By Jack Knorps.
Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel, Melville House, 2009
Tao Lin’s fifth book, and first novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, will probably not register on any mainstream pop culture radar, but if you are at all interested in the future of literature, take notice. It is not going to win any awards, but it is a stop-gap between Lin’s first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and his forthcoming second novel Richard Yates, a work that hints at Lin moving in a more mainstream direction, with greater exposure, and an increasing legion of fans. This book is about a main character named Sam (who seems almost entirely autobiographical), and various friends Luis, Sheila, Kaitlyn, Paula, Hester, Joseph, Chris, Jeffrey, and Audrey. Sam does shoplift from American Apparel and then later he shoplifts from the NYU Computer Store, a pair of $40 Sony In-Ear headphones. Sam works at an organic vegan restaurant in the East Village, I think, and he has to do two days of community service in order for the shoplifting arrest to be expunged from his record.
According to Lin, “I would say 100% of Shoplifting from American Apparel is autobiographical. I think nothing is “made up”….If forced to say what percent of the book is “true” I would say 97%.” So it appears that it would be most accurate to label it under “creative non-fiction.”
I have only previously read Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin and I would have to say that there are generally less plot holes in this book than in that one, though “plot holes” is an inaccurate term – “minimalist detail” might be closer to the truth. More to the point, Eeeee Eee Eeee features a number of absurdist elements like talking bears and dolphins and celebrity slaughterhouse imagery, whereas Shoplifting is content to stay firmly planted in the real world, even if it is a narrowly defined one. This is my biggest complaint about Lin’s work as a whole, and I’d imagine a potentially serious issue for his critics. Detail is eschewed in the name of wit, or poignancy. Minimalism is evoked and any hope that a comprehensive exploration of any particular subject is going to happen is squelched. If there is anything this book does explore comprehensively, it is the phenomenon of GChat, along with other internet staples of today, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Photobucket.
Apparently, his focus has shifted over the years: “My first story-collection, Bed, was one prose style. Bed had many long sentences, adverbs, adjectives, words I normally don’t say “in real life,” semi-colons, and em-dashes. The rhetorical parts of my first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, also employ this style that was first seen in my oeuvre in Bed. The other prose style I have worked in, I feel, is that of Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates. These two books have almost no concrete details and very little adjectives, adverbs, semi-colons, or em-dashes. The sentences are short and I use only words I would also feel “normal” saying “in real life.” I feel that both styles can reach a large audience. Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut do not provide much detail and seem to have a large audience. William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon seem to have very long sentences that probably provide many details and they also seem to have a large audience.”
If it is not already clear at this point, Tao Lin may not be for you. It is easy to see why his work as a whole has been extremely divisive. On the one hand, there are struggling writers who work in a much more traditional style who feel their work may be “about something” – whether it be vampires, struggling with mental illness or a traumatic experience, serial dating or shopping in an urban environment, the world of fashion, or the experience of being a soldier in a controversial war – and are constantly met with rejection. These comprise half of Lin’s critics – and the other half are the part of the literary establishment that seek to promulgate their MFA credentials by supplementing their income with teaching, who mistake minimalism in their student’s work for laziness.
But then there are those who understand where Lin is coming from, to a certain extent. He has amassed a rather impressive contingent of fans and in his work they see themselves – that is, lonely, depressed, and probably spending too much time on the internet. Any visit to his blog (formerly entitled “Reader of Depressing Books,” now listed as the difficult-just-for-the-sake-of-it http://heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com/), and the many comments on any of his posts, will show that now, approximately 50% of his followers have adopted his voice and pose.
But it would not be fair to call Lin’s aesthetic a “pose” – because it is authentic, if anything. Of course it is sarcastic, and while it may come off as flippant at first blush, upon further review the tone is refreshingly honest, and free of pretense.
And it is also not fair to say that Shoplifting is meaningless. True, it does seem that Lin simply doesn’t care about satisfying a reader’s expectations, but there is a story here: Sam’s relationship with Sheila, which is almost immediately over in a very short number of pages with eight months elapsing almost instantaneously; the psychiatric effects of GChats with Luis in the wake of this heartbreak and larger issues of emotional well-being; the shoplifting crimes themselves, which act as fulcrums to the story at the ¼ and ¾ points, respectively; the Scrabble-induced hook-up with Paula and the ambiguous sleepover with Kaitlyn; the pining for Sheila during the course of a later relationship with Hester, who seems to not let Sam be himself; the long denouement, somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Eeeee, that details the course of a weekend spent in Gainesville, FL to perform a reading (which describes the actual beginning of Shoplifting) at a free vegan buffet at a record store; and finally, the revelation of Sheila’s current state. There is one celebrity appearance, by the musician Moby, but it should not offend any fans of his (as certain depictions of Sean Penn did for me in Eeeee).
Today, there is no other literary figure of his age that has caused so much controversy and received so much criticism, praise, and gossip – much of it his own doing. In now “famous” PR moves, he has sold royalty shares from his novel to be published in 2010, Richard Yates, for $2000 a piece, he has sold his profile on MySpace, and he has started his own literary imprint which features similarly-minded writing from authors in the same approximate demographic. This leads me to the analogy that, what Calvin Johnson is to music, Tao Lin is to literature. While the underground music scene in the 1980s spread their message through zine culture, the underground literary scene twenty-five years later is conducted through the blogosphere. And like Johnson, Lin espouses some of the same virtues: veganism, a “twee” sensibility, and the support of other artists with a similar aesthetic. If this comparison holds up, Lin can expect as long and fruitful a career as Johnson’s, so long as he remains true to his original ideals.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jack Knorps can be found at Flying Houses.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009.