Tao Lin’s Leave Society demonstrates the inward turn of fiction in 2021. Lin’s fourth novel (and first for eight years) addresses health – physical, mental, the protagonist’s, his parents’ – in a historical moment where we must urgently rethink how we prioritise it, and in a cultural moment where our music, films, and books are motivated by a responsibility to talk about it with the volume turned up. Set from 2014-2018 and between Manhattan and Taipei, Leave Society does this via the framework of ‘autofiction’, the specific lens through which contemporary fiction can most immediately and forthrightly talk about health.
The lead character, Li, is a writer who has been labouring for the past four years on his fourth novel, a transparently autofictional premise that is never reducible to convenient interpretative parallels. Lin’s engagement with these stylistics is more ambitious than it has ever been, accumulating the experiments of his first three novels and expanding the collapsed generic boundaries of his poetry collections and nonfiction titles.
Leave Society is also disarmingly moving, pleading both for a specific, personal reconnection with family and a more universal renewal of social community. Simultaneously, this is Lin’s funniest piece of work to date, from Li’s invented jargon (see ‘Ng’, which is explained as ‘a grunted word meaning ‘yes,’ ‘right,’ ‘okay,’ or ‘I see’’ in the novel’s opening breath) to his parents’ naming confusions when addressing their partner, son, or dog (‘DuDu’, or ‘Du’ for short).
As Li suggests in the early stages of the novel, to leave society is to adopt a position on its periphery, fulfilling the perennial expectation of writer-as-outsider. Here, as Li puts it, we are most able to analyse and correct our own physical and mental health:
Maybe more people needed to go to the edges of society and observe and think from there, looking out and in, for humans to survive long enough to reach the end of history.
This positioning offers a platform to observe and write but also to read, which after all is the start and end of the writing process. Li devours academic papers and internet articles, persistently advising his parents to do the same while staying with them in Taipei. As such, Leave Society resonates as a novel about health but also about reading about health.
Its opening stages highlight this, as Li claims that he
had begun to pay less attention to fiction, newspapers, and magazines, and more attention to scientific journals, independent researchers, non-profit organizations, and nonfiction books.
The irony is that Li’s resistance to fiction comes within our embrace of Lin’s own fiction, which we recognise as a useful example of structuring a narrative around the subject of health. Progressively, fiction writing and the duty of the novelist merge with this possibility of community, but health is the key to achieving it, which becomes the thread running through Lin’s novel and the consistent destination of the ‘grim chaos.’
As the months and years pass, Li writes down his conversations and experiences immediately after they happen as material for his book; in so doing, he picks up on and more fully understands the details that will improve his physical and mental wellbeing. Lin’s novel exemplifies how a mode of self-reflexivity and productive engagement with the possibilities of autofiction can offer the chance to improve health. A prime example is the moment when Li notes how his mother ‘was the only family member until Li was in college who’d promoted health – without it and family, there was nothing, she’d often said.’ Li recycles thoughts and repeats what his loved ones tell him because it allows him to access the true meaning of the words and benefit from the lessons that can be drawn from them.
This is the comedown after both Lin and Li’s recursive loops of self-referentiality. As Li identifies,
humans seemed to be deep into a brief, failable transition called history – a fifteen-millennia release from matter into the imagination, a place that was to the universe as life was to a book: larger, realer, more complicated.
Ultimately, ‘life’ is what we are left with when we reach the end of Leave Society. In an early meeting with a surgeon, Li is asked if he ‘knows about everything, then?’ because he writes novels. Li responds that ‘I write novels so I know nothing’, but the claim is misleading. Lin’s character learns a lot about himself and the world over the course of Leave Society, which is always slightly ahead of Li’s own in-progress fourth novel, because it effectively is it.
In this way, Leave Society subtly transgresses its own status as autofiction. It wades through the same struggle for authenticity as a book like Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, strives for the same cathartic sincerity as, say, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but arrives somewhere very different. Li confesses to not wanting ‘to specialize in embodying languaging confused alienation anymore, as he had for a decade, writing existential autofiction’, and for much of the novel Lin only does so as a process of learning, to reach the meaning the grim chaos is leading him to.
Li’s fiction serves to inform his reality – as he explains to his mother, his novel ‘is a lot about trying to be stable.’ He finally understands the purpose of his book towards the end of Lin’s.
Li’s ‘main goal for four years’ comes as an epiphany at the end of the fourth – the realisation that the goal is ‘recovery’, insofar as getting a handle on his addiction to recreational drug use but also in terms of ‘getting less depressed.’ Li meets Kay and falls in love, evidence of both how far his health has come and how it will be maintained from here on out. He and the novel Lin has placed him in have turned inward for so long that there is no choice but to now turn outward, to notice others, to connect with them. Both Lin and Li’s self-consciousness were a means to an end, ultimately only offering a launching pad to engage beyond self.
Image: Jr Korpa