periods of REM sleep, which is when dreams occur. Another benefit of sleep is that your brain disposes of waste during sleep. People who don’t get much sleep have the largest risk of dementia.

GC-H: I’ve been in every hospital in NYC. Violent Isolation at Paine Whitney Psychiatric. One cold-water Remand from Rikers, on Wards Island, where we sold Xmas trees for food. We shared a rec room with the criminally insane. The reasons I got high, and the way we bought drugs back then, were irreconcilably different from what I see ambient now. We wanted to get fucked up. Defaced. That’s all. High as kites. Fried. I didn’t have any “ideas” about it. I was just a junkie. Dime bags, those thumb-size glassine envelopes initially used by stamp collectors, really kept that mom and pop cottage industry alive. […] Dealers yelling on the corner in broad daylight, East Village, Alphabet City, pushing Haring’s emblematic glowing baby, Golden Child [heroin].

Today, dealers sound like healers. Lots of painfully obvious plain drug addicts present as practitioners of some cult cure, mystics with the message on a mission, tracking back to lost ways of knowledge. Atlantis, ayahuasca. Jim Jones’s poison Kool Aid. We’d be like, “Fuck man, where can I get more?”

TL: I haven’t had that feeling — wanting to just get fucked up. I always wanted to do something productive, or at least fun in a non-destructive manner, on drugs, like just going to a party and being extroverted, or drawing with a partner, or working on writing. I also liked paying attention to how each drug changed my consciousness and feelings and mood and experience of reality, and writing about it. It’s been a fun challenge to write about what it feels like to be on whatever drug, especially with psychedelics, whose effects seem more complex and harder to describe than the effects of most pharmaceutical drugs.

GC-H: Currently users sanitize, neuter, neutralize, distance themselves from excessive experiences with six-syllable Latin pharmaceutical terms, let’s say, benzodiazepine. “Raising the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain.” But we were after something wicked. We called it what it was — speed, or ecstasy. […]  Let’s talk about Trip. It lists as non-fiction. If Leave Society is auto-fiction, I remember “creative non-fiction” . . . Paleolithic Playboy. She’s Still a Pin Up After 35,000 Years. Two articles you cite in Trip on “eldritch” goddess figurines. Hip me to Terence McKenna.

TL: He loved psychedelics, especially psilocybin and DMT. He seemed to relate everything to psychedelics. He encouraged people to empower themselves by creating instead of consuming culture. He promoted the reading of books a lot. He encouraged people to try to learn about reality through independent research. He said, “You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.” He encouraged people to explore edges — the oldest books, the strangest theories, the weirdest art and drugs, the oldest cities

GC-H: Leave Society posits a mythical past. H. P. Lovecraft. Cthullu. Çatalhöyük. I have friends in the Earth Mother cults that go at Beltane to the English wilds for nude fire dance witchcraft every year. Sexy! Wicked fun! Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

TL: Çatalhöyük. People have considered it the oldest city. It existed from around 9,100 to 7,500 years ago in modern-day Turkey. People there built their houses out of bricks, and they built their houses very close together, and when houses got too old the walls were torn down and a new house was built in the same place. Over centuries, this made the place into a giant mound — the area of around seven Manhattan blocks — where people lived very close together and had to go over each other’s roofs to get home. People have estimated that around 8,000 people lived there. It didn’t begin to be excavated until 1961. James Mellaart, the excavator, found that there was gender equality there, that there were no classes or governmental buildings, and that people there worshipped a goddess. Over its whole history, there were no signs of wars, and they also didn’t have defense fortifications.

GC-H: Virginia Woolf named one of her books, Flush, a dog-ography, after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. Can we say that one of the major players in Leave Society is Du Du, Li’s family dog? Did people at Çatalhöyük have pet dogs?

TL: Yeah. The dogs probably climbed in and out of houses via ladders. And they raised sheep and cattle and hunted various animals and grew many species of plants. 

GC-H: Will you ever write a whole book about a non-human animal?

TL: Maybe. My girlfriend and I got three kittens earlier this year. They’re named Nini, Leo, and Lali. Two boys and a girl. I’ve been writing about all three cats.

GC-H: Your friend Giancarlo DiTrapano died earlier this year, and you composed a moving collection of remembrances by his closest. Clearly, he O.D.’d. How have you been dealing with his passing?

TL: I’ve missed Gian. It was good to put together that memorial. 

GC-H: Rachel Rabbit White hosted a notorious urban pagan mind-bending send off for Gian at KGB Bar. Did you go?

TL: No. I was in Hawaii. I live in Hawaii now, on the Big Island.

GC-H: I thought of Rachel’s party because you project, or have inherited an image at times, like a dedicated individual thoroughly documenting ongoing scientific research alone in your room, perhaps seeking comfort, hoping to resolve severe lifelong alienation, or win through to understanding. Where most people go out naturally enough to have fun, get smashed or laid, you said getting high and going to parties makes you feel human. Like you’re catching up from behind. 

TL: I like the image of me documenting an ongoing science project alone in my room. I feel like I did that when I lived in NYC, after I switched from pharmaceutical drugs to smoking and/or eating cannabis every day, and while writing Trip. I was using all my drugs, my stoned states, to read and write and draw. I didn’t want to go to social events or parties. Now, I also don’t go to social events or parties, except with my girlfriend and our cats. I would go to some social events or parties with my girlfriend, but there haven’t been any around here [in Hawaii].

Leave Society by Tao Lin (2021) is published by Vintage Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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