a novel by Tao Lin published by Vintage in 2021
The day Li arrived in Taipei for a ten-week visit, he and his parents went to a surgeon to discuss his chest deformity. The surgeon asked Li what he did. Li said he wrote novels.
“Knows about everything, then?”
“I write novels so I know nothing,” said Li, who normally might’ve replied, “Ng,” a grunted word meaning “yes,” “right,” “okay,” or “I see,” but was on a quarter-tab of LSD.
Li’s mom laughed a little.
The surgeon opened a computer presentation on pectus excavatum, which affected around 1 in 125 people and had no known cause. First described in print in the sixteenth century, it gave one a sunken, undersized chest, crowding and flattening the heart and lungs. Surgical correction began in 1911. This surgeon had done the Nuss procedure, in which curved metal bars were embedded behind the ribs and sternum for up to four years, around six hundred times.
Li had felt deformed since grade school. In Florida, among scant Asians, he’d usually been the smallest boy in each class. His six-years-older brother, Mike, had called him fish lips, buckteeth, mutant, and other names that had made him feel self-conscious and ugly. In high school and college, he’d been a frail, gloomy, awkward, anxious, troublingly shy loner. When he learned at age twenty-three that his chest was deformed, he’d rejected surgery, deciding instead to use the insight as motivation to be healthier, but now, at thirty-one, he was reconsidering. Maybe he’d be happier and stabler, with less back pain, if his chest wasn’t concave. He lacked money and insurance, so had talked to his parents, who’d suggested he, who lived in New York City, fly to Taiwan, where healthcare was inexpensive.
It was November 4, 2014. Li got a CT scan. The surgeon looked at images of his chest and said he’d have a sixty-year-old’s heart when he was forty unless he got surgery. The prognosis seemed uncompelling and somewhat vague to Li, who’d recently estimated he’d live to only around fifty.
That night, at his parents’ fifth-floor apartment, Li read “We Are Giving Ourselves Cancer,” a New York Times article that said CT scans gave up to one thousand times the radiation of an X-ray and that 5 percent of future U.S. cancers could result from “exposure to medical imaging.”
He ordered four ebooks on radiation. Nuclear power plants continually produced waste that stayed radioactive for hundreds of millennia, he read. People didn’t know what to do with the toxic material. Some was put into plastic bags. The best containers lasted for only around a century, and leaks were common.
Li read by holding his phone above his face while supine in bed with bent knees. Back pain had restricted him to a small set of robotic postures, except for when he was on cannabis or LSD, strong anti-inflammatants. He preferred cannabis but had feared getting caught sneaking it into Taiwan, so had brought scentless, tiny LSD instead. It was his only reliable reprieve from pained disillusionment. He used it daily.
After reading for a while, Li realized CT scans emitted electromagnetic radiation and that he’d bought four ebooks on nuclear radiation. He didn’t seem to know the difference, or what the word “radiation” meant, but he felt confident he could learn.
In the past year, inspired by philosopher Terence McKenna to try to understand his own reality, Li had begun to pay less attention to fiction, newspapers, and magazines, and more attention to scientific journals, independent researchers, non-profit organizations, and nonfiction books. The world seemed more complex, terrible, hopeful, meaningful, and magical than he’d previously thought or heard.
From The Chalice and the Blade, in which Riane Eisler coined the terms “partnership” and “dominator” to describe the two underlying models of society; The Archaic Revival, McKenna’s argument for restoring aboriginal (a word derived from the Latin “ab origine,” meaning “from the source”) values; When God Was a Woman; and other books, he’d read about the global culture’s forgotten backstory: people across Eurasia seemed to have lived in peaceful, egalitarian societies, worshipping nature in the form of female deities, for at least thirty millennia as hunter-gatherers and five millennia as farmers, before the dominator model, introducing war and sexism, emerged in conquering form around 6,500 years ago, nadiring three millennia later with Yahweh, whose tantrums (punishing women by making them be ruled by men, threatening people with eternal hell) the species was still trying to recover from.
Five days after seeing the surgeon, Li and his parents went to a cardiologist, who said, “Some Japanese live in small houses, some in big houses. One’s not better than the other. It’s the same with chests.” Li had below-average cardiopulmonary functioning, according to tests by the surgeon, but below average wasn’t abnormal, said the cardiologist, who recommended push-ups.
Outside, Li and his parents praised the cardiologist. Li’s mom, who was sixty-one and had always stressed avoiding surgery due to the risk of coma or death, seemed happier than Li had seen her in years. She asked Li if he was happy that surgery wasn’t required and that the deformity wouldn’t, according to the cardiologist, shorten his life.
Li said no, not especially, because he’d already suspected those things and had already mostly decided against surgery. He wanted to work on his general health. The CT scan seemed to have given him diarrhea, mouth sores, nausea, and heavier night sweats than normal. He’d been waking filmed in cold sweat multiple times a night.
On the train home, Li continued reading about radiation. He’d finished two of his four ebooks. He’d learned that increasing amounts of radioactive atoms from nuclear, coal, oil, and gas power plants; wars; weapons tests; cars; smoke alarms; TVs, and other societal ephemera were in everyone, ejecting destabilizing particles to attain stabler states.
Drawing in his room that night, Li heard his mom in his dad’s office, which was also the TV-and-dining room, saying she was allotting him some money for stocks. “Write down what you want to buy and bring me the paper,” she said, sounding somewhat annoyed, and returned to her office.
She’d gained control of their finances over the past decade, during which Li’s dad had been imprisoned for money laundering and then gotten repeatedly scammed — delivering gold bars to the family of a man he’d met in prison, flying to Belize and Nigeria to give cash to strangers who’d emailed him.
A minute later, Li heard his dad in his mom’s office, half of which was filled with his dad’s cardboard box hoard, saying which stocks he wanted to buy and how. Despite having no money to invest, Li’s dad followed the stock market obsessively, emitting a near constant stream of bickering-fomenting advice.
In bed at 2:30 a.m., Li reminded himself to merge with nature’s experimental creation of portentously ambitious art, scalarly tunneling through matter on the surfaces of planets, toward the unknown other side, because what else was he going to do?
He didn’t want to specialize in embodying and languaging confused alienation anymore, as he had for a decade, writing existential autofiction. He didn’t want to forget that angle either. It seemed auspicious to have distrusted preconceptions, groups, and ideologies for so long. He had less to unlearn.
“Nature isn’t mute,” he thought in distracted review. Something mute wouldn’t unfurl a universe in which to evolve singularityward. Something mute wouldn’t speak people from atoms. Li wondered when he’d be asleep. His pillow-propped feet felt unpleasantly warm and heavy, as if blood had gathered at the wrong end of him.