I just finished Tao Lin’s new book Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, and I have some things to say about it. I’m a Lin fan. He first came to my attention in 2013 when he mailed me his novel Taipei, which mentions a trippy scene in The End of Science.
Taipei is a lightly fictionalized memoir that details a young writer’s consumption of drugs, including uppers, downers, heroin, cannabis and a smattering of psychedelics, sometimes all in combination. Lin writes with a deadpan hyper-realism so acute that he makes other fiction and non-fiction seem phony.
Even when he’s funny, Lin is bleak, but there’s something exhilarating about the precision with which he describes the world, other people, the swirl of his thoughts and emotions. He’s like a stoned American version of Norwegian memoirist/novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle. Lin also reminds me of Jack Kerouac, who in On the Road and Dharma Bums desperately chases epiphanies in an effort to escape his tormented self.
By the time I finished Taipei, I was worried about the author, who seems to be in a state of terminal despair. Lin was apparently worried too. Trip recounts how he pulls himself out of his “zombie-like and depressed” funk by immersing himself in the writings and online talks of psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna.
McKenna is one of my favorite thinkers. I interviewed him in 1999, less than a year before a brain tumor killed him, and I devoted a chapter of Rational Mysticism to him. McKenna is an anti-philosophy philosopher, an anti-guru guru, a writer who harps on language’s limits. McKenna convinces Lin that life seethes with meanings, albeit ones hard or impossible to express.
Inspired by McKenna, Lin cuts back on the uppers and downers and takes more psychedelics, notably mushrooms, LSD, DMT and Salvia divinorum. He starts writing a book called Beyond Existentialism, which eventually turns into Trip. Explaining why he wrote the book Lin says:
To me, the world remains a terrible place, worthy of all the negative attributes I’ve called it in the past. But now I’m gratefully convinced it’s also awe-inspiring and excitingly bizarre and complicatedly magical, a place of easily accessible wonder and pervasive, explorable, feelable mystery. I want to explain why.
Released Last May, Lin’s book got eclipsed by Michael Pollan’s bestseller about psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. I like Pollan’s book, which I review here, but Pollan tries to tame psychedelics, to make them palatable for a mainstream audience. Lin does far more justice to the scary, ecstatic, unpredictable and subversive nature of psychedelics.
I like telling would-be science writers, This genre offers infinite possibilities, play with the form, experiment, don't just imitate the pros. If an aspirant asks for an example of experimental science writing, I’ll recommend Trip. The book veers from excruciatingly candid autobiography to biography (of McKenna) to investigative journalism (about the effects of pesticides on naturally occurring DMT and hence our spiritual well-being) to interview-based journalism to philosophical speculation to first-person accounts of the effects of DMT and Salvia.
You never forget you’re in Lin’s head. He is prone to paranoia, wondering if the woman supplying him with DMT is actually an informant. A question comes to mind. What’s the difference between a paranoid, drug-induced fantasy, in which we are the focus of conspiracies, and the world’s great religions, which insist, insanely, that this whole cosmos was conceived for our benefit?
The book closes with an extended stream-of-consciousness account of Lin’s encounter with McKenna’s ex-wife and son, in which Lin anxiously broods over how he can integrate this material into his book. Lin provokes us into wondering, Where are you going with this? What’s your point?
The point is undermining the narrative Lin has just given us, in which with McKenna’s help Lin starts figuring things out. The point is documenting the random, solipsistic strangeness of ordinary life, which defies conventional narratives. Even if you’re not tripping, life is a trip, it’s weird.
This was McKenna’s message, too. He told me in 1999: “My function is largely pedagogical, trying to teach people, first of all, that the world is a weird, weird place. And then, so what do you do about it? Do you become a Scientologist? Do you return to your Irish Catholic roots? What is the response to the discovery that the world really is totally weird?”
Psychedelics rub our faces in the big question: What is reality? When we see things as they truly are, what do we see? Throughout history, Buddha and other mainstream mystics have assured us that everything is one, everything is as it should be, everything is really, really good. All the apparent differences between things are illusory. Thou are that, blah blah blah. Ultimate reality, God, whatever you want to call it, is perfect, and you’re part of it, so chill.
Bullshit, McKenna and Lin say. They reject the comforting doctrine of oneness, the idea that ultimate reality is an ocean of transcendent bliss. What they glimpse in their visions is bizarre, inexplicable. This is what I discovered in my biggest trip, the one Lin mentions in Taipei. Even God doesn’t know what the hell is going on.
The path of weirdness is quite different from the path of oneness. If you feel oneness, you feel a blissful, loving bond with everything and everyone else. If you feel weirdness, you might be goggle-eyed with wonder, but you also feel apart, estranged, even from yourself.
Lin's work is even more subversive in its way than that of his teacher McKenna. Lin’s default state is alienation, the opposite of oneness. He sought to escape his alienation through psychedelics, but he just shifted to a more complicated alienation. Alienation is not an easy place to be. But if you’re not alienated, at least some of the time, you’re not paying attention.
Weirdness is a major theme of my new book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are, available for free online at mindbodyproblems.com. See also my recent conversation “Mind-Body Problems and Psychedelic Tales” with Russian writer/artist Nikita Petrov on meaningoflife.tv, in which I mention Lin’s new book.