Shoplifting from American Apparel (Contemporary Art of the Novella)
by Tao Lin
Reviewed by Katie Nolfi
In Shoplifting from American Apparel things just happen and they are not very interesting or meaningful. Occasionally they are funny. Usually they are depressing. Tao Lin's 112-page novella from Melville House's "Contemporary Art of the Novella" series is drained of emotion and unfettered by inflection and exclamation, a portrait of a soulless modernity with the consolation of technology and yummy vegan treats. Lin writes with a flat passionless prose, a posed naivete belying a canny sophistication. Shoplifting is too dour to be twee, but it shares an affected childishness with bands like The Moldy Peaches and it has a put-on weirdness reminiscent of Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You. There is no universal experience here, but a privacy and a particularity to Lin's writing as if the book were written for five people. And at the same time Lin as a writer seems to be secondary to Lin as a microcelebrity artman. He seems to use writing as a way to cultivate a persona and to record the ironic, idiosyncratic cultural moment.
Even in this short and spare work, it is fatiguing to read the commoditized so-called underground undeservedly claiming elevation over mainstream consumer and work choices. From Ghost Mice to Lorrie Moore to Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich, stock objects reign in Lin's imagination superior to subjects. What you eat and who you know can improve your life and Pilates can make you a better person. Lin's characters value lifestyle above moods, relationships, or social activism. The means of Sam's self-actualization can be bought. Here the ephemeral retains primacy over the durable. Time and place are evoked not by detailed descriptions, tone, or theme, but by brands and bands. Shoplifting is so vague that it is difficult to interpret what is ironic, what is not, and what may be a commentary on the postmodern urban condition.
Shoplifting's slip of a protagonist is Sam, a writer who spends his time shoplifting, drinking soymilk with green tea extract, masturbating, sleeping, and using Gmail Chat. And he is a cult writer who does not seem to spend much time writing. He and his friends connect through commercial culture, not history. They share the saleable and trendy, and not the ancestral or traditional, that which can be reclaimed through memory. The friends come together and move apart so impassively it is difficult to tell if anyone really cares. An arrest, a mental hospital stay, nothing seems to really matter.
There is so little aboutness in Lin's work. From Sam's narration, a reader can extract themes of loneliness, the nature of happiness, the role and responsibility of the artist, and the vacuity and meaning of internet relationships. But I was angry with this little book so wrapped in layers of irony and without a thesis. With Shoplifting, Lin punishes his reader with banality interrupted by violence and possibly searching for a purpose. The reader is so isolated from the work, from the act of reading this distancing pocket novella. Unwillingly, Lin confirms the impossibility of bohemia with his version of a writer's life. Freedom and happiness are not even possible for a cult writer who can sleep until 3:30 pm, eat cereal for a midday meal, and scream at strangers for kicks. Even without the bondage of full time employment, life is monotonous and bleak. Tao Lin describes this book as "2 parts shoplifting arrest, 5 parts vague relationship issues." (Numerics his own not mine.) I would describe it as a vehicle for his performance art and self promotion, an amorphous work without many points of access for the reader.