TAO LIN

in conversation with

MICHAEL W. CLUNE

“Sometimes people tell me they’re scared to get into recovery because they’re scared they’ll lose the ‘real me.’ I’ve never been able to understand this. I’ve always been very happy to lose the real me, it’s just hard to find takers.” —Michael W. Clune
Ways to forget the self:
Ingesting a Large Dose of Mushrooms
Playing Sid Meier’s Civilization
Dying

SEPTEMBER 2013

After reading Tao Lin’s book Taipei, I’ve started going to Whole Foods more. I’ve been drinking more kombucha (GT’s Enlightened Passionberry Bliss, at the time of writing) and thinking more about raw foods. Even if it’s just for a split second, there are a number of objects and places that I’ve tied mentally to the book, and when I see one of them—raw agave nectar, say—a string connects itself to Taipei that then connects itself to what the book’s protagonist, Paul, was thinking at the time of sending his mother raw agave nectar in the mail. There’s something about Taipei’s “aggressively stylized” prose (as Elisa Gabbert put it in her very smart review) that means a reader has to adjust to the book’s laws to enter its world.

That sort of adjustment may be necessary for any book, but Taipei presents a world that’s yearning for elsewhere: a place that exists concurrently with this reality, but a non linear place without cause and effect—usually by way of 30 mg oxycodone and .5 mg Xanax (or MDMA or LSD or whatever).

The place where Paul’s drug-riddled consciousness looks to in Taipei, I think, isn’t far off from the place Michael W. Clune visits in his recent memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. Clune—now an English professor at Case Western Reserve and ten years sober—writes about his time on heroin in Baltimore in the early 2000s, a time when he was able to withdraw from “the cancer of little things. Checking [the] mail, doing laundry, opening a car door, closing the door” and able to create for himself a new dope body with which he then proceeds to float like an “astronaut in the white world.” (If you want to read more about White Out, I’d suggest Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s review in the New Yorker.)

Taipei and White Out use drugs to render dreamlike worlds where the reader can see the glimpse of something else, things hidden and living within our reality. With that in mind, we asked Tao Lin and Michael W. Clune to talk about their books over email.

—Hayden Bennett

TAO LIN: This is from early in your book and maybe a good place to start our conversation:

Writing was invented for the thoughts you can’t remember. Writing is an aid to memory. So I’d scribble down “Quit Dope” notes and “My Life Matters” notes and leave them in obvious places around my apartment.

MICHAEL W. CLUNE: I think time and memory are central to both our books. In the part of the book you quote I’m thinking about how when you’re a dope fiend—or even if you’re not—the kinds of impulses and memories you have access to at any given moment are pretty limited, consisting mainly, for example, of memories of the awesomeness of dope and impulses to do it. So you try to use writing to create a kind of artificial set of memories and instructions accessible at those moments of danger. You write little “Don’t do dope” notes. I think lots of addicts do this. And of course it doesn’t work at all. Writing isn’t actually good at that.

But then there’s a different way that writing is a technology for transcribing thoughts you can’t remember. For example, trying to capture or re-create the texture of conversations, events, scenes when you’re on drugs. What that feels like. What really struck me about your book is how you seem to achieve that by restricting the narrator’s time horizon to something that goes back maybe just a few seconds deeper than short-term memory, and that goes forward maybe five seconds into the future. Most of the time, we walk around, we’re thinking pretty deep into the future. We’re not even registering the texture of our interactions. And the kinds of vague, big-gauge emotions that drive us when we’re sober, people relate to that. That feels comfortable to them, natural. But in Taipei, your writing creates a time-space that is fine-grained and tight enough to capture the texture of facial movements, silences, postures. And that kind of awareness feels weird to people. It feels like the effect of drugs. And it is the effect of drugs! Or is it? When it’s become writing, is it something else?

TL: I think, for Paul, the protagonist of my book, most non-psychedelic drugs generally have the effect, when used in moderate amounts, of normalizing behavior, as it appears to others and as it seems to himself. He feels less restricted, less rushed and dire, maybe simply because the drugs reduce his anxiety/fear and therefore eliminate the thoughts, particularly in social situations, that accompany anxiety/fear, like “are people laughing at me,” “am I making sense.” He feels less crowded mentally. Time feels more spacious as a result, maybe. He’s able, when on non-psychedelic drugs, say Xanax, to think a few actions ahead, or to sort of divide the future into alternate routes and multitask, priming each possibility. In contrast, for example, when he’s in high school, sober, being teased—

Paul was unable to think anything, except that he didn’t know what to do, at all, so he committed to doing nothing, which the senior incorporated into his teasing by focusing on how Paul was “too cool” to react . . .

—time constricts to something like a straight line, or a tunnel, and it’s like he has little to no temporal space in which to fit any thoughts. So he commits to not thinking or doing anything. He resigns to his apparent situation of being able to fit only a single thought into his consciousness at one time, and the single thought is naturally in response to his anxiety/fear, so he appears catatonic, cripplingly shy. Time closes in for him, especially in social situations, the more sober he is, I think, but he’s rarely sober in the book, so I’m not sure. When he’s on certain drugs his time horizon increases to the eight or so seconds that you mentioned, I think. The weirdness you described is maybe Paul’s normal feeling. To answer your question—when it’s become writing, is it something else?—I’m not sure, but probably one could argue that it isn’t: people seem to often describe people’s prose styles as “psychedelic” or narcotic or like other drugs.

Another thing in both our books is the awareness of internal malfunctioning or uncontrollable-seeming, undesirable behavior. This awareness, for Paul, results in thoughts on wanting to get outside himself, which he concludes to be impossible, which troubles him at times. In your book you go further—it’s not impossible—and I was surprised to have the exciting feeling, after reading certain of your passages, that one actually can, in a way, get outside oneself via some method, I felt, involving forgetting certain things, forming certain habits, and viewing “self” in a certain way.

From page 83 of your book:

To write is to study the self. “To study the self is to forget the self.” To forget the self is to be open to all things. As I’m writing this, I occasionally stop to look out the window and remember so I can write a little more. Sometimes, now for instance, the tree outside my window stops my look. Like a raised hand, palm outward.

From page 228:

The only way to recover from the memory disease is to forget yourself. You see, I was in a memory trap. In order to get out I had to forget myself. In order to forget about myself, I had to be sure there was something outside to grab on to. But the memory diseases had trapped all my senses. I couldn’t see outside. In order to get even a glimpse of what’s outside, I had to forget myself completely.

And from page 233:

You don’t forget yourself all at once, I reminded myself . . . You must make forgetfulness into a habit. Like a waterwheel that continually pours forgetfulness over our life.

I sense you have, or have had, a deeply thought-through, reasonable, unified, maybe teachable understanding of memory and self and habit and their interrelations. I think it’s presented in your book in a way that’s natural to what the narrator would be thinking, or feeling, within each scene. But I wonder if, to gain that understanding, you wrote it out, separate from the narrative? Maybe as notes for an imaginary essay? Or in a kind of diagram?

MWC: It’s funny, but I actually didn’t write it out—or even really allow myself to think about that stuff—until it came time to write those scenes, which I did toward the end of the composition process. The practice of getting out of myself has been crucial for staying off dope, and I kind of wanted to protect it from analysis. My experience with addiction convinced me that there was no getting out from any place within myself. My memories, my impulses, my reflexes, my relationships, my goals, my future, past, and present were all terminally infected. So to escape the memory disease—to escape addiction—I had to start over, outside me. How to get outside?

The first step was forming new habits. Every night, I just wrote a list of things that are good to do, and the next day I read the list and did them—did them until I didn’t have to read the list anymore. Brush my teeth. Eat a banana. Work on my dissertation for three hours. Take a walk. Go to an NA meeting. Repeat. Pretty soon I’m a different person. The self isn’t really that solid; it’s mostly composed of things from the outside world. And habits are the tape and rope and staples that get things outside stuck in us.

Sometimes people tell me they’re scared to get into recovery, because they’re scared they’ll lose the “real me.” I’ve never been able to understand this. I’ve always been very happy to lose the real me, it’s just hard to find takers. Habit is a taker.

Meditation is another. And that was the part I didn’t really want to analyze, because once I did, when I was writing that scene about meditation, it hit me that what my friend Cash had said all those years ago was true: the thing I find in meditation is the thing I found in heroin—timelessness in time, stasis in motion.

The truth is, once you get the hang of it, nothing’s easier than getting out of yourself. I was struck by the appearance of Zen in your book, and by Paul’s discovery of the ease of getting outside. Page 75:

There were times when his memory, like an external hard drive that had been taken away from him and hidden inside an unwieldy series of cardboard boxes, or placed at the end of a long and dark and messy corridor, required much more effort than he felt motivated to exert simply to locate . . . After two to five hours with no memory, some days, he would begin to view concrete reality as his memory . . . He mostly viewed these new obstacles to his memory as friendly, and, sometimes, momentarily believing in their viability as a form of Zen, exciting or at least interesting.

I’m very interested in these moments. I wanted to ask you about something that happens at the end of the novel that seems in some ways related to this: the narrator’s conviction that he’s “dead.” What is the relation between the earlier moment of encountering your memory outside you and this moment of the erasure of the boundary between life and death?

TL: When Paul believes he’s dead, at the end of the book, he’s forgotten that he ingested a large dose of mushrooms. He feels the physiological effects and the effects on his thinking, which are significant, but he doesn’t know why. His explanation, reasonably, I feel, is that he’s “insane” and then that he’s dead. So, I think, in this case, he has no short-term memory, to a degree that he doesn’t even know it’s missing. He unconsciously forgot that he forgot the past ~45 minutes. Whereas, earlier in the book, it’s less that he forgot than that he’s avoiding (or consciously failing to) remember what he knows is there, in his memory.

I think the first kind of forgetting, resulting from psychedelics, which can dissolve boundaries and loosen one’s feeling of having a “self,” has been helpful for me in stopping routine usage of non-psychedelic drugs.

Maybe we can end with computer games. I think you’re currently working on a book on video games, and I liked the Civilization reference in White Out:

I’d been playing a game called Civilization. In it, you try to take over the world. I set the difficulty level to “Easy.” I was playing the Germans. I had tanks, and my rivals, the Egyptians, were still using knights on horses.

You don’t know this, but in earlier drafts of Taipei I had this passage:

In sixth grade, after school one day, Paul watched Hunter play Civilization in a reckless, almost alarming manner—building settlements close enough that their resources overlapped, compromising the optimum potential of each settlement—and viewed Hunter as different than him in a way that seemed complicated and difficult to address and was maybe irreconcilable.

Can you tell me about the video-game book you’re working on? Do you have any Civilization anecdotes? Did you play Civilization II or III?

MWC: I love that draft passage. I know the feeling of being appalled by the way someone else plays computer games. It reminds me of something Kant says about aesthetic experience. If I like a landscape or a song or something, I can’t really make an argument that will convince you to like it, too. All I can do is point to it, and expect that you’ll like it also. What Kant doesn’t say is that when that other person fails to respond to the object in the way that you do, you still can’t prove to them or to yourself that they should. But you kind of feel that they’re an alien. And not in a good way.  Play a song you love for someone and it just leaves them cold? You kind of look at them differently after that. You kind of hate them. I think playing a computer game involves a similarly mysterious interaction with an object. Insofar as I have a “spiritual” side, I think it was shaped by the experience of playing computer games from a young age.

I actually wasn’t able to write about Civilization for this new book—(and I’ve played every version from I to V). But there’s one game I do write about that maybe resonates with what you say about death. It’s the first game I ever played, Suspended, a text-based game published by Infocom in the early-80s. I was seven when I played it. It was designed for adults and much-older kids. In the game you are in cryogenic suspension. You’re also the president of the world. They wake you only if things go really wrong. So you are awakened, and now you have to save the world by manipulating six robots in an underground bunker. The robots each stand for a sense, and the sixth stands for intelligence. Their names were Sensa, Auda, Whiz, etc. You had to type your commands into the keyboard, and the game had this very limited vocabulary. It was super hard, and I wasn’t nearly smart enough to solve it. In fact I never was able to get further than five or six moves before being killed by a mysterious enemy. I played it for three months straight.


I died for three months straight, every day. That’s an important experience for an eight-year-old to have. My parents’ generation didn’t have it. I remember wondering, How many times can a person die? I remember lying in my bed, slowly imagining my senses being removed one by one, thinking, I can’t see, I can’t hear, I can’t feel. Who am I? I am a being who can die one trillion times.

EXCERPTS

An excerpt from White Out is available at http://muumuuhouse.com/mwc1.html

An excerpt from Taipei is available at http://www.vice.com/read/an-excerpt-from-tao-lins-taipei

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