We Can’t Leave Society. We Can Only Change It.
Capitalism is all-encompassing — we can’t simply opt out and cultivate our personal purity. Like so many others, the protagonist of Tao Lin’s latest novel wants to leave society, but the point is to change it.
In 1944, in exile from Nazi Germany, Theodor Adorno began writing Minima Moralia. Playing on the title of an ethical treatise attributed to Aristotle, Adorno’s book takes up the fundamental question of modern ethics: How do we live meaningfully in a world built on exploitation and barbarity? A pessimist, Adorno refuses to offer easy comforts — or any comforts at all. Everything from high culture to the way that people close doors is implicated and degraded by capitalist modernity. “Wrong life,” Adorno concludes, “cannot be lived rightly.”
Adorno wrote Minima Moralia in Los Angeles, and it’s hard not to see some of the book’s bleakness as a reaction to the rabid optimism of his adopted homeland. The idea that life can’t be lived rightly is foreign to us; Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans have a “lively faith in the perfectibility of man . . . they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement.” Even Americans who have become disillusioned with the national project tend to imagine a way for themselves to live meaningfully outside it: our most enduring literary fantasies — Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, Huck Finn on the river, Jack Kerouac on the road — are of escape.
We can see a contemporary version of this fantasy in Leave Society, the new novel by Tao Lin. Leave Society tracks four years in the life of Li, a thirtysomething writer who shuttles between New York and Taipei, takes drugs, and looks at the internet. This will sound familiar to anyone who’s read Lin’s other novels, which work in the same autofictional mode. Yet Leave Society marks a significant break from his past work.
Previously, Lin treated his fictional selves with affectless irony; 2013’s Taipei, for instance, depicts its protagonist’s drug-addled self-estrangement by heavy use of quotation marks: “Paul had communicated regularly, the past month, only with Charles, email or Gmail chat, mostly about what food they had eaten, or were thinking about eating, to ‘console’ themselves”; “he read all he could find by Alethia on the internet, becoming more ‘obsessed,’ he felt, after each article.”
Leave Society takes a different approach. Lin announces the change in one of the opening chapters by having his writer-protagonist reflect on his past work: “He didn’t want to specialize in embodying and languaging confused alienation anymore, as he had for a decade, writing existential autofiction.” The point is clear: no more quotation marks.
At the beginning of Leave Society, Li is recovering from an “increasingly life-threatening” addiction to stimulants and tranquilizers. But drugs, he realizes, are only a piece of a larger problem — a symptom of what the novel calls “dominator society,” a form of culture built on the subjugation of nature and other humans. Li decides that, to truly heal himself, he must escape dominator society. “[H]e’d begun,” Lin writes, “to view himself as recovering not just from pharmaceutical drugs but from nearly everything.”
How does one leave society? Li spends much of his time researching things online, wandering into increasingly esoteric corners of the internet in an attempt to understand dominator society and its effects. The novel describes his research in detail: we are treated to sometimes-lengthy reports on the origins of religion, the nature of language, plasma cosmology, and natural cures for tooth decay, among other topics. (Lin’s website even includes a list of references.) Li takes particular interest in Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement that embodied, he believes, an alternative form of culture based on partnership before it was destroyed and erased from history by dominator society.
While these ideas seem crankish — “he realized language was his metaphysical microbiome” — the novel wants us to take them seriously. Lin covered much of the same territory in his 2018 nonfiction book Trip, a celebration of New Age guru Terence McKenna, and he has defended the sincerity of the Leave Society’s ideas in interviews. In effect, Leave Society trades irony for ideas: by understanding domination, Lin suggests, one can begin to escape it.
The novel also ties the notion of leaving society to self-improvement. Li believes that “people who are concerned about evil and injustice in the world should begin the campaign against those things at their nearest source — themselves.” Some of Li’s campaign involves his personal relationships (being more patient with his parents and brother), but most of it focuses on health. Seeking to rid himself of industrial society’s “toxins,” he becomes obsessed with wellness, replacing starches with fermented vegetables, weaning himself off caffeine, and hectoring his parents to trade their prescription drugs for natural remedies. Eventually, he falls in love with a woman named Kay, who is amenable to his theories; their relationship models a form of partnership society that, Li thinks, could replace dominance. (Their first kiss is intercut with descriptions of the utopian society at Çatalhöyük.) At the end of the novel, they vacation together in Hawaii and plan to start an Airbnb there as a “controllable and satisfying” way to live out their ideals.
It is a testament to Lin’s skills as a novelist that all of this comes off as only mildly annoying. Leave Society presents Li’s breakthroughs as genuine insights, but it anchors its didacticism in well-drawn characters who are more than simply mouthpieces for the novel’s ideas. Li’s parents are particularly vivid: after spending much of their lives in the United States, they have returned to Taiwan in their old age, and the novel lovingly renders the patterns and cramped intimacy of their life in Taipei, much of which revolves around caring for their poodle, Dudu. Their relationship to their son is surprisingly moving. Li’s parents sometimes refer to him by the dog’s name, which Li comes to realize is a convoluted way of expressing their love: “They seemed,” Lin writes, “to have a category, represented by Dudu, for ‘beloved other.’” Li, too, comes to love his parents more deeply, even though he suspects that, in spite of his badgering, they may still be taking their prescriptions.
In this sense, Leave Society succeeds as a family novel. But it also wants to be a novel of ideas, which is where it falters. Lin spends large chunks of the book attempting to explain the problems of society, but his critique overlooks the real structures of domination. One moment near the conclusion of the novel encapsulates the limit of Lin’s intellectual project. As his protagonist works on his own autofictional book, Lin lays out the purpose of writing: “Novels,” he says, “crystallized dreams into prose . . . connecting disparate elements from history and memory into holistic stories with natural resonance.” Fiction, in other words, is supposed to help recover a “natural” alternative to dominator society. But when Lin describes that alternative, he reaches for a surprising metaphor: “nested fluctuations of gradual, fractal change — rising, falling; rising, falling, like in a stock market for life.” This slippage between nature and the market is telling. Leave Society is blind to economic structures, preferring a vague New-Agey critique of “domination” that elides concrete forms of economic exploitation. There’s a difference, in other words, between criticizing “dominator society” and criticizing capitalism.
As a result of its shallow critique, the novel misses the ways that Li remains ensnared in society. Throughout the novel, Li is financially supported by his parents, who “earned all their money through stocks and real estate.” His spiritual journey, in other words, is underwritten by someone else’s exploitation. In this sense, Li resembles the intellectual protagonists of classic nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction — Levin in Anna Karenina, or the Schlegel sisters in Howards End, who worry about the “great outer life” that guarantees their comfortable, cultured existence. But while Leo Tolstoy and E. M. Forster try to resolve the contradiction of the rentier class, the problem never occurs to Lin: the source of his and his parents’ money doesn’t register as domination. Near the end of the novel, Li and Kay encounter some homeless people outside a store:
They bought papaya and kratom and rode a cab to Chinatown, where they sipped kratom water while browsing a grocery store. Outside, people lay on dark sidewalks next to their belongings.
Busing back to the apartment, Li showed Kay photos on his phone, which he’d somehow felt blocked from doing in their relationship until then. They looked at photos from Taiwan and LA, where Kay had been the past week, attending one of her authors’ events and visiting a friend.
This is an odd moment — an intrusion of the larger world into this cloistered book — and if it appeared in an earlier Lin novel, I would be tempted to read the presence of the homeless people as an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ actions, a deflation of their middle-class narcissism. But Leave Society has proclaimed its hostility to this sort of irony and repeatedly insists that Li is overcoming narcissism.
From here, the novel rolls on toward its conclusion, in which Li and Kay consecrate their love amid citrus orchards and colorful Hawaiian butterflies. For all its interest in asking questions, Leave Society seems unwilling to connect the misery around Li to the domination that produces it. The homeless people remain a stray detail: there’s no attempt to reconcile the “great outer life,” or even a recognition that it sustains Li’s lifestyle.
Likewise, the novel’s inattention to economic structures leaves it unable to see how much its fantasy of escape resembles the status quo. While acknowledging that leaving society happens “in parts . . . carefully and gradually,” the novel concludes on the optimistic image of Li taking a leaf “from a small plant that looked different than others,” a sign that he has reconnected to the natural world. But what has really changed? The novel frames Li’s growth through his consumer choices: papaya, not rice; kratom, not amphetamines; YouTube videos, not mainstream media.
He becomes a more discriminating consumer, but a discriminating consumer is still a consumer; the underlying economic imperative — consumption — remains unchanged. And, of course, Li hopes to support his new life by running an Airbnb: leaving society, it seems, doesn’t mean you have to stop collecting rent. In the end, Lin’s alternative looks nearly indistinguishable from the society it wants to leave — different products, same premises. The landlord who shops at Whole Foods may feel superior to the landlord who eats at McDonald’s, but at the end of the day, they’re both landlords.
This is not to say that more class consciousness would lead Lin to a genuine escape. The problem is the idea of escape itself. This is Adorno’s insight: “There is no way out of entanglement.” Capitalism is all-encompassing; we can’t simply opt out and cultivate our personal purity. Lin wants to leave society; the point is to change it.