Book Review

Taking Leave

On March 30th of this year came the gut-wrenching news that contemporary literature had lost one of its finest, strangest, and most attentive readers, the publisher and man of letters Giancarlo DiTrapano. A man of Falstaffian spirit and appetites (for new writing, for friendship, for booze, and for drugs), DiTrapano founded and edited New York Tyrant magazine as well as Tyrant Books, a small but influential imprint that published books such as Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG. From the outside, DiTrapano—or “Gian,” as his many friends called him—possessed a particular vision as well as an open mind: he liked writing that was influenced by the internet but didn’t suffer for it.

In the weeks following DiTrapano’s sudden and mysterious passing—found dead at forty-seven in a Manhattan hotel room, back in town to meet with some writers he’d been courting—a social constellation emerged. One collection of remembrances—thirty-two writers clocking 41,000 total words—was published by Muumuu House, a small press founded by DiTrapano’s friend, the writer Tao Lin. Back in the early 2010s, the two had been especially close, swapping book recs and trading Adderalls for Oxycontins. This was around the time that Lin published his somewhat infamous, hyper-autobiographical third novel, Taipei, which detailed, among other things, his extensive drug use. At the time, Lin’s work was considered by detractors to be poisoned by irony, that trademark millennial trait.

But then something funny happened. In recent years, Lin re-emerged as something of a twenty-first-century sage, moving from pharmaceuticals to psychedelics and relocating from New York to Hawaii. Early last summer, in the wake of DiTrapano’s death, a meme account appeared on Instagram, one almost wholly devoted to the upcoming launch of Lin’s new novel, Leave Society.[1] The account, called @taolincellectuals, is run by a collection of young writers who, whether they know it or not, have adopted Giancarlo DiTrapano’s mission and carried it onward. Taking Lin’s own stylistic maturation as their model (though perhaps his early writing was misdiagnosed, being far less glib than people initially assumed), they have come to champion something called “Alt Lit 2.0,” a genre that counters millennial ennui and espouses a more earnest, life-affirming, Romantic vision. A voice shaped by the internet can still be sincere, they claim, a notion that DiTrapano championed all along.

All this aside, I wasn’t sure if Leave Society would live up to the hype or up to its evocative (and assertive) title. The novel I encountered was in fact rather subtle, almost subdued, tracing the lonely life of a thirty-something writer named Li. Like Lin himself, “Li had been addicted to amphetamines, benzodiazepines, and other pharmaceutical drugs for three years”:

He’d ended the increasingly life-threatening phase by isolating himself in his apartment in Manhattan, replacing pills and friends and most of culture with cannabis and books, and finding new interests: history, nature, psychedelics, the imagination, his parents, and his body—six things he’d previously mostly ignored. When he got to Taiwan for his current ten-week visit, he’d been ensconced in stoned hermitude for fourteen months, during which he’d begun to view himself as recovering not just from pharmaceutical drugs but from nearly everything.

For Li (and, one assumes, for Lin, there being a very thin boundary separating character from creator), society-leaving is as much a mental process as it is a literal exodus. When he thinks to himself that, “more people needed to go to the edges of society and observe and think from there,” he is lying prone in the guest room of his parents’ apartment, itself located in the middle of Taipei, a city of 2.646 million. Indeed, almost all of the action of the novel—if it can even be called “action,” consisting mostly of diaristic jottings—takes place in either Taipei or “4K,” Li’s cramped New York apartment. Though it moves fluidly between these two cities, Leave Society is dominated by Li’s annual trips to Taipei, which become, perhaps unintentionally at first, a crucial part of his recovery process. Stretching from 2014 to 2017, these familial visits, all of them lasting roughly ten weeks, provide a structure for the novel, each one making up one of the novel’s four sections (“Year of Mercury,” “Year of Pain,” “Year of Mountains,” “Year of Unknown”).

Despite their evocative titles, these trips blend together. Tripping on LSD on a near daily basis, Li spends his time cooking, writing, researching, bickering with his parents, intermediating when they bicker with each other, and reading somewhat obscure nonfiction books like Cure Tooth Decay and The Twenty-Four Hour Mind. Leave Society often feels like a catalog of bodily developments, a dossier of setbacks, cures, and false diagnoses. “At dinner, Li saw his mom touch her jaw,” Lin writes. “He asked if it hurt. She said it had hurt ever since she bit into a spare-rib bone in Florida, two months earlier.”

The resulting style possesses a hypnotic banality, or a form of “dream accuracy,” as Li calls it at one point. Lin’s language is spare but carefully selected, bristling with radiant strangeness. Some of the effect comes from a different sort of selection, a culling and reworking of “more than half a million words of notes” that Li claims to have amassed over four years of work, a process that has “deepen[ed] his lifelong lesson on the distortions, techniques, creativity, and limits of memory.” Li(n)’s “dream accuracy,” while derived partially from his insistent documentation of daily life, stems also from his ongoing pursuit of “the mystery,” a nearly indefinable realm based on the admission that “things” (“electrons, stars, trees, birds, minds”) exist outside culture. Through solitude, reading, and a plentiful ingestion of what he drolly refers to as “cannabis,” Li is able occasionally to make contact with the mystery, which he imagines as “a humbling, friendly, joinable presence.”

The domain of the mystery feels both fantastical and historic, half-imagined but also accessible through the aid of research. It could be considered synonymous with a certain type of awe, a sensation that earlier societies likely had an easier time accessing:

[Li had] read in The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture . . . that Chinese civilization also began with millennia of Goddess-worship­ping partnership societies. The Zhaobaogou, Yangshao, Hongshan, and other cultures had sculpted nude and pregnant female figurines that resembled those from the same period in the West, including in Old Europe.

For Li, “recovery” is a multifarious act, and while it does involve detoxing from hard drugs, it also requires a weaning away from our own “dominator society,” which has, through “war addiction” and the worship of male deities, “barricaded itself from the mystery’s two known forms (nature and the imagination).”

And so Li reaches a dilemma: if leaving society involves a grasping towards the mystery, one must retain a certain degree of openness, or else risk mimicking and rebuilding dominator culture’s self-induced barricade. “I need friends,” Li thinks halfway through the novel. “Talking only to his parents in a stunted vernacular seemed adverse to mental health.” Slowly, and then all at once, Li begins dating Kay, a publisher who lives in his building. Even though this change is handled subtly, it amounts to an explosion, casting a new light upon everything that came before it. “Hanging upside down” in his apartment one evening, “Li realized a relationship might help and deepen and complexify, not necessarily disrupt or detract from, his recovery-novel-life.” Suddenly—and with great delight—we realize that Leave Society is as much a novel about Li’s re-socialization as it is about his period of self-imposed isolation.

“I’ll miss you all,” Li tells his mom and dad at the end of his final visit, “looking deliberately at each parent’s face. . . . He’d last told his mom he’d miss her when he was maybe ten. He couldn’t remember ever telling his dad.” Maybe the only way out of society is by passing through it.

About halfway through the collection of remembrances of Giancarlo DiTrapano that Tao Lin organized for Muumuu House, there came a brief entry from the writer Jon Lindsey. “I sent Gian my novel,” Lindsey wrote. “He rejected it. I cried.”

Then I found another publisher. I didn’t need Gian’s love, but still I needed Gian’s love. I sent him an advance copy of the book.

I wrote: This book is dosed. Lick the toad. Love, Jon.

He wrote back: I just finished the copy you sent and it’s so fucking good. God dammit I’m so pissed at myself. But also so damn impressed . . .

Though it hasn’t instigated the same notoriety as Leave Society, Lindsey’s novel, Body High[2]—his debut—has steadily gained a cult following since it was published by the tiny press House of Vlad in May. Over the course of the spring and into the summer, I kept seeing its cover on my Instagram feed (it’s become a favorite of the admins of @taolincellectuals), and it’s a difficult cover to forget, with its car­toonish depiction of an upturned, adult male ass splayed out on a bright green towel. This adult male ass, covered partially by a worn-out pair of tighty whities, is riddled with pink boils and orange worms. Green, blue, and pink pills crowd around the novel’s title—which looks to be drawn with radioactive ketchup—as well as around Lindsey’s name—which is printed inside a swimming pool colored rectangle meant to evoke the design scheme of a Vintage Contemporaries title from the ’80s or ’90s.

It is difficult to read Body High without letting this graphic first impression influence the texture of everything that unfolds in the pages that follow (cheers to you, designer Andrew Sexton!). If one were to assert that the ensuing text feels no less cartoonish than this cover, it might be interpreted as a dig . . . but it’s not. Body High is an L.A. novel, after all. We first encounter Lindsey’s protagonist, Leland, in the midst of his mother’s funeral, which is of the extra-sordid SoCal variety: the scene is littered with countless mustachioed ex-boyfriends of hers, “self-medicating men who stuck around until my mom stopped fronting them pills or payday loans, only to pop up again months or years later in the same wandering way.” Pro wrestlers, motorcyclists, even the pastor—everyone’s an ex, an addict, and a rival of Leland’s, someone who stole quality time from him and his now-dead single parent.

This cast of characters gives Body High the feel of a souped-up, washed out, contemporary update of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust—like West, Lindsey seems to relish writing about Tinseltown’s losers and hangers-on. At the end of the novel’s second chapter, as he carries his mother’s casket (“A dark reflective wood I can lose myself in. I did good”), Leland stumbles and loses his grip. Out tumbles the corpse of a Jack Nicholson impersonator. Of course, Leland is a loser himself, a born one. His primary achievement is a not-quite-finished screenplay called Wrestling with Blood. His right ass-cheek is being overtaken by an “oozing,” festering wound. He is (like all his mother’s exes and his mother herself) a drug addict, a not-so-young man who supports his habit by subjecting his body to paid “human research experiments.” Though he tells everyone that he made these sacrifices to help his mother, “in reality, government disability checks covered [her] rent.” The kidney he sold? “I leave out the part about the Armenian scammers who strong-armed me into the operation.”

Body High is the story of a bender to end all benders. Right after the funeral, Leland’s best friend—a pro wrestler called “Freedom Fighter,” or “FF” for short—picks him up in his “auction-bought police cruiser” so that they can cruise out toward East L.A. to pick up some “Mexican oxy.” A woman—a teenager, rather—is sitting shotgun. “It’s Jolene,” she tells an obviously confused Leland. “Your auntie.” Over the course of the next few days, cutting up lines and downing stolen bottles of wine, Leland and Jolene fall into a near-incestuous codependency, Jolene becoming, for Leland, a twisted fill-in for his mother. After a particularly damaging fight:

“I’m sorry,” I say to Jolene. “I was a jerk. You’re beautiful.”

I mean it. She is. Even here at the gas station, near the pumps.

Especially her. The sun in her hair. My mother’s hair.

Finding himself falling for his “almost eighteen”-year-old aunt, Leland cuts himself excuse after excuse, confusing shared trauma for romantic love. Soon enough, Jolene shacks up with FF instead, leaving Leland hapless and alone. “I’ve treated my life as an afterthought,” Leland thinks to himself as he lies in a hospital bed, having nearly died after yet another experiment.

Out of guilt I’ve abused myself, sold my body little by little, to pay into my mother’s wound. Bottomless. Devoured. I’ll never get loaded enough to fill the wound. Likewise, I’ll never get high enough to escape it.

To truly heal, I need to cut off my family.

Set in Palo Alto, about five hours north of Leland’s lurid Los Angeles, the first chapter of Pola Oloixarac’s Mona[3] explodes off the page with a bravado that is self-aware yet unimpeded. Like Oloixarac herself, Mona is an upstart Argentinean writer whose well-received debut novel has “tossed her onto the beach of a certain impetuous prestige—and at a time when being a ‘woman of color,’ in the vade mecum of American racism, began to confer a chic sort of cultural capital.” When applying for a doctorate at Stanford, “Mona had clicked ‘Hispanic, Indigenous,’ and typed ‘Inca’ in the box underneath. This was Silicon Valley, right? She might as well try to Lean In.”

Like Leland in Body High, Mona is hell-bent on running away from herself, attempting to bury her traumas with a healthy serving of substances (Valium sent from a shrink in Lima, wine, and a whole lot of what Tao Lin would call “cannabis”)—except she’s more tight-lipped about what exactly it is that she’s trying to drown out. The early pages of the novel are stippled with clues, however, like when Mona boards a flight to Sweden (she’s a nominee for the illustrious-yet-fictional “Basske-Wortz Prize”) and refers to the plane as a “fuselage,” conjuring the image of a crash landing. Mona’s ongoing reflection is also periodically interrupted by italicized interjections, which are eventually revealed to be texts from a jilted lover: “Can we talk?”; “Are you at home?”; “You can’t just run off like that. I’m coming over.

The opening chapters of Mona are a master class in developing and amplifying suspense; they also contain a vivid and intimate portrayal of a hyperactive, troubled, and alluring mind. Mona is outrageous, observant, and hilarious, aware that her white peers see her as nothing more than the “heiress to the Boom, a young tigress of that feral breed resulting from that marriage of guns and books, scioness of the only respectable aristocracy in Latin America.” But Mario Vargas Llosa she is not! Mona is instead the sort of writer who is able to keep us at arm’s length while still divulging some of the innermost parts of herself, like a daydream resembling “a traditional Nordic porno: men in the sauna, barely covered by their towels, watching as she got boned in a frenzy of ecstatic alcoholism and barbituric delight.”

If the ensuing chapters of Mona disappoint then, it is no fault of the title character herself. Too much time is devoted to the close-minded fellow writers insistent on typecasting her—after she flies away from the burning fuselage of her life in Palo Alto, Mona spends the rest of the novel in Sweden, attending lectures and making small talk with the other nominees for the “Basske-Wortz.” “Are those writers still so important to young people in South America?” one finalist asks her. “Now that leftist culture is mainstream, it means absolutely nothing,” opines another. Even though this insufferable environment is at least filtered through the mind of someone attention-worthy (i.e., Mona herself), we cannot help but groan when Mona remarks, “The festivals are the real novels!” Please Mona, we scrawl in the margins, you are the real novel!

Published mere weeks after the ousting of the self-appointed king of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus[4] is a scorching and oftentimes hilarious novel that feels both timely and out of time. It is framed as a remembrance written by Ruben Blum, “an historian” emeritus at Corbin College, a fictional liberal arts school in Upstate New York. Though Rube’s account is beamed from a contemporary context (“the youth today is more sensitive than ever,” he grumbles), it details a very specific and decidedly distant period—September 1959 through January 1960—one that unfolded not too long after he became “the first Jew ever hired by Corbin College.”

The son of immigrants from Kiev who settled in the Bronx, Blum is a Jewish historian but not a historian of the Jews (he is, instead, an “Americanist”). Growing up, he was torn between the ideals espoused by his schoolteachers and his rabbis: “the history in my regular schooling was all about progress, a world that brightened with the Enlightenment and steadily improved,” whereas at “my Hebrew school history was closed: it was no history; there was no past, no present no future,” just a “perpetual waiting for a tarrying messiah, whom my public-schoolmates were convinced had already come.” Even though his rabbis are certain “that hate would again find its vessel and we’d be kicked out of America too, kicked out or murdered,” Blum seems to have sided with his secular schoolteachers: “America was the most exceptional exception. I myself was waking proof of its dream.”

And what an odd dream it is! Ensconced in distant, wooded Corbindale, more than eight hours northwest of New York City, Blum and his wife Edith—his high school sweetheart and the daughter of wealthier, more secularized Jews than his parents—find themselves subjected to an almost laughably trite variety of anti-Semitism: “the stupid quips about cheapness by the Maytag repairman”; “the under-the-halitotic-breath ‘yid’ or ‘kike.’” But more than anything, he, Edith, and their daughter Judy (a teen horribly unhappy with her not-so-goyish nose) find themselves subjected to “a constant sort of low-level condescension: the sense that we should feel lucky to be there at all.”

Desperately trying to fit in, afraid of wearing “madras when corduroy was once again in-season,” Blum is called into a meeting with the head of the history department, the clueless and WASPy Dr. Morse. Amidst hemming, hawing, and whiskey swilling, Morse finally spits out his request: he wants Rube to sit in on a hiring committee even though his turn isn’t up yet; “we think this is a special exception,” he drawls. But the candidate is no “Americanist” like Blum—his specialty is “the Medieval Era,” or rather, “Medieval Iberia and . . . the history of the Jews.” This visiting foreigner is none other than Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an arch-Zionist propagandist, a failing academic, and the father of the future prime minister of Israel. “So I’m asking . . . if I can rely on you to sort of welcome him here and chaperone him around, sort of make him feel comfortable,” Morse concludes.

Except all Jews are not the same. Only a decade prior to the period Blum is writing about, the State of Israel was founded. And just as “displaced and refugee Jews were busy reinventing themselves into a single people, united by the hatreds and subjugations of contrary regimes,” a simultaneous and “kindred mass-process was occurring here in America, where Jews were busy being deinvented, or uninvented, or assimilated.” But a single people did not emerge in either place—it’s easy for us to forget that at one point there were many different types of “Zionism.” And while the Labor Zionists—socialist, scholarly, and possessing a utopianism that now seems woefully naïve—held power early on, today, when we refer to “Zionism,” we are referring to a once-marginal ideology peddled by Ben-Zion Netanyahu and his peers, one that came to be termed “Revisionist Zionism.”

In the eyes of the Revisionists, the Labor Zionists were meek and dithering, only slightly less loathsome than the Arabs who stood in their way. The crucial distinction between the liberal and conservative camps was “the question of whether a land or the land should be negotiated or seized,” as one Hebrew University professor puts it in a rather damning letter of “recommendation” written on Netanyahu’s behalf (a formal technique that Cohen employs masterfully). Unlike the left-leaning Zionists, who considered founding a Jewish state in places like Dutch Suriname and Baja California, Netanyahu (a self-selected surname translating to “God-Given”) and the Revisionists

refused to wait for the world to “give” the Jews a homeland, whenever and wherever the great powers pleased; God had already “given” the Jews a homeland in Palestine; it was there. It was waiting for them (it was Netan-yahu); all they had to do was take it.

A similar mindset pervades once the “Yahus” (as Blum begins calling them) show up in Corbindale with their three troublemaking sons unexpectedly in tow. “These people don’t give, they take,” Edith whispers angrily to Rube in the kitchen, their house suddenly plunged into a state of disarray. But despite their boorishness and their wrong-headed macho ideologies (there is an especially noteworthy scene in which a young Bibi watches a gunslinging Western on Rube’s color television alongside his brother Yoni, future IDF officer and martyr for the Revisionist cause), the “Yahus”—or at least Ben-Zion himself—do give Rube something. And what they give him is not a nice or a comfortable thing, but instead the sickening feeling that all of his aspirational assimilating is for naught. “This is what I think of American Jews—nothing,” Rube imagines Netanyahu telling him.

You, Ruben Blum, are out of history; you’re over and finished; in only a generation or two the memory of who your people were will be dead, and America won’t give your unrecognizable descendants anything real with which to replace the sense of peoplehood it took from them.

Set in a tiny village on a remote mountaintop in an unnamed corner of Europe, Lucie Elven’s arresting debut, The Weak Spot[5], also feels somewhat “out of history,” despite being set in a seemingly contemporary context. The novel is written from the perspective of a young woman—also unnamed—who comes to the village in order to apprentice for a local pharmacist, the charismatic-yet-inscrutable August Malone. Malone’s pharmacy is—like the rest of the town square upon which it sits—accessible only by funicular, and its customers seem sent from a distant, antiquated time. As instructed by Malone, the narrator treats these customers with care and takes pains to draw out their life stories, even if they have little to do with their actual ailments. These “methods seemed fussy to me at first, but they were effective,” she remarks, realizing how popular Malone is with the locals and how much this aids business.

But a sense of dread looms amidst the hilltops studded with fir trees, and an allegorical fable about a haunted Europe emerges. In its secluded, forested setting, The Weak Spot recalls Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but the mood it conjures evokes his story “Mario and the Magician,” in which vacation-goers witness the sickening advance­ment of fascism in Italy and across Europe at large. A master manipulator, Malone runs for town mayor, leaving the narrator and the rest of her colleagues—all women, notably—to keep the pharmacy running. “As it was, I just worked,” the narrator confesses. “It seemed that I must be walking around in a long pause, an ellipsis, ignorant of a world event. . . . Bluebells embalmed the woods and my daily routine felt like an extension of my dreams.”

Elven’s sentences possess a dream-like opacity (a quality markedly different from Tao Lin’s translucent “dream accuracy”), allowing her narrator to mimic some of her mentor’s own manipulations and evasions. As different secrets bubble up—hers, Malone’s, her colleagues’, the townspeople’s—she begins to lose sight of her own outline, walking about the village like a phantom, imagining “an army coming into view on the next mountain.” If this evocative murkiness induces an occasional readerly frustration, distancing us somewhat, it more often provides a worthwhile payoff, drawing us deeper into the night, which stands ready to engulf us.
[1] LEAVE SOCIETY, by Tao Lin. Vintage Contemporaries. $16.00p.

[2] BODY HIGH, by Jon Lindsey. House of Vlad. $13.00p.

[3] MONA, by Pola Oloixarac, trans. by Adam Morris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00.

[4] THE NETANYAHUS, by Joshua Cohen. New York Review Books. $16.95p.

[5] THE WEAK SPOT, by Lucie Elven. Soft Skull Press. $15.95p.