This article originally appeared in i-D’s The Earthwise Issue, no. 353, Fall 2018.
Tao Lin has just returned to New York City from a tour promoting his new book, Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change. A book that recently snuck into the bestseller lists. This is the second time we have tried to do this interview. In very Tao Lin fashion, before the first interview, before he left for his book tour, I lost my phone and broke my laptop and we couldn’t connect. If you have read much, or any, of Tao’s work, you will know he is always losing his phone and breaking his laptop. Or instead throwing them away, deleting his Gmail and Twitter accounts. Vainly trying to unshackle himself from digital encumberments in a depressed existential tango between technology and real life.
Tao’s breakout novel, Taipei, ended with the main character, Paul, a vague parallel of Tao himself, deleting his digital profiles and throwing his MacBook away. Paul is a young writer who spends the novel lost in a plotless druggy fuzz. He ambles in a depressed daze around Manhattan and the titular capital of Taiwan, where his parents are from. Trip, Tao’s debut work of nonfiction, ends with Tao stoned, wandering around San Francisco, lost, having accidentally thrown his phone in a bin. He was there spending some time with Kathleen Harrison, the wife of psychedelic drug guru, ethnobotanist, lecturer and author Terence McKenna, a kind of Gen X analogue to Timothy Leary. The book is almost a hangover from Taipei, an exploration of Tao’s life after the novel. Trip is an exploration of mind-altering psychedelics and Tao’s recovery from addiction to pharmaceutical drugs.
Much of Tao’s writing is about drugs and autobiography and the way we connect to each other through modern technology. He reconfigures his life into his art and obliterates that divide completely. He turns his life into something that feels universal. Taipei was one of those books that seemed to capture, with specificity and truth, the feeling of a generation – or at least a certain section of it. A generation living in the gentrifying fringes of big cities, working on the fringes of big media. Creative, young, successful, poor but middle class. Dazed and depressed on pharmaceutical drugs. Disaffected and dislocated. Taipei was mainly set in New York, but it could have just as easily been London, Berlin, Paris, LA.
“After I finished Taipei I didn’t feel pressure, I felt liberated, like I’d accomplished something. I felt I could start something brand new, free of what other people wanted.”
Taipei launched Tao from cult, alt-lit figure into the mainstream, and with it he transcended the alt-lit scene that he helped create. Taipei marked its creative high water mark. It was a literary movement that emerged with the rise of the MacBook, the iPhone and our socially networked existences, and seemed to reflect that collapsing linguistic distinctions between IRL and URL life. Bret Easton Ellis heralded him as the best stylist of his generation and the book picked up masses of praise. It was compared to Sartre and Flaubert and Ginsberg. It was, according to the Guardian, “Trainspotting with better teeth.” But it could’ve also been The Sun Also Rises on Xanax. Or Waiting For Godot with a wifi connection.
But it wasn’t all critical acclaim. Taipei divided opinion and was hated as much as loved. It was impressionistically banal and beautiful and boring. It summed up Modern Life like no other book I had read and a lot of old critics hated it and didn’t understand it, failing to see in it a reflection of the way people live and experience things now.
Then Tao seemed to drop off the publishing map. Taipei came out in 2013, Trip this summer. In that five-year gap he wrote a few essays and released a book of his collected tweets. For a while he could not work at all. He dedicated time to getting over depression and a pharmaceutical drug addiction. Then he began, slowly, to write again. He worked concurrently on a new novel and Trip, all of this is a process charted in Trip itself, which as much as it is a book about the history of psychedelic drugs as it is a book about taking lots of psychedelic drugs. But it is also a book about a journey through recovery and learning.
“After I finished Taipei I wanted to retire from writing,” Tao begins, when we finally connect. He is back from his book tour. “For around a year after I just didn’t know what to write about anymore at all. I felt I had gone as deep as I could into writing about feeling depressed, writing about myself. The day I finished the final draft of Taipei was also the day I discovered Terence McKenna.” It was this initial encounter with the ideas of McKenna, via YouTube, that, for all the hyperbole of the phrase, changed Tao’s life. He began obsessively devouring McKenna’s talks and books and theories. Then he started talking, again obsessively, about McKenna to all his friends. Then he started writing about him.
There’s a bit of overlap between Taipei and Trip, although Trip is a work of nonfiction it is also about drugs and autobiography and feeling a little dislocated. But there was a bleakness at the heart of Taipei that’s absent in Trip, which is an almost hopeful book. It’s about getting better. Recovering from being dazed on pharmaceutical drugs and trying to feel a little less out-of-place. The success of Taipei, despite the length of time it took to write its follow-up, Trip, was freeing, rather than stressful. “After I finished Taipei I didn’t feel pressure, I actually felt liberated,” Tao explains. “I felt like I’d accomplished something with Taipei, so I didn’t feel like I had to meet people’s expectations anymore. I felt I could start something brand new, free of what other people wanted.”
Trip is mainly about the history, power and benefits of psychedelics. It takes in Tao’s history of cannabis, DMT, LSD, salvia and magic mushroom use. And the wider social histories of those drugs too. Trip is frank and open and poetic. And whereas Taipei was a very glamorous and easy sell – a novel for a depressed, nihilistic, fucked up generation – Trip is harder. Harder to sum up, too. It is a drug book but it is not a big dumb drug book of wild living and excess. It is not Fear and Loathing and it is not Naked Lunch. It is something much more interesting and subtle. It takes in drugs yes, and their history, but it’s also about our relationship to the environment, creativity, language, evolution, the history of the world and the histories of pre-Christian religions. It is about pesticides and vaccines and self-improvement. It’s a bit New Age-y, in the way that that label is often used pejoratively, even though it is dedicated, in large part, to Terence McKenna and Kathleen Harrison, who act as balancing forces within it, and who both disparaged that self-help New Age cultishness.
Really Trip is about finding some kind of peace, some new truth, new experience, a new way of living. Finding beauty again. “I wanted to avoid writing a drug book like Fear and Loathingbecause I felt like I already did it with Taipei,” Tao says. “I didn’t want to write another book like that. It would just push me even deeper into that bleak worldview, taking more pharmaceutical drugs. I wanted to write something where the focus was always on trying to feel less depressed. I wanted to write about the process of writing. I wanted to show how I learned all these things about psychedelics and how I wrote this book.”
It’s a little like therapy; taking drugs to write books about taking drugs to cure depression. “Writing Trip has been an extremely helpful tool in reducing my depression,” Tao agrees. “It has made me more interested in life because I spent every day for eleven months working on it and thinking about these ideas and reading about these ideas. I had the motivation of knowing that I had a publisher and a contract and that it would be published and read. Without all that I don’t think I would have learned all the stuff in this book, maybe for like five or ten years. It just has catalysed my learning process in the same way a psychedelic might, but over a year. After it’s published I’ll keep talking about it and then my future books will also reference it. It’s like a psychedelic I can keep returning to.” Over the course of our conversation we never actually talked about losing our phones and breaking our laptops. There’s too much else to talk about, too much to include here, and too much from the book we didn’t even get a chance to start on. He is working on his next novel, provisionally titled Leave Society, a companion almost to Trip, another exploration of recovery, another journey down a psychedelic path.