“Alt” novelist Tao Lin claims to have undergone quite the transformation in his first book length non-fiction effort, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation and Change.
The author of seven previous novels and poetry collections – six self published – found a home under the Vintage imprint for his last novel Taipei. Lin is somewhat famous as an auteur provocateur; from public readings that have dabbled in performance art, to selling $2,000 shares in his sixth novel Richard Yates, Lin has marketed himself (very well) as a disaffected millennial.
The “alt lit” moniker that has been applied variously to 20 and 30 something writers, into which Lin’s writing falls fairly neatly, has a pretty straightforward, if loose, rubric: the stuff of the genre feels inter-webby and often borrows something from the affected monotone of social media, chat applications and message boards; that is to say it’s both ultra-connected and “real” emotions are often hard to suss out (It seems worth mentioning that Lin’s Twitter account clocks about 30k followers while following just 177 others).
This sub genre of writing, which would see the artistic and the social collapsed into an inextricable slush pile, finds its apotheosis in Taipei. When Lin’s protagonist Paul (whom it would be hard not to see as Lin’s analogue) is at home in his small NYC studio, he is strung out on pharmaceuticals, married on what appears a lark, alienated and borderline hermetic he has assumed the modern position: alone, in bed, on his back and scrolling mindlessly on his iPhone held at arm’s length, aloft. Languid, Paul’s fingers slip and the phone, pointedly, smacks him in the face.
Reading this passage in Taipei, I stopped and couldn’t decide if I liked it or not, this Millennial existentialism. Your own enjoyment of Taipei is largely contingent upon how you feel about scenes like this; about interpreting this art as zeitgeist. Whether you think, or indeed, need Lin to be writing about anything.
So, when Trip landed in my mailbox, I was a bit unsure what to expect from a non-fiction effort. Lin’s fiction, in tone and content, is bereft of superficial “Meaning” and somewhat anti-plot. We can debate the merits of this approach in fiction, but the non-fiction form generally demands explicit content. On this, in many ways, Trip does deliver.
The focal point of the book is Lin’s interest in Terence McKenna’s life and lectures. McKenna, who passed in 2000 of cancer, was, intellectually, a product of the sixties and seventies. A world traveller, writer and hallucinogenic drug enthusiast, McKenna made his money first from the cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms grown from spores he collected in South America. Later, when the risks became too onerous, he made the switch to lecturing full-time. It is through these voluminous lectures that McKenna became well-known, in circles that care about such things, as one of his generation’s premier psychedelic Argonauts.
An intense intellectual presence, McKenna was a respected autodidact in the realm of hallucinogenic substances. He showed particular reverence towards DMT, psilocybin (mushrooms) and cannabis, with extensive forays into other mind-altering substances (ayahuasca, salvia, LSD etc.). You may be imagining a guru picking up the mantle of, say, Timothy Leary. This assessment is inaccurate. A quick perusal of the many McKenna lectures on YouTube will affirm this. With titles like, “I Understand Something I Can’t Say,” and “What Is This Insane Reality?” he stakes out a position that rejects the simplifying and solipsistic polemics of Leary’s, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” mantra. Instead, he focuses upon the revelatory mental abilities that these substances grant the user. Balanced upon the Godhead of, say, a bong hit of DMT or a small handful of psychotropic mushroom caps, we might be free to turn our existence over in our own hands, to examine reality and how we construct it and to understand the relationship between history and the future.
McKenna was no doubt an interesting figure. He cast himself as a rationalist. A citizen scientist and kaleidoscopic philosopher of the highest order, quite capable of speaking with critical depth about a variety of not insubstantial topics. Lin quotes him on page 17 of Trip, saying:
“The myth of our society is the existential myth that we are cast into matter, that we are lost in a universe that has no meaning for us, that we must make our own meaning. This is what Sartre, Kierkegaard, all those people are saying, that we must make our own meaning. It reaches its most absurd expression in Sartre’s statement that nature is mute”.
This is cogent and concise critical analysis, to be sure, but McKenna was equally capable of relating observations that we, less experienced heads (or perhaps simply less receptive to the road flares of the universe, or… something) might find a bit, um, dubious, to say the least. For example, McKenna held that after ingesting a “heroic dose” of mushrooms (five grams for a 160 lb. individual) one was capable of a sort of collective non-verbal communication. On page 82 Lin quotes McKenna as saying,
“The thought that is heard becomes more and more intense until, finally, its intensity is such that, with no transition, one is now beholding it in three-dimensional, visual space. One commands it. This is very typical of psilocybin.”
This excerpt is taken from a section of Trip titled, “Visual Language.” So, there’s that.
This juxtaposition of the lucid examination and the train that seems about to jump its tracks goes a long way in helping to understand some of Lin’s writerly predilections. In organization, Trip is laid out quite logically. Separated into ten chapters, it begins by outlining McKenna and explaining what sparked Lin’s interest in him. Lin discovered McKenna’s lectures on YouTube around the time Taipei was to be published in 2013. Lin’s interest in McKenna was partially driven by his interests regarding the interrogation of reality and, more germane, his recovery and cessation in the use of drugs, particularly pharmaceuticals.
Lin’s work can be characterized, quite fairly I think, as a lightly fictionalized version of his own growth and regression during specific periods. The period that 34-year-old Lin draws upon in Taipei was one that was shot through with the jerky rhythms of mood enhancers and depressant. Lin, a somewhat naturally hermetic guy, found himself further isolated from the world, loved ones and, perhaps, himself. McKenna offered an alternative to Lin when he needed; not the platitudinal niceties of the 12 step, cold turkey cessation or clinically assisted weaning, but something to etch new folds into the gray matter. And why not? Given the complex chemical workings of our physiology, when Dennis McKenna (Terence’s younger brother and a talented individual in his own right) says, “Life is a drug experience,” he is not plating some far-fetched analogy, but relating a fact of our existence. Given the number of naturally occurring drugs that are floating around in our system at any given time, why would we scoff at a bit of supplementation? Why not open our selves to the idea that substances might yield insight and personal growth? On page 43 Lin ends the section, saying,
“I’ve told you about McKenna’s worldview and life. Now I’ll focus on psychedelics, which McKenna advocated for shamanic exploration, ‘personal growth work,’ and as ‘a force that forces us to grow up and clean up.’ To do this, I will first share my history with drugs. Before I was interested in psychedelics, I was interested in drugs.”
What follows is a detailed chronology of Lin’s interest, beginning in his mid twenties, and increasingly compulsive use of substances. He posits his drug use as a natural out growth of his interest in constructed realities of online RPGs and, later punk music. Both provided an ethos of sorts, a lens that helped to simultaneously subvert and create a reality. Lin draws a rhetorical line between these cultural milieu and his interest in drugs, and later, in psychedelics, which he rigorously delineates in several ways. This includes by saying that “drugs stopped feeling amazing after the first few times—and never felt profound—but psychedelics consistently feel both amazing and profound.”
Throughout the next three chapters Lin breaks down his personal experiences with psilocybin, DMT and salvia. He vacillates in tone throughout these sections in highly McKenna-eque manner. Lin includes molecular diagrams of psychotropic substances, dwells on the paraphernalia and the process by which he used these substances. His insights are many and demonstrate an intellectual precision of the hallucinogenic experience that can be impressive. Yet, it seems that all too often, Lin leans on other people’s, by my estimation, more outlandish insights, without a clear response. The book is full of bullet-pointed summations of other thinkers, including McKenna and his ex-wife Kathleen Harrison. These are helpful in moving Lin’s thinking along, but do little to clarify where Lin has actually landed.
There is an odd strain that runs through some of the thought in the book, a sleight of hand that McKenna and, later in the book, Harrison engages in, where these substances are imbued with a sort of agency. As a metaphor, this type of thing might work, but it becomes hard not to take them literally when McKenna seemingly attributes direct quotes to the mushroom, or when Harrison calls cannabis her, “big sister,” and wants to communicate a, “…thank you, you’re here too, that reminds me the world is not on my shoulders.” These, by all accounts, are heavyweight intellects that effectively communicate a broad range of ideas, which deserve robust interrogation. Yet, the really wild stuff, the parts about aliens, deep time, telepathy and DMT elves are left standing without much in the way of satisfying feedback from Lin himself. I’m often left wondering how far down the rabbit hole he has actually gone or if his appreciation of the research, he clearly understands, just ends up being a toothless intellectual exercise.
After moving through a succinct and fairly conventional section of the book, in which Lin wonders “Why Are Psychedelics Illegal?” (The answer is a surprisingly pat explanation that psychedelics are “catalysts of intellectual dissent” and sew anti authoritarian impulses.) Lin talks about his cannabis use in the second to last section before arriving at the book’s outlier chapter.
In “Epilogue” Lin travels to Northern California to meet Kathleen Harrison, see the library she started with her ex-husband Terence McKenna and to participate in a plant drawing class led by Harrison. An abrupt switch is made from the first to the third person in this section and it reads as a novella, employing the flat surfaces that have made Lin so well-known. There are several points in the section when these surfaces gain some contours, when Lin might be trying to tell us something. He, with apparently herculean energies, hits us with passages like this one on page 227,
He lifted his body, removed a leaf from a tree, and returned to a supine position. The fractal leaf, backlit by the sunlight, reminded him of the fractal nature of recovery—that he’d feel better in the long-term but not always the short-term.
Here, we seem to get the most naked view of Lin’s emotional flesh. He allows us a peek into the mechanics of his intelligence and emotions and actually watch the gears turn. In this moment he gives the reader a small window into his spiritual recovery, made all the more impactful when surrounded by the hard edges of his reflecting pool prose. While I found Trip Illuminating for its exploration of certain spiritual and emotional dimensions, this book is compelling in large part because the cosmic sized ideas are being communicated through a man whose renown is largely built around being ineffable. I certainly enjoy when an author makes me work for it, but when I can’t readily separate dramatic obfuscation from a calculating lack of emotional open-ness, the result can be irritating and stultifying in equal parts. When Lin says, on page 77,
I suddenly felt it didn’t matter how I released information—emails, texts, tweets, even thoughts. My thoughts seemed public and findable in a higher dimension whose existence made life as relatively insignificant as the contents of a book.
I might tend to agree.
Dan B. Jones lives, works and observes in the city of Detroit and still calls it the “Cass Corridor” thank you very much.