Tao Lin’s eighth book, Trip, is his best yet, and it’s all thanks to drugs. Well, perhaps not entirely thanks to drugs. With exercise comes mastery, or at least competence, and Lin has been practicing his idiosyncratic craft for over a decade. His first book was published in 2006, when he was 23; improvement during the intervening years may have been inevitable. But Lin–whose authorial voice, notoriously, is so assiduously literal that it sometimes seems transcribed from a robot failing a Turing test–has never been more creative, precise, or inspired than when he details psychedelics-begotten behavior and theories. The behavior is mostly his own, while the theories are often borrowed from Terence McKenna, the late psilocybin advocate whose YouTube videos started Lin down the path to revitalization. While studying McKenna, Lin began to make radical adjustments to his daily drug routines, which in turn radically affected his mind-set. “My default state in 2012 while sober was an easily annoyed grumpiness,” he explains. “I was chronically not fascinated by existence, which … did not feel wonderful or profound but tedious and uncomfortable and troubling.” After bingeing on McKenna recordings–“for more than 30 hours”–everything changed.
Lin’s newfound engagement sprang from McKenna’s zeal for psychedelics and other plant-derived compounds like DMT, which are very different from the recreational chemicals more prevalent today: Adderall, Xanax, and pretty much any prescription painkiller. Those drugs figured prominently in Lin’s previous book, Taipei (2013), where they created a vacuum of curiosity and investment that has little in common with the wellspring of positivity he taps in Trip. “McKenna seemed excited and delighted by topics I’d just finished expressing in my novel as sources of bleakness and despair and confusion,” Lin writes. He’d been taking the wrong drugs, habit-forming ones that are rough on the body–including the brain–and leave users feeling depleted and depressed.
Because Trip’s existence and the lifestyle therein owe a debt to McKenna, Lin devotes a considerable portion of the book to the man’s life and work. I found this a bit regrettable. McKenna–ethnobotanist, so-called psychonaut, and “Timothy Leary of the ’90s”–seems to have been sincere and well-intentioned, but Western white guys have a low success rate when it comes to planting their flags in “exotic” understudied fields: Native cultures are fetishized and exploited, and egos swell to cult-leader-like-proportions. McKenna’s propositions are kind of fun (Are the creatures who regularly appear in DMT visions aliens? Or dead people?) yet reading too many of them begins to feel like scrolling through a thread of Twin Peaks fan theories. Incidentally, Peak’s erratic conspiracy theorist Dr. Jacoby might be based on McKenna).
To his credit, Lin is judicious and concise while doling out McKennaisms. For instance, he briefly shares the “Stoned Ape Theory,” which suggests that our evolution owes a great debt to mushrooms, but he doesn’t include McKenna’s hypothesis that the impact was in part contingent on mushroom-induced orgies that prevented pair-bonding. (Because of mushrooms, he argues, monogamy was not just unworkable but inconceivable.) McKenna was prone to saying things like “It’s amazing to me that the male love of nookie would stand aside for the male love of property and dominance,” and even when sympathetic interviewers pressed him on the androcentric and ad hoc nature of such claims, he ignored their critiques. McKenna also believed psychedelics alienate users from that which is “sexist, consumerist, shallow, trivial, inane,” but his unexamined faith in the indiscriminate biologically ordained “male love of nookie” raises some doubt about mushrooms’ power to bestow wokeness.
When Trip sloughs off the weight of McKenna’s influence, it becomes a joy to read. Lin is a meticulous cataloguer, and his predilection for building entire books out of the relentlessly mundane details of everyday existence has long stuck in the craw of his critics. By recounting his drug experimentation, he’s found the perfect outlet of his obsessive MO. His hypersensitivity to the granularity of lived experience becomes a boon:
Holding a ringed binder of watercolor paper and a red crayon, ready to write or draw something, I sensed the pointlessly of recording information outside oneself. … “Crayons,” I write in words covering almost half the paper, surprising myself a little. The word seemed written to occupy and unsuspecting majority of me so that a smaller part of me could analyze the concept of note-taking in private …
I saw my crayon-grasping hand and other, lower-resolution things, like my wooden floor. “Watching this,” I wrote below “Crayons” in smaller letters.
I began to feel like I was an alien experiencing the life of a human named Tao Lin.
“I thought about my life and sobbed,” he writes as psilocybin trip continues:
I cried thinking about how I was going to distance myself from the writing world and Twitter and Facebook and all culture except books and maybe movies and live alone in a rural area and publish a book about it or never publish another book but just disappear and maybe much later emerge messianically with a book or just never reemerge …
I cried at what was happening.
It was not out of callousness that I wrote “lol, yes” in the margins. It was out of recognition.
It’s extremely difficult to put words to a psychedelic (or mystical, or sublime, or transcendent) experience, because the event eradicates so much of what we take for granted as the ground from which we speak. In a periodically viral video from the 1950s in which a “housewife” takes LSD, the man administering the solution, D. Sidney Cohen, prompts her to narrate her altered state. “Tell me,” he prods her. “Well, I just couldn’t!” she replies, shaking her head in wonder and confusion. “I couldn’t possibly tell you.” When he continues to coax her toward explication–“How do you feel inside?”–he repeats “inside” like it’s the name of a lover she hasn’t heard from in years. As if he’d asked for gum, she answers, “I don’t have any ‘inside.’”
With normal ways of speaking rendered useless, a degree of poetry must be employed. Lin’s writing is considerably improved by this predicament. He used to excise all figurative language from his prose, but in Trip he allows himself lines like “A flock of things I’d told myself to remember flew mutely out of view in the sky outside the stuffy cabin of my mind,” because this formulation is more truthful than a less metaphorical alternative. But it took a lot of practice for him to alter the style he’d spent many years establishing: He writes that he has “enjoyed LSD at least 80 times since 2010 at measured doses of [up to] 150 micrograms–and some higher, unmeasured doses–with only, I feel, positive, sanity-promoting effects.” And that’s just LSD; Trip has entire chapters dedicated to DMT, salvia, cannabis, and psilocybin.
Compared with Lin’s rate of drug use, Michael Pollan is ... behind. In his late 20s, he tried mushrooms a few times, and after that, cocaine–maybe? he’s coy about it–but never LSD. “I’m less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked,” he says at the start of his latest book about humans’ relationship to ingestible plants. But now “psychedelics are having a renaissance,” and How to Change Your Mind is an attempt to understand why. Pollan lists “three data points” that persuaded him to take on this mission: a New York Times article from 2010 about doctor’s experiments with hallucinogens, an East Bay dinner party where a “prominent psychologist” and “retired software engineer” talked about dropping acid on a semi-regular basis, and a psychopharmacology research paper someone emailed him several years before. Pollan has made himself into something of a superstar by writing popular examinations of onmi-present food questions: how to eat, what to eat, and why. But everybody needs food, so everybody “uses” it. Delving into the history and future of voluntarily altered consciousness is a leap for him. (Every culture with access to psychoactive plants takes advantage of them, a fact that he finds “curious and seemingly maladaptive,” so much that it “cried out for an explanation.”)
As a “staunch materialist, and as an adult of a certain age,” Pollan has an abundance of skepticism. That moral panic, for him, has not fully subsided, and it renders How to Change Your Mind repetitive and hamstrung. Trip, in its best moments, is a little like having a good one–exhilarating, moving, enlivening–because the writing is clear and sincere but also relaxed, curious, and devoid of expectations. Lin’s previous books (and this one, too) focus on a narrator happy to spend entire days in his bedroom, sequestered from others, lost in his own world, but Pollan isn’t interested in the interior self. “Did I really want to go there?” he asks himself when contemplating what he knows about the mental and emotional extremes he might encounter while tripping. “No!–to be perfectly honest. ... I have never been one for deep or sustained introspection.”
Nervous, he approaches taking drugs in the spirit of a “harrowing” contract negotiation: fixated on expectations he fears will not be met. He wants to have a spiritual experience even as he suspects there might not be anything “out there” to have a spiritual experience of. He doesn’t want to change his life, but still wants to know if he could learn “something new about it.” Resistance characterizes his emotional state before and after he undergoes guided psychedelic journeys: The rituals are “ridiculously hokey,” what he says while tripping “embarrasses” him, and “dissatisfaction” persists even after moments of beauty and wonder. “It had brought me no closer to a belief in God or in a cosmic form consciousness or in anything magical at all–all of which I might have been, unreasonably, expecting (hoping?) it might do.”
I get it and sympathize, to a degree, though I mainly find his ambivalence exhausting. Pollan half wanted to find a chemical so powerfully effective that in spite of his colossal doubt, anxiety, and pride, he would cross over into the ranks of the blessed. He was poised for an experience like those documented in the psychopharmacology study, the one that encouraged him to write about these drugs in the first place. There, participants ranked their trips among “the most meaningful [events] in their lives.” He wanted to be delivered; he wanted a single religious experience that left him with a faith so unshakable he wouldn’t need it to be backed by scientific evidence. Yet he also feared that outcome. As he repeats throughout the book, “set” (mind-set) and “setting” (environment) play a crucial role in what happens to a person who takes a psychedelic. Clinging to his current way of being, and swaddled into trepidation, Pollan was destined to be underwhelmed by his trips.
It’s also telling that while the reported “spiritual” angle of psychedelics is what hooked him, Pollan had no interest in these drugs until they began receiving high-profile institutional approval, in the form of both Times coverage and university studies, like one testing psilocybin’s power to alleviate “existential diress” in terminal cancer patients. There are, of course, more than two “types” of drug users, but I bet you could cleave the lot of us fairly neatly between those who believe institutions have people’s best interests at heart–that they should be trusted to figure out the “best” way to take drugs–and those who see institutional attention as a sign of dark developments to come. At the risk of sounding like a teenager with pot-themed socks and a pot-themed skateboard, I’m confident that many drugs are illegal because they threaten the status quo and not because they’re any more dangerous than alcohol or sugar. As Lin writes while channeling McKenna and perusing “a CIA-LSD-suicide-homicide thread” on the internet: “Psychedelics are illegal not because the government wants to protect us from us, but because they catalyze intellectual dissent.” Pollan says much the same thing when he explains that LSD because so controversial in the ’60s primarily because it was tightly linked to the anti-war, anti-authority counterculture:
“Psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse.” If those same establishments are suddenly willing to welcome psychedelics into the fold, we should at least ask why.”
We already know what the GOOP-ification of a newly trendy, formerly reviled drug looks like. It is, in a word, bad. White families make millions from selling huge quantities of marijuana while people of color are incarcerated for possession of minor amounts. Young white people broadcast paeans to microdosing on their podcasts, and wealthy white moms write about it in books, but there’s no national conversation about meaningfully reconsidering the incoherent and murderous “war on drugs.” (LSD and psilocybin are Schedule 1 substances, alongside heroin, cannabis, and MDMA, meaning the government regards them among the most addictive and the least medicinally useful.) How to Change Your Mind is steeped in the belief that drugs might be OK in institutionally circumscribed contexts, when overseen and administrated by professionals, but they should not be left in the hands of the pleasure-seeking masses. (“[Do] I think these drugs should simply be legalized? Not exactly,” Pollan writes in his conclusion.) Take a moment to picture the populations best positioned to benefit from an arrangement like that, and imagine how much opportunity for mismanagement, price gouging, and general abuse it might allow.
Lin regards psychedelics as subversive, and powerfully pure, because they can make people happy and healthy. (Overwhelmingly, this is the case, and even terrifying trips rarely result in lasting damage–though the drugs can have disastrous results in schizophrenics.) But Pollan looks at an aspect of the psychedelics trend that Lin doesn’t: It’s role in Silcon Valley. He mentions Steve Jobs’ claim that dropping LSD was “one of his two or three most important life experiences,” and name-checks Stewart Brand, who thinks that “LSD was a critical ingredient in nourishing the spirit of collaborative experiment ... that distinguish[es] the computer culture of the West Coast.” As a further endorsement, he adds, “I know of one Bay Area tech company today that uses psychedelics in its management training. A handful of others have instituted ‘microdosing Fridays.’”
While some drugs can guide a user toward enduring openness or empathy, no drug will instantly render a selfish man selfless, or a cruel woman kind. And if psychedelics are becoming somewhat ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, it’s proof that they can’t automatically instill ethics in a community used to operating without them. (Would you take a drug that made you as creative as Steve Jobs, if it also made you just as much of an asshole? Don’t answer that.) Drugs won’t fix racism, or stop wars, in part because it’s very hard to prolong their effects in the hostile contexts we return to once the chemical reaction wears off. Moreover, the arrogance and instrumentality of our approach to the natural world (and to one another) ensures that institutional attempts to dissect the magic of psychedelics are doomed to fail–and my exact their own dystopian costs.
It’s easy for me to believe a company would encourage its employees to engage in temperate drug use as long as that drug made them more productive, inventive, pleasant, and tolerant. Even just one or two of those outcomes would do. Huxley well understood the danger of happiness-inducing drugs leveraged for fascistic ends, though he wrote Brave New World before he tried LSD. Post-acid, he suggested drugs could bring about utopia in his 1962 novel, Island. But the line between heaven and hell is never as stark as we’d like it to be. (“Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles,” he wrote in Brave New World. Yup, sure sounds like a traditional utopia–and like tripping–to me.) In the end, psychedelics are what we make of them; we’re back to “set” and “setting.” There’s a place for drugs in the worst future, where they facilitate our participation in exploitive systems by offering an escape that doesn’t ripple into our non-tripping reality. And there’s a place for them in the best future, where they confirm our interconnectedness, accelerate our imaginations, and foster profound goodwill. We have to determine where on that spectrum they’ll land. I’m afraid drugs alone aren’t going to change much of anything.
Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum and a cofounder of TigerBee Press. Reprinted from Bookforum (April/May 2018), which is published five times per year and offers incisive reviews of the latest titles, author interviews, and commentary about current and coming trends and ideas being debated by some of the most interesting writers of our time.