American writers have been writing about drugs since at least 1842, when English immigrant William Blair published “An Opium-Eater in America” in the July issue of The Knickerbocker. By 1928, fourteen years after the Harrison Laws had outlawed such substances in the U.S., Blair’s homage to Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) had been subsumed as evidence of the growing “opium problem,” as Charles Terry and Mildred Pellens titled their thousand-page study of narcotic use in America, as well as the “pernicious influence” of literature on drugs: “there are few who have not known one or more,” Terry and Pellens write, who sampled their first taste after “a perusal of De Quincey’s sorry masterpiece.” Thus began “the practice of blaming writers like De Quincey for introducing people to opium,” which Marcus Boon, in The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (2002) attributes to “the pathologization of addicts as a specific type, which occurred at the end of the nineteenth century.”
In our wellness era of GDP-dwarfing pharmaceutical conglomerates and recently-legal lifestyle brands, nobody really needs a novelist to tell them how, why, or whether they should get high. And yet, in his ninth book and first “work of nonfiction,” Tao Lin revisits a genre which had its heyday in used bookstores of the late twentieth century but is now mostly preserved within celebrity tell-alls, YouTube and other corners of the internet: the drug memoir. Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change catches its reader up to speed on Lin’s life since the publication of his breakthrough novel Taipei in 2013, which led Bret Easton Ellison to call Lin “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation” and prompted Lin to, as he puts it, “leave society.”
Alone in his Manhattan apartment, Lin is seduced by the video lectures of “psychonaut” Terence McKenna, a post-Timothy Leary psychedelic-evangelist who, prior to his death in 2000, made a living by selling his philosophy on VHS and cassette tapes, many of which have subsequently resurfaced online. Inspired, but also depressed (Lin was accused of statutory rape and abuse by an ex-girlfriend in 2014, which goes suspiciously unmentioned in Trip), Lin devotes himself with quasi-scientific alacrity to the “study” of psilocybin, DMT, salvia, and cannabis, taking him from New York to his parents’ apartment in Taipei, and on a research “trip” to San Francisco, presented in the book’s epilogue as a third-person novella. Not only does Lin write about all of this, he writes about writing about it: first, as the “Tao of Terence” column for Vice; and then, in this very book, which he mentions almost constantly, for more than it is an attempt at introspection or transcendence, as one might assume, like all of Lin’s work Trip is an experiment in literary aesthetics.
In the shadow of De Quincey, Coleridge, and Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin and Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, Henri Michaux and Carlos Castaneda, Lin joins a literary history whose resonance depends on the relative sympathy for aesthetic and intellectual solipsism on the part of its audience. Like dreams, the recounting of drug experiences is liable to put its reader to sleep: the language to accurately evoke the extremes of physical and mental sensation isn’t readily available––in most cases, “you had to be there.” For many writers on drugs, these stacked odds have led to breakthroughs in formal innovation: Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Burroughs’s cut-up method, or Thompson’s perfection-by-caricature of New Journalistic methods.
Fortunately, Lin is a poet of ennui, able to capitalize on the vacancy of feeling and limits of representation which are both product and cause of the drug experience. It is tempting to read the emotional minimalism of Lin’s prose in the tradition of Hemingway, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, or Camus, but as he reminds the reader of Trip, Lin is a student of MFA fiction. In the short stories of Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, and Frederick Barthelme, Lin admires the “memorizable arcs and complex epiphanies and valuable rereadability”; Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Jean Rhys, Ann Beattie, and Richard Yates make him “mutedly excited about autobiographical narratives featuring characters with low serotonin.” From Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet (1982), Lin learns, “Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there’s nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there’s nothing worth doing.”
Lin’s discovery of McKenna and psychedelic drugs seems to have relieved if not cured him of this disease of feeling. The flatly repeated desire to kill oneself that marked Lin’s second novel, Richard Yates (2010), has given way to feeling “surprisingly and gratefully, empowered” when a particularly intense mushroom trip leads the author to throw away his MacBook, modem, and router. He buys a new laptop first thing the next morning, which is not the only way in which his quest to disconnect is ultimately misguided: the epilogue introduces its reader to Lin-the-journalist, interviewing Kathleen Harrison, McKenna’s ex-wife, and their adult children; unusually sociable, Lin performs humanity more successfully than any of his literary stand-ins have before. The book’s “twist” ending reveals Lin’s tongue resolutely in cheek, exploiting the clichés of the contemporary memoir to the verge of parody, further collapsing the boundaries of fact and fiction as he has in his novels––all of which follow a protagonist closely resembling Lin––but from the other end this time, not unlike what Norman Mailer does in The Armies of the Night (1968).
Joke or no joke, Lin’s psychedelic journey leaves him iPhone-less in the California sunshine, which is about as idyllic a destination as one can expect from a drug memoir, but as far as leaving society goes, all Lin needed to do, it seems, was spend less time on Twitter. Internet addiction isn’t a problem for the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who takes her drug-fueled sabbatical at the beginning of this millennium, in the final months preceding 9/11 and Web 2.0. In the wake of personal tragedy, Moshfegh’s narrator, a wealthy and blonde Manhattanite in her twenties, prescribes herself a late capitalist update of the Victorian rest cure involving a daily routine of two large coffees, several Whoopi Goldberg movies, the occasional cigarette, and a rotating cast of pharmaceuticals acquired by means of Dr. Tuttle, a cartoonishly paranoid psychiatrist picked at random out of the yellow pages who would be at home in a Thomas Pynchon novel, but whom Burroughs would refer to as a “croaker.” Moshfegh’s narrator is after the same kind of emptiness that Lin and his characters are forced to endure; where the characters in Taipei seek to escape oblivion via Adderall and MDMA, synthetics Lin himself leaves behind for organic hallucinogens in Trip, it is the desire of Moshfegh’s narrator to sleep for a year. With the help of a fictional drug cloyingly named Infermiterol, she succeeds for the most part, though not without some unexpected side effects.
Born in 1981, Moshfegh is two years older than Lin, and has received significantly more prestigious acclaim than the younger writer, who came up through the “Alt Lit” online poetry scene (prior to Taipei, all of Lin’s books were published by Melville House and other small presses). A Stegner Fellow, Moshfegh’s second novel, Eileen (2015), won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; her debut novel, McGlue (2014), and her short stories––published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and collected in 2017’s Homesick for Another World––have received a number of impressive accolades.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation returns to the crass and zany grotesque of the best stories in Homesick for Another World: a hybrid of Flannery O’Connor and George Saunders delivered in a voicy first person. Moshfegh’s characters are jaded and self-destructive, but the world around them is absurd and cruel, be it New York, Malibu, rural New England, China, or war-torn Yugoslavia. At its worst, Moshfegh’s work reads like a rote imitation of some of the postwar masters of literary fiction Lin cites as inspiration, but much of the time, her satire is as funny and biting as Michel Houellebecq’s or Paul Beatty’s. Describing the star artist of the gallery where her narrator is employed, Moshfegh writes in My Year of Rest and Relaxation:
Ping Xi’s work first appeared at Ducat as part of a group show called “Body of Substance,” and it consisted of splatter paintings, à la Jackson Pollock, made from his own ejaculate. He claimed that he’d stuck a tiny pellet of powdered colored pigment into the tip of his penis and masturbated onto huge canvases. He titled the abstract paintings as though each had some deep, dark political meaning. Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City and Sunset over Sniper Alley. Decapitated Palestinian Child. Bombs Away, Nairobi. It was all nonsense, but people loved it.
Though Moshfegh’s reveling in the musicality of prescription trade names strikes a vaguely critical chord, it is nothing stronger than what the furrowing of our collective brow over the opioid crisis has produced thus far, and drugs for her are little more than another commodity of an empire in decline––like Manolo Blahniks or Sister Act 2, utilitarian in their invitation to enter the void. What could be more banal than a chemical employed to knock you unconscious? That drugs render both Lin’s and Moshfegh’s narrators unreliable should come as no surprise, for regardless of the intended outcome, the desire to write and the desire to get fucked up come from the same essential urge: to create and then exist within a reality other than the one immediately at hand, even if it is an artificial paradise.
Andrew Marzoni has published essays, criticism, and interviews in ARTnews, The New York Observer, Review 31, Music & Literature, The Quarterly Conversation, Cinephile, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other publications. He has taught writing and literature at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota, where he received a PhD in English in 2015. At present, he is at work on a critical history of Semiotext(e).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 6th, 2018.
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