Why Withdraw?

After Axel’s Castle

Image via Library of Congress.

Tao Lin. Leave Society. Vintage, 2021.

In Axel’s Castle, his searching 1931 study of the high modernists, Edmund Wilson fretted that writers of the future might continue to become either baroque hermits or violently, self-deceivingly antisocial. Poised between the curious exemplars of Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s suicidal Romantic antihero Axel and the menacing boy wonder Rimbaud, they would become pitiable misfits on either end: arcane dreamers of private languages in towers, or else gun-running misanthropes penning lyrics to damn the race while glorifying hallucinatory inner life. Convinced of the primacy of the individual imagination, and lacking the will or inclination to forge a bona fide life in contemporary society (at its worst, an uncomprehending machine of trade, journalism, and middle-class assimilationism), they would withdraw or revolt.

Either path would condemn the hypothetical future writer, Wilson admonished, to a certain deformity—the sickly eccentricity of the effete dreamer or the histrionic ruthlessness of the enfant terrible. In either case, a lifestyle cop-out would yield stylistic vices (pick your poison: the baroque, the arcane, the anemic, the pernicious tirade). Besides which, Wilson suspected, these games had been fully played out. After the languor of Proust’s bedridden arabesques and the piquant dream-language of Yeats and Joyce, how much further, and in what other direction, could the claims of inspired self-absorption be pressed? Wilson left his reader with the sense that, in an age of mystifying mass culture and democracy, the Republic of Letters might degenerate into a menagerie of monsters, performing old poses of luxurious sensibility and vengeful misanthropy. If any willing readers—undiverted by news and new media—were still left to pay the cover, they would be treated to scenes of pure decadence, farces of introspection and gravitas.

Wilson’s speculative diagnoses at least presumed quirks of extravagance and volatility: his hermits are interested in the limits of language; his rebels only have a mind for brazen shenanigans and mores (powerful drugs, lusts, and screeds). His writers want to discover fathomless inner depths and intricate idioms of the self, or to raise the temperature and lose their minds. So Wilson’s notes of admonition are intertwined with admiration. He sees great achievement where he also sees a slide towards affected eccentricity. Wilson hoped for more powerful experiments in vernacular, headier plotting, more communicable epiphanies, beauty that did not so defiantly elude the contemporary in cheap nostalgia or vain aestheticism—and so he found cause to lament a heritage of tactical avoidances. Still, those postures of avoidance had made possible monumental novels and searing poems, avant-garde ripostes to stale cultural regimes, the invented languages, whether shimmering or evasive, of selves apart. Artistic withdrawal, Wilson might have assumed even as he decried its logical endpoint, at least connoted preoccupation with ambitious raids on language and form. Otherwise, why withdraw? Or at least, why withdraw and write it up?

I thought of Wilson’s worried prognostications while reading Tao Lin’s recent novel, Leave Society, whose flatlining anti-style and complacent fidgeting seem to erode that title of its cri de coeur (the protagonist’s final exilic dream is decamping to Hawaii for better air and thriving as an Airbnb rentier—Rimbaud at Club Med). Leave Society is the meandering third-person record of a writer who kills time fussing over toxins, lounging or self-medicating in solitude, bantering with his parents, and reading up on the origins of human conflict. Lin gives us the autofictional boom at its most dressed-down—an affectless glide among mundanities that carefully avoids anything that could smack of novelistic or semantic indulgence (save, perhaps, the rare departure into AI-speak—here is the protagonist at a waterfall: “When he stopped refreshing disempowering irrationalia, he seemed to automatically recall positive, affecting memories based on his present sensory input.”). With its calm transcription and go-nowhere vignettes, the book sometimes resembles a competent white noise machine. All dialogue becomes endearing patter and every day’s chains of thought, whether hatched at the dentist office or Disney World, are fit for the diary-novel. The low-stakes writer type gets through unscathed by any great dramas. A hundred pages pass here with the humdrum lightness of clouds.

In Leave Society, nothing can quite shake Lin from this mono-phonic trance. Whether his stand-in, Li, is trying cayenne peppers for the first time or reacting to a family health scare, brooding about civilizational forms or the ineffable “mystery” of sensory experience, Lin contrives a perfectly inert language. A kind of life-writing on autopilot, its paradoxical effect is to keep us on the outside of things: “They got off the train. It was a rare cloudless day. Li could almost walk at a normal speed. He’d run out of cannabis. . . . He started to feel depressed.” Perhaps an infantile aesthetics is the goal, the writer’s last-ditch hope for transcending the métier of “languaging confused alienation,” as Li teasingly interprets his earlier books. The haul is building-block imagism (“Li and his parents walked for two hours to the Golden Gate Bridge, where they saw ducks with red faces.”) and straight reportage of passing moods, passable moments (“Standing under the tree, Li felt emotional, seeing his mom zoom in and out of her face on photos on her phone.”). Even drug-addled somersaults out of the frame of the normal (“he left space and maybe time for five minutes by inhaling vaporized DMT in 4K. . . . He posted an account of the experience on his website.”), or insinuations of the Ideal (“Li began to view life as literature. Life was an extremely long novel, and novels were like dreams . . .”), register as staid and generic, placebo text. There is no frisson, or white heat. A courtship scene keeps just as anesthetized, Lin proceeding as steadily as his double-checking lover: “Li accidentally grazed Kay’s left hand with his right hand, saw her looking at their hands, and held her hand. ‘How do you feel about this?’ he said. ‘Good,’ said Kay. . . . He asked her what she felt about the kiss. ‘I liked it,’ said Kay.”

Lin’s language experiment, with its mission of transporting text and self-possession past confusion and alienation, can feel wistfully arch in its resolve to simplify life, to find a constant mellowness. Leave Society seems written by an innocent who has only just begun to string words together. The author’s mind is not cluttered by unnecessary complexities. Words are direct, untroubled. Banality blends, so easily, into a mood of naïve wonder, which shades back into banality again. Perhaps we find ourselves miraculously restored to the dawn of things—of original naming, noticing. And yet Lin’s dead-to-deadpan spectrum can make you wonder if the chief effect isn’t to set up a dissociative protection racket, endeavoring to shield writer, protagonist, and reader from the undercurrents of pathos and anxiety running beneath Leave Society’s hyper-placid surface (what with its visions of writerly solipsism, family imbalances, toothaches and cancers, lodestar hypochondria—the novel’s vanishing-point of almost irreal individualism cannot be such a pleasant place to live). Sterilized language may cater to a wish to be invulnerable, as though you could circumvent the knottier stuff of life by setting it all down quickly, blandly, forgettably—as when Lin’s protagonist recalls a searing moment from his childhood (his father says to him: “Mom wants me to die. Should I kill myself? Do you want that?”), only to bury the memory in the ticker-tape of minute life-updates and anecdote, chitchat, and catatonia. Lin perhaps writes Li in this fashion so as to keep Li, and life, at bay. The language, aspiring to lucidity, operates just as much as a buffer. The book’s chronic side effect might be a pleasant tedium, which could be mistaken for a hallmark of verisimilitude. Why hunger for the Parnassian when you can peddle anodynes instead?

In lieu of a sharp plot, Lin’s smooth, flat sentences are gathered into a loose matrix of experiential coordinates, a pattern in search of a vacant significance. The writer shuttles between his midtown Manhattan apartment and family digs in Taipei, between New York bachelor melancholy and the family’s intimate repartee, with Li’s mother offering endearing apercus on American strangeness (our too-soft pillows and too-sharp jaws, our cretinous fixation on grading pain on a 1–10 scale). He takes drugs in an almost bureaucratic manner, teaches bleak Lorrie Moore stories in an MFA program, obsesses over the vagaries of his “microbiome” and not of language. Li accumulates notes for his next novel like some minor clerk of the spirit filing obscure reports, and ponders better techniques for managing his chronic pain and lung trouble.

One standout strand—Lin’s respite from Li, and ours—is a brief chapter on Li’s father’s stint in a low-security Florida prison for money laundering. The father, usually cast as a slightly philistine medical laser company CEO-foil to the feckless writer son, turns into a rival auto-fictionist: reading aloud to the family from his handwritten prison notes, a folklorist of his own season in hell (e.g., $100 for a blowjob from “Mr. Fat,” a dud escape plan involving $200K transferred in gold bars by his wife to a blustering inmate). You might wish we had Li Sr.’s wackier and weightier novel, filigreed with its rather denser social imaginary. This is about the only time in Lin’s novel that a wider-lensed vision of collective life surfaces—one boasting hints of improvised cunning, hard-edged philosophical quietism, and more vital escapist fantasies than anything the listless heir ever musters in his own adriftness. If the flat, medicalized register of Li’s narrative parallels his father’s commercial niche, it fails to match his father’s storytelling brio, or the breathless experience behind it. For all his pretensions, the writer in the family is briefly upstaged. We are given a fleeting glimpse of a chancier world with more spirited predicaments and voices.

As the pages collect, Li reads and wonders about alternatives to a civilization driven by strife and ego, enjoys a life spent increasingly in bed, and studies motes of light with near-mystical attention. Finally, he wanders into a pleasant and undemanding relationship with a magazine editor, allowing the novel to evolve from the family trio’s deadpan to the couple’s see-sawing. Love, if that’s what it is, is just as lukewarm and insouciant as all the rest. Li enjoys with her a New York life of Martha Argerich concerts, work grumbling, and top-shelf therapists. Maui shimmers in the distance.

This is rich-kid-slacker fiction that takes no pains to present itself as anything but, measured out in doses of LSD and cannabis, a dithering New York-Taiwan loop, resigned to a weave of daily documentation and bite-sized odes to withdrawal. Part of the oddness of Leave Society’s spirit is not only how tepid its idea of departure is, but how redundant: The writer who makes so much of stepping out of the social circle, patly denouncing its bodily harms—society is a mess of toxins, radioactivity, and shaky healthcare—barely has a toehold in it to begin with. (Lin’s protagonist doing handstands in his midtown apartment to force himself to happy faintness is a less campy, but equally kooky echo of Huysmans’s reclusive snob-prince spraying a rainbow of perfumes in the air of his mansion and dashing through the vapors to reach solitary aesthetic nirvana.) This renegade-in-retreat would merely extend the circumference of his disengagement instead of finding within it richer attachments, milieus, tongues, plot points, and aesthetic intrigues. Edmund Wilson might have included this paradox in his diagnosis of wayward literary archetypes and imaginative decline—the emaciated outsider who can think of no greater spoil than an even more tenuous outside. At the least, it creates a certain irony and contributes to the peculiar flatness of the book. The novel’s sloganish title can feel as earned and justified as, say, the soaring bit of Whitman deployed in a Levi’s commercial—jeans for all the camerados. As for the next book: more drugs, more doctor’s visits, more foggy handstands, more roving stenography, more life.

Axel’s Castle presumed an alliance between the avoidant personality of artists and the pursuit of ever-increasing degrees of literary sophistication, strangeness, and intensity. In some ways it now seems like a charitable taxonomy: Wilson prophesied that many artists, baffled and marginalized by mainstream culture, markets, and media, would continue to withdraw into compensatory hermeticism or uncompromising stylishness, widening the gulf between their own language and visions and the orders of commonplace life. In finding new ways to leave society, they would reach even more bizarre forms of refinement and complexity.

Lin’s novel is not alone among recent novels in flouting Wilson’s taxonomy by exhibiting a different set of appetites. The book’s ethos—shared by much of the buzziest fiction of the last few years—spins the avoidant position of writers not into baroqueness and sophistication, but into the crude, the style-less, the willfully banal, the stringently unliterary and the carefully unimaginative—the writing of matter-of-fact transcription, of simplified narrative, tart dialogue, thinly drawn persona and pared-down sentences. Neutralized language is here forced to serve intimacy, social criticism, and character. It’s merely one risk among others that such a cadre of writers might abstain from a richer engagement with contemporary social life, absconding from society via laser-patent patrimonies and other upper-crust bailouts, or else the academic enclave, and into an incessant game of lackluster autobiographical spoofing. Another risk is that in a compulsive pursuit of flattened idioms, style-less styles, and aggressive banalizations of the rendering of experience they will give us back art without art, will have stripped down language to where it cannot thrill, confound, evade, or entrance. The impulse of a new cohort of writers to leave formidable language-games, the difficulties of style, behind is perhaps more jarring than their sometime dabbling in thin fantasies of escape.

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