A NONLINEAR PROCESS: ON CHANGE IN TAO LIN’s LEAVE SOCIETY by Alan Rossi

Tao Lin’s new novel, Leave Society, is a book that embodies what it means to mindfully evolve one’s consciousness while also acknowledging that one’s individuality is tied to a sea of consciousness, myriad beings all evolving toward some unknown destination, what the main character in the novel, Li, might term “the mystery” or possibly “the imagination.” Leave Society is challenging in that it doesn’t have the typical propulsion of a novel: drama isn’t the point, but internal and external, by way of other people, i.e., other consciousnesses, revolution of the mind and experience is. It is, in my opinion, less a novel about leaving society, and more a novel about changing society—one’s own personal society and the society around oneself—through seeing one’s mind states, one’s emotions, and cultivating the positive ones, and caring for, and then carefully (and sometimes clumsily) weeding out the negative ones. Society in this novel is a mental place as well as a physical one, and its main character, Li, attempts a return to the primordial mind that exists in each of us, but that is obscured by a mainstream society mired in ugly politics, mindless entertainment, sexism, oppression, and dangerous drugs. 

Leave Society might be a novel of ideas if it weren’t so autobiographically driven, which is another way of saying so character-driven, because it does contain fascinating ideas, playful ideas, whimsical ideas, and very serious ideas. One such idea with a hold on Li is that we live, according to Riane Eisler, in a dominator society based in sexism and racism, and that in the past, ancient societies lived by a generally egalitarian and peaceful “partnership” model; another relates to Li’s exploration of natural health remedies for everything from dentistry to gut biome; and yet another is that Li’s drug use is a compassionate, other-oriented use (so different from typical drug narratives). More than these ideas though, Leave Society embodies a lifelong process of opening and compassioning, which is—and this is a word I haven’t used to describe a novel in as long as I’ve read and thought about novels—completely radical. The hidden implication of the novel is that all beings exist already in a state outside society (and, implicitly, outside political ideologies). Li is simply waking up to this fact and trying to embody it.

Leave Society’s focus—ranging from the individual to the familial to the cosmic—is exciting because it doesn’t play by any rules of our current culture. It eschews easy formulations of attitudes towards everything from medicine to politics. It’s interesting to note that political things do occur in the novel—there’s war on the television, Li’s father has political party affiliations, as does his mother—but these things are observed neutrally, without commentary. Li cares about his parents equally, without regard to political affiliation—it seems weird to note this, but in a culture where families are easily and moronically split along political lines, it’s apt. The events that occur in Leave Society remain unpoliticized, which, in our current literary moment, is akin to not caring. But Leave Society is one of the most care-filled books I’ve read, and that care is, to use a phrase many writers will bristle at, apolitical. This is true not only for the novel as a whole, but for the main character, Li, as well. He doesn’t care where his ideas align on the political spectrum. His notion that we live in a dominator society, and the fact that he thinks we should return to other models provided for us from partnership societies, aligns well with the political left in the United States—sexism is bad after all. On the other hand, his questioning of modern Western medicine and science (everything from dentistry to physics) might seem to align with the political right. For the left, there is no grey area with something like the physical universe—you buy into relativity and quantum mechanics, even though they can’t be unified, or you don’t believe in science at all. But the novel refuses to politicize any of these topics. For writers who believe that “all writing is political,” Li’s character, by seeking novelty, complexity, as well as understanding, will seem incoherent at best and just wrong at worst. But Li is researching and investigating in order to aid his recovery from all society, in order to change himself. Li is not tied to any clear ideology, and for a reader who wishes to read beyond the easy delineation of contemporary culture, in which all things are politicized and then virtue-signaled, the novel is a welcome space of free-thinking that is sometimes playful, as when Li sees what he terms “microfireflies,” a strange property in the sky in New York, and sometimes serious, as when he’s attempting to help his mother’s thyroid problem with a more natural cure.  

It’s not the apolitical terrain of the book that is most interesting to me though. It’s Li’s rigorous and complex evolution into a more compassionate person, a person of sincerity, thoughtfulness, and humor, as well as confusion, malaise, and frustration. Li is constantly making progress, regressing, reestablishing how and what and who he wants to be in the world, and trying again. In this way, he’s unlike almost any protagonist I’ve encountered in literature. Rather than caving to ironic self-awareness and self-distance and staying there, rather than succumbing to negative emotions and becoming plagued by depression, anxiety, and a general sense of despair, Li works with his and others’ negativity with a mix of frustration and thoughtfulness. He constantly changes throughout the book. 

At the beginning of a section of the novel called “Year of Pain,” Li visits his parents in Taiwan. They watch a movie then the next day go to look for a piano. There’s a discussion of whether to buy or rent a piano, and when Li’s mother suggests buying, he says that both of his parents are “so greedy”. They argue a bit—“bicker” is the word the family uses—and then Li realizes “he was being like Alan [his three-year-old nephew]” in that, rather than tears, “he was crying dejected sentences.” Suddenly, outward bickering leads to internal examination, which Li expresses to his parents: “when the plan changed I felt not good.” On the train back home, he apologizes for calling his parents greedy and emails himself: “Parents seem taken aback by my outburst, and I also feel taken aback.” His demeanor softens, his ideas soften in that he’s able to let his ideas go—especially the thought that his parents are greedy—and then, on the train, he cultivates a YG (a breathing exercise which seems to allow him to expand his consciousness and leave concrete reality for a few moments), and when he returns, after being seemingly disembodied from his self, he finds himself wanting to hold his mother’s hand—a childlike, strange, and yet intimate gesture. 

What happens here is this: external conflict leads to internal examination, which leads to internal softening, a softening of ego, which then leads to external softening and feelings of, in this case, wishing to connect—this is typical of the novel. A shorter way of saying it: Negativity examined leads to positivity, which leads to intimacy. Li is not only rewiring his brain through nonfiction books and non-mainstream study (away from our current culture’s emphasis on individuality and separateness and difference as virtues), but also through an examination and then realignment of his own mind states toward intimacy and connection. This intimacy and connection is reminiscent of Zen Buddhism and Daoism, a softening of the ego into a more direct expression of spacious connection. But change is not linear, as the novel—and Li—suggests, and patterns emerge.

In the same section, from days four to seventeen of his trip, Li reports that he is “relatively calm.” He focuses on his parents’ health in helpful ways and deals with his own health issues privately and calmly, but then on day eighteen he gets a worrying nosebleed, a generalized pain returns on day nineteen, and while at a Bed and Breakfast, Li feels worried for his own health and discovers “noxious cosmetic” products and “statins” in his parents’ bathroom, both things Li has warned his parents about. Worry compounds. He gets angry: “researching statins for the fifth or sixth time in a year, Li slammed the computer on the wood floor.” Worry transforms into anger, and Li conducts his parents toward information about the drug and corporations, stressing that he was “showing them helpful, potentially brain-damage-reducing information.” Anger then transforms into controlling behavior, which softens over the course of the night. With his parents’ full attention, “the night began to feel productive and intimate.” It’s this intimacy that is one of the most surprising, exciting, and profound things about Leave Society

There’s a basic humor to everything Lin writes, but it’s never been so clear that Li (and Lin) care, and it is the close tracking of emotional states, of mind states, that reveals this care. In the space of a few pages and a day and a half, Li moves from relative calmness to feeling emotional as his mother investigates her face in photos (she’s had plastic surgery, which Li has struggled to not feel judgmental about), to worry over his own and his parents’ physical health, to anger, and then to a striking intimacy. Tracking these emotions section by section reveals both Li’s patterned, habituated ways of being, and his increasing awareness that there is a way to steer his mind away from negativity and aggression, toward connection and intimacy. 

There’s a way of explaining away Lin’s tracking of Li’s emotions. Don’t all novels do this on some level? And they do, but most novels don’t dedicate their prose to such pointed cataloging of the universals of human experience: calmness, frustration, anger, upset, connection, intimacy. These are basic universal emotions that Lin brings to the surface of his novel. While Li’s days in the particular might look radically unlike the reader’s own days, in the universal Li’s life is like anyone’s: abstract emotions defined, tracked, and patterned. Li lives from deep within himself, and that depth is communicated to the surface of the novel, operating in and as external reality. In other words, Lin lets us see this depth so clearly it becomes impossible not to be moved by a character so devotedly reckoning with their own emotions and thought patterns.

As Li recovers from mainstream society, his progression toward more positive states of mind continues, though not without complications and regressions. Recovery, it should be noted, is synonymous with change. Recovery is transformation. The term, cribbed from the language of addiction, is used to show that we live in a society mired in addiction: to television, the internet, fast food, drugs of all kinds, to everything. Robert Aitken has famously said: “The things of the world are not drugs in themselves. They become drugs by our use of them.” Li (and Lin) understand this, and while Li is recovering from actual drugs, he’s also recovering from an attitude of addiction. Not only was he addicted to drugs, he was addicted to negative ways of being, negative thought patterns. But recovery, change, is difficult. For instance, “bickering” reaches a climax in a section titled “Conflict,” in which Li’s dad proclaims that the three of them—Li, his mom, his dad—will be “bickering for a lifetime,” which is how a negative moment can feel: that it will never end. The family, triggered by Li’s dad not being ready for a walk, enters into a recursive and nearly nonsensical argument about who is to blame for all the bickering, as well as past indiscretions. Li shuts his father’s computer forcefully. Li’s father exclaims “don’t hit me.” Li’s mother asks if Li hit his father. Li looks at her in bewilderment. Li’s father blames Li’s mother for Li’s behavior, the “bickering” culminating with each family member blaming the other as the source of the bickering, leading to a discussion of when Li’s father hit Li’s brother when Li’s brother was an adolescent, which leads Li’s father to pronounce that sometimes it is right for children to be hit, causing Li to shout, “Isn’t hitting things good?” seemingly threatening his father. When Li’s father says, “You dare hit me,” Li responds “You’re so fat…Of course I do.” All while Li’s mom is shouting for them to stop. Li’s father eventually leaves with the dog, Dudu. All of this occurs across two and half pages, ending with Li alone in his room, Li’s mother crying, and Li’s father returning. Eventually, each family member apologizes about some action they took or thing they said during the prolonged bicker. Things calm down—anger and frustration pass. 

It’s difficult to convey in an essay how amusing and moving this is at the same time, but it’s that combination of amusing and moving that strikes the reader as incredibly real. This reality comes from the fact that each character is treated as being capable of change, as struggling to make certain changes (at Li’s behest or their own), and attempting to be better communicators. And because Lin is clearly tracking his own family and their interactions—anger flares up, then, in what seems like no time, flames out—there’s an authority regarding each character’s journey that is unlike most novels. Simple, struggling, yet dignified with sincere and often funny attempts at change. The scene ends with Li saying, “I’m trying to stop being like this.” 

Later, at dinner, a grander reconciliation occurs: 

“So I care for you two,” said Li. “I’m here. I’m here so much.”

[…]

“Li really loves you, right?” said Li’s mom. 

“Right,” said Li’s dad. 

“Dad counts as a good dad, right?” said Li’s mom. 

“Ng,” said Li. “Right.” 

One way to think of Leave Society is that it is comprised of these contractions and expansions, defensive aggressions and passive regressions into negative states and then opening up again. The characters collectively form this pattern. The novel is not only tracking Li’s change, but his change in relation to his parents, his parents’ change in relation to him and each other, and eventually Li to his partner, Kay. It suggests that all these minds contribute, collectively, to a larger change. Li is “trying to stop being this way,” and his parents, likewise, are working to bicker less—as separate entities this change is impossible, but as a unit, together, Leave Society suggests, change becomes more possible. Why is that? Because patterns become apparent: Li can see his actions in his father’s—when he slams his father’s computer (an outward, physical aggression), we then learn that Li may have learned this violent petulance from his father, who hit his brother. Li’s worry, likewise, is mirrored in his mother, who worries about her son. In a defensive mood, Li offers this as blame for his neurotic tendencies, but in a more open state, he is open to criticism and correction. For instance, at one point Li says, “When Dad says I need control [referencing the shutting/slamming of the computer and his occasional throwing things], I don’t feel not good … I agree. It’s good to keep reminding me. It’s like me reminding you two all the time about health things.” The characters’ negativities mirror each other in the same way their positivity does, and change is presented as a collective process. The novel then isn’t just like the patterned breath of an individual, but a collective breath of beings tied together, breathing together, changing together, evolving together. 

Lin captures the progressions, regressions, and paradoxes of change. To change means to become aware, and to become aware means to inject oneself directly and pointedly into one’s own habitual thoughts and emotions—what I mean here is that one begins to watch and understand one’s patterned existence rather than simply being swept up by the wave of that existence, a “this is just how things are” attitude. But this is not how things are, Leave Society suggests. Late in the novel, Li slips, habituating “himself back into tormented glumness, unable to stop bitterly arguing with imaginary people in his mind.” But shortly after this, as he leaves Taipei the final time, he tells his parents that he’ll miss them, and he looks “deliberately at each parent’s face, and they group-hugged. He’d last told his mom he’d miss her when he was maybe ten. He couldn’t remember ever telling his dad.” The tenderness that has occasionally burst through bickering and confusion levels out in even-tempered care. Likewise, when Li doubts his relationship with Kay, and finds himself feeling “quiet and somewhat closed off” from Kay, he sees that his weeks of uncertainty regarding the relationship “were rippling through him, bothersome and mocking, his own creations,” Li has come to a new place. He recognizes that these mind states are his own creations, that his negative thinking is, as Li also states, a “habit.” The relationship with Kay stabilizes as Li’s doubts drift away. He’s begun to see beyond his negative mind states. He’s begun to see them for what they are: self-created, and though still difficult to manage, he now knows better what to do with them. Rather than being swept by the wave (the negative thought or emotion), the awareness emerges that one is the wave– and when this awareness emerges, it becomes less and less possible to be constantly swept up. In this space, there’s room for consciousness to come together. Toward the end of the novel, with Kay in Hawaii, Li’s world becomes more pointedly not only his, as the singular third-person pronoun dramatically shifts to third person plural: “they smelled each fruit, suckled their juice,” “they made a smoothie,” “they fed some chickens,” “they spoke a narrative about their day,” and “they discussed leaving [society/New York] in parts, leaving mentally and chemically, carefully and gradually. Going beyond.” They’re now changing together. With a message rooted in conscious change, Leave Society is the apolitical novel that we need right now: a book about going beyond politics and society and moving toward an aesthetic of collective being. The process should be careful, gradual—there will be progressions and regressions, suggests Leave Society. It’s a process that is occurring already. Leave Society makes me want to be a part of it, and then the book made me remember that I already am, that we all are.


Alan Rossi's writing has been published in Granta, New England Review, Missouri Review, Agni, and many other journals. His first novel, Mountain Road, Late at Night, was published by Picador in 2021, and his next novel is forthcoming in 2022. His fiction has won a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and New England Review’s Emerging Writer Award.

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander based on Big Island leaves and leaflets collected by Tao and Yuka

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