Fifty years ago, it was still possible to believe that drugs could free our minds and transform the world; the chemical evangelist had not yet become a figure of total ridicule. The spirit of Rimbaud, with his systematic derangement of the senses for transforming poets into seers, could be felt among the Beats; the psychologist Timothy Leary, drawing on his Harvard Psilocybin Project experiments of 1960–62, hymned the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics; and in 1964, with all these precedents as inspiration, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters embarked on the psychedelic cross-country bus trip that would be immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Just a few years earlier, Kesey had eviscerated America’s conformist culture in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but now he claimed that fiction writing was an old-fashioned and artificial form. The promise of a different world lay in the trip itself:
All of us are beginning to do our thing, and we’re going to keep doing it, right out front, and none of us are going to deny what other people are doing. […] If somebody is an ass-kicker, then that’s what he is going to do on this trip, kick asses. He’s going to do it right out front and nobody is going to have anything to get pissed off about. […] What we are, we’re going to wail with on this whole trip.
It was not to last. The hippie movement brought drugs into US popular culture, and within two years of the Summer of Love, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would all have died from overdoses, extinguishing any collective hopes for the utopian promise of drug culture.
Today, what remains of that utopianism is just another ghettoized subculture, exemplified by annual events like Burning Man in Nevada, providing one week of catharsis in an otherwise normal year. In mainstream culture, drugs are so associated with addiction that they have become its most frequent metonym: sex is a drug, the internet is a drug, shopping and even war are drugs. At the same time, the increasing use and abuse of medical marijuana and prescription drugs have blurred the line of what is considered acceptable drug-taking. The ongoing War on Drugs, declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and intensified by Ronald Reagan, is statistically selective in its targets, going after black and Latino men domestically, Mexican cartels and Afghan poppy farmers internationally, even though studies have shown that white people are nearly twice as likely to abuse drugs than blacks in the US.
This is the world from which the novelist Tao Lin’s new fictionalized memoir Taipei emerges. Taipei is filled with substances of various kinds — Klonopin, coke, LSD, ecstasy, Tylenol 3, Percocet, Ambien, Adderall, Oxycondone, Xanax, ketamine and heroin, for starters — whose consumption punctuates the seemingly pointless adventures of Paul, a New York–based writer, as he seeks out romantic prospects, goes to different US cities for readings, gets married in Las Vegas, and visits his parents in Taipei. Throughout, Lin hints at the possible origins of Paul’s love affair with drugs. Does it date back to those fateful, formative years when rejection and bullying by grade school peers caused him to abandon all attempts at being social — except for when a combination of LSD, ecstasy, and Ritalin “slightly [distorted and energized] his feelings of depression into something dreamlike and enjoyable in a resigned, artful manner”? Or was it when he realized that being on drugs changed his behavior in a way that made people view him differently? “Paul read an account of his Montreal reading,” one passage runs,
when he was on two capsules of MDMA, describing him as “charismatic, articulate, and friendly.”
He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as “monosyllabic,” “awkward,” “stilted and unfriendly” within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.
Lin has remarked that Taipei could just as well have been called MacBook Pro. (Paul’s laptop is practically a prosthesis; he even imagines himself lying on his yoga mat with the computer resting on his legs, the way people envision themselves with a book on a tropical beach.) It could also have been called Drugs. But the marketing team at Vintage may not have wanted it placed alongside contemporary “drug fiction” like Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House (1994) or Ecstasy (1996). Welsh’s manic, slangy, sensationalist world is subcultural without being countercultural, and thus a kind of cultural ghetto unto itself; Tao Lin has grander ambitions. The generation he depicts is hedonistic, depressed, self-loathing, detached, and conspicuously blasé in its attitudes toward drugs. But unlike Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero, Lin doesn’t romanticize drugs, or really even seem to enjoy them much. Nor does he moralize about them. Taipei carefully avoids the conventional drug genres of bacchanal and cautionary tale. Though minor characters are presented as pathologically addicted, Paul is not. Lin’s writing has long been characterized by its lack of interiority — “In the movie of his life,” goes a line from Taipei, “he knew, now would be the moment […] to feel that the world was ‘beautiful and sad’” — but his affectless tone is especially unsettling when applied to drug experiences. What is Paul feeling when he gets fucked up? If he’s not taking drugs for pleasure, or self-transformation, then why take them at all?
At least since the publication of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), countless writers in the West have used their own drug experiences for literary fuel. Most of this writing is insufferable, like listening to people who are high talking at length about being high, but the most compelling examples have revealed something about how the writer experiences his or her own limitations in the world, their experience of broader social and cultural constraints.
The scholar Marcus Boon’s The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (2002) usefully taxonomizes the different literary and philosophical tendencies associated with different classes of drugs. Narcotics are a transcendental experience, providing access to the sublime. (Antonin Artaud compared them to literature and theater). Amphetamines transform authors into tireless writing machines. (Kerouac cranked out On The Road in two or three weeks on Benzedrine). Cannabis causes the mind to meander, highlighting unnoticed details and revealing connections between seemingly unrelated things, a state that has obvious affinities with the mindset of the flâneur who wanders aimlessly through Paris’ Arcades. (It is telling that the list of books Walter Benjamin regretted never writing included one on hashish.) All drugs are what Michel Foucault calls “technologies of the self” — techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves. Drugs can help us to adapt, to be more productive, and even to excel within our circumstances, to make our lives more bearable, and in some cases, to radically reconfigure our subjectivity, if not the world.
In Taipei, drug use is less about changing the world than it is about adjusting to it. Paul, nervous and shy by nature, tries various combinations of drugs to help him cope with ordinary life, but they don’t actually make him any more comfortable. He swallows potent chemical cocktails at parties, but they seem to produce the opposite of the intended effect: “after four more parties, two of which he similarly slept on sofas after walking mutely through rooms without looking at anyone, Paul began attending less social gatherings and ingesting more drugs.” The scene he is part of (twentysomething middle-class white kids who make mostly meaningless art) is hedonistic, yet while he participates, he seems not to derive any pleasure from it. If altered states were once, as the old Aldous Huxley chestnut has it, “doors of perception,” then sometime between Huxley’s era and the one depicted in Taipei, those doors seem to have closed.
We see them closing in Philip K. Dick’s work. By the early ’60s, Dick was already in his 30s and taking a steady dose of an amphetamine called Semoxydrine, enabling him to write 11 novels, along with several essays and short stories, in just two years (1963–64). (He also experimented with mescaline, acid, weed, Sodium Pentothal, and PCP.) The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), a novel published at the height of the ’60s, explores the paradoxes inherent in the psychedelic experience, though it does not condemn drug use. A Martian colony is addicted to the psychedelic Can-D, a mass-produced and mass-marketed virtual reality-like drug that “translates” its users into an idyllic, 1950s Californian Barbie-doll existence. However, the nature of this “translation” — this high — is a question of debate: is it more “a play of imagination, of drug-induced hallucination, or an actual translation from Mars to Earth-as-it-was by an agency we know nothing of”? In one scene, two characters debate this question:
“It should be a purifying experience. We lose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say. And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow. Or forever, if you believe as some do that it’s outside of time and space, that it’s eternal. Don’t you agree, Sam?” [Fran] sighed. […]
“Spirituality,” he said with disgust […] “A denial of reality, and what do you get instead? Nothing.”
“I admit,” Fran said […] “that I can’t prove you get anything better back, due to abstention. But I do know this. What you and other sensualists among us don’t realize is that when we chew Can-D and leave our bodies we die. And by dying we lose the weight of —” She hesitated.
“Say it,” Sam said […].
Fran said, “Sin.”
But Can-D’s domination was not to last: a competitor drug mysteriously appears on the market, Chew-Z (its slogan: Be Choosy, Chew Chew-Z!). The problem that arises in Three Stigmata is that Chew-Z users enter into the nightmarish world of the diabolical Palmer Eldritch’s making, rather than a simulated reality of their own. But even were there no Palmer Eldritch to contend with, Dick saw that the liberation promised by the psychedelic experience was fundamentally paradoxical: by ceding all control to users’ subjectivities, it frees them from the constraints of the material world but also, by the same token, traps them in a feedback loop in which they can’t be sure if they’re awake (not unlike Ken Watanabe’s fate at the end of Inception).
Dick’s life seemed to unravel in step with ’60s countercultural hopes. By the time he wrote A Scanner Darkly (1977), he was suffering from pancreatic disease and had begun to regret his excesses. Where Three Stigmata explored the yin and the yang of the psychedelic experience, A Scanner Darkly is a pure indictment against drugs, a slamming shut of the doors of perception. Undercover narcotics agent Bob Arctor becomes a Substance-D (“D is for death”) addict in order to infiltrate the drug world, but his mind eventually deteriorates, and he is institutionalized. The damage to Arctor’s mind is permanent; Substance-D has effectively lobotomized him.
In A Scanner Darkly, Arctor also discovers, too late, the vast conspiracy behind the production and distribution of Substance-D, and this conspiracy turns out to be just as frightening as the drug’s destruction of his mind. By the time the novel was published, the long hangover of the ’60s had already arrived in the form of a government crackdown; the popularization of drug use in the ’60s made them a matter of concern for society and not just the individual. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was established in 1968; Nixon declared war in 1971; and concerned parents formed Families in Action, the first anti-drug parents’ organization in 1976. Four decades later, the hangover has yet to wear off, despite moves to decriminalize marijuana in certain states.
This stigma of addiction has also defined much recent literature about drugs, the bulk of which is nonfiction rather than fiction. Each time it seems certain that the market is already oversaturated with addiction memoirs, another one miraculously appears. Where drug experiences are not described in a completely negative light, they are either hedonistic or accessories to a subculture, as in Douglas Rushkoff’s Ecstasy Club (1998), or the aforementioned works of Irvine Welsh. In the rare literary cases where drugs are still treated as potentially positive forces for exploring or transforming subjectivity, their value is never absolute, and only presented as positive when experienced within sharply delimited spaces and times.
Only a very fine line separates the powerfully creative force of drugs from its crippling effects; In Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009), the title character leaves the superficial art world and begins to find peace in the Indian city of Varansi by letting go of his ego (aided by copious amounts of weed), only to lose himself completely, unraveling into an utter mess of hokey mysticism and bad hygiene. Even the Surrealists, those Rimbaudian advocates of “the derangement of the senses,” were divided on the question of drugs; André Breton, the movement’s leader, was staunchly opposed. “Surrealism is the place where the enchantments of sleep, alcohol, tobacco, ether, opium, cocaine, and morphine meet, but it is also the breaker of chains,” he wrote in the preface to the first issue of The Surrealist Revolution (1924). “We don’t sleep, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t snort, we don’t shoot up, and we dream.” Still, the goal remained nothing less than the transformation of subjectivity, and through it, the world. Drugs could be a useful tool in this endeavor, but they were not a necessity. The difference today is not the presence of a prohibition on drugs, but the fact that exploring (much less transforming) subjectivity is no longer the goal.
Changes in the economy as well as culture have driven this shift. In Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (2002), the historian David T. Courtwright explains that natural psychoactive substances like opium, cannabis, and coca/cocaine were difficult to acquire in the West before the 19th century. As a result, they were considered luxury items, and only became widely available when demand grew among the upper class after a steady supply was made possible through scientific innovations, the industrialization of production (including European slavery and more efficient farming methods), and the establishment of global distribution systems (including the British sale of Indian opium to the Chinese). Increased production made psychoactive substances cheaper, better, and more widely available, democratizing and rationalizing them as Henry Ford did cars. The proliferation of synthetic drugs in the 20th century, ranging from LSD, MDMA, and meth, to benzedrine and barbituates, only accelerated this trend.
Today, pioneers like Hamilton Morris (of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia) continue to introduce new and unheard of natural drugs to the US. But Courtwright argues that drugs that have not yet achieved widespread global distribution — like qat, betel, and mescaline, for instance — are unlikely to take off, not only because they must compete with established, domestically-produced illegal synthetics like amphetamines and MDMA, but also because the overwhelming psychoactive trend over the last century has been the introduction of synthetic drugs by multinational pharmaceutical companies. “Psychiatry’s biological turn and the rise of ‘cosmetic psychopharmacology,’ the prescription of profitable new drugs to fine-tune mood and improve performance, assure the continued introduction of ‘clean’ synthetic alternatives to natural drugs,” Courtwright writes. “Inevitably, some of these products will find their way into the drug underworld.” Drug culture is no longer a counterculture at all, but a site of overflow for the products of capitalism.
If Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994) was the emblematic literary expression of the dawning of the age of cosmetic pharmacology, Taipei may be the emblematic expression of its decline. Neither book admits the possibility of a radical transformation of subjectivity or society; in each, drugs are simply tools to help individuals adapt to the world as it already exists. The difference is that, for Paul, the drugs don’t work very well.
In fact, Taipei is only incidentally about drugs. It is a depiction of the alienated subject in a personality-driven world where social signals and media messages are so complex as to make those without mastery of the language feel practically schizophrenic. Again and again, Paul is driven to despair by ordinary social reality:
He allowed himself to consider earlier opportunities, mostly for something to do, and discerned after a brief sensation of helplessness — like if he’d divided 900 by itself and wanted the calculator to answer 494/494 or 63/63 — that, in terms of leaving this social situation, he shouldn’t have been born.
In his unbreachable state of depression and isolation, Paul seems barely human, a kind of robot performing what ought to be pleasurable behaviors — going to parties and restaurants, dating girls, and consuming lots of drugs. Nevertheless, as if to mimic the regularity of prescription drug intake, Paul continues to tweak through both his depression and brief moments of happiness, seemingly without much effect.
Despite its tone, Taipei is not, fundamentally, a dystopian novel. Unlike The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and A Scanner Darkly, it says nothing of the world outside of its central character’s immediate experiences. The other side of isolation is total self-absorption. Only when Paul is travelling — especially in Taipei, a city which he is unfamiliar with and therefore curious about, finding it “a world unto itself” — does he think about his surroundings. But sadly, it is also in this setting, and with his wife Erin, that Paul reveals how embarrassingly inarticulate he is about politics:
“I don’t like places … where everyone working is a minority … because I feel like there’s, um, too many different … I don’t know,” said Paul with a feeling like he unequivocally did not want to be talking about what he was talking about, but had accidentally focused on it, like a telescope a child had turned […] toward a wall.
“Um, no,” said Paul. “Just that … they know they’re minorities …”
“That they, like, band together?”
“Um, no,” said Paul on a down escalator into the MRT station they exited an hour ago.
“What are we doing?” said Erin in a quiet, confused voice.
Paul felt his diagonal movement as a humorless, surreal activity.
“Minorities,” said Erin at a normal volume. “What were you saying?”
“Just that … here, when you see someone, you don’t know … that … they live like two hours away and are um … poor, or whatever,” said Paul very slowly, like he was improvising an erasure poem from a mental image of a page of text.”
“Is this the mall? Thing?”
“No, bathroom,” mumbled Paul.
“Huh?” said Erin.
“Bathroom,” said Paul after a few seconds.
Such is Paul’s attempt at social commentary. Also, Paul’s impromptu trip to Las Vegas earlier in the book is surely a tip of the hat to Hunter S. Thompson, but where Fear and Loathing provided incisive social criticism (Las Vegas, and by extension America, is the real psychedelic trip), all that Paul can muster up about the city of simulacra is that “this is what the universe created, after whatever billion years.” Later, when Paul decides to carry LSD, MDMA, and ecstasy inside a CD case on the plane with him to Taipei, it’s hard not to marvel at the utter naïveté of this act, or to think about the others who attempt to cross borders with illegal drugs — drug mules across the US–Mexican border, for instance, with balloons of coke hidden in their stomachs — who face much graver consequences than a privileged American tourist like Paul.
There is a scene near the end of Taipei where Paul and Erin, high on ecstasy and acid in Taipei, decide to film a science fiction movie about how “they existed because a young man in Taipei, while eating a bag’s worth of Chicken McNuggets, allowed himself (despite knowing this would definitely increase his unhappiness) to realistically imagine his next binge, when he would have two bags’ worth of Chicken McNuggets.” The scenario makes no sense, of course — apart from the overarching sense that its very incoherence is being used to make a point about the characters’ atrophied sense of imagination. But it is in this scene, as Paul attempts to explain the logic of the story, that one realizes how similar the schizophrenic reality he inhabits is to the unimaginative sci-fi world he attempts to create. Both are either meaningless or hopelessly convoluted in their logic, to the point of incomprehensibility.
“It may be the very conventionality, the inauthenticity, the formal stereotyping of Science Fiction that gives it one signal advantage over modernist high literature,” Fredric Jameson writes in a chapter on Philip K. Dick from Archaeologies of the Future (2005). “The latter can show us everything about the individual psyche and its subjective experience and alienation, save the essential — the logic of stereotypes, reproductions and depersonalization in which the individual is held in our own time, ‘like a bird caught in cobwebs.’” (The last phrase is a quotation from Dick’s Ubik .) Taipei is curiously suspended between these literary poles: it’s a book that seems equally baffled by subjective experience and generic form. The above-quoted words notwithstanding, Dick’s prose was rarely beautiful, but his novels never lacked in imagination. Lin is the opposite: his inward gaze leaves no room for imagination, but Taipei is undoubtedly beautiful:
He thought of her mother, who had died before he was born — and […] of how, in the entrance-less caves of themselves, everyone was already orphaned — and they briefly hugged and she hugged Erin and uncharacteristically left.
It is a testament to Lin’s talent as a writer that Taipei is so haunting just where one would expect it to be self-indulgent, hackneyed, or stereotypical. The paradox is that Taipei‘s failure of the imagination is so closely tied to its success in portraying the experience of contemporary culture. Such is the altered state of our dystopia.