Scavenging Science: On John Horgan and Tao Lin

by David Kordahl

Covers of Pay Attention and Leave Society

From the moment we’re born into bright hospital lights until that last day when we’re topped off with embalming fluid, it’s hard to escape the human world. By the “human world,” here, I mean the world that we have built for ourselves, a world where, whether or not you know the specific secrets of bridge struts or brain imagers, you can be sure that someone out there knows. Most questions, here, have their straightforward answers. So many, in truth, that you can easily lose sight of the mystery, the “human” part of this world, hidden like a pilot light inside the machine.

John Horgan and Tao Lin are two writers who are each interested in both the “human” and the “world” parts of this, and each has recently written a new autofiction. Pay Attention: Sex, Death, and Science describes a day in the life of Eamon Toole, Horgan’s stand-in, an aging, recently-divorced professor who ruminates on free will as he looks forward to meeting his girlfriend. Leave Society, starring Li as a stand-in for Tao Lin, chronicles Li’s attempts to cure himself from society-induced sicknesses. By the end of the book, getting a girlfriend seems to do the trick.

It’s a little glib to compare these books just because they both involve sad guys who are grateful for their girlfriends. But Pay Attention and Leave Society also rhyme in more significant ways. Both are essentially about the shortcomings of traditional science in capturing the world. Horgan never pushes this idea very far, while Lin pushes it into the realm of pseudo-science. Yet it’s not obvious which book is ultimately more rational. Read more »