The latest from internet wunderkind Tao Lin is a tricky little Magic Eye of a novella. At first glance, Shoplifting from American Apparel appears to be static, flat, and maybe even pointless, but then, if you look at it the right way, weird depths and crevasses start to appear all over the place—all of which might just be products of your own overworking brain.
I’ve read this herky-jerky, pause-and-fast-forward journey through the life of an alienated Brooklyn writer twice over, and I still can’t tell if Lin is making the reader do the heavy lifting for him. It’s kind of like Bob Dylan telling that hapless reporter in Dont Look Back that truth is nothing but a hobo puking in the gutter, and then going silent, his ultra-cool expression screaming, “You figure it out!”
Either way, I like Lin’s book quite a lot. And he seems like less of a jerk than Dylan circa ’65.
The alienated writer in question is Sam. He’s published some books and has achieved some measure of online success, but his day-to-day life is a succession of eating organic vegan salads, going on Gmail chat, making smoothies, and having existential freak-outs in which his standard line is “I am fucked.” He also has the occasional fleeting thought about literature. By all accounts, Sam functions as a pretty good stand-in for Lin himself.
The most remarkable aspect of the book is how little flourish there is. Nearly every sentence is a short declaration, dictating action without any emotion or even basic physical descriptions. The only time you’ll hear how characters feel is when they voice it aloud, à la “I feel good.” Time skips ahead in sizable chunks, seemingly at will. You get the sense that you’re watching these people from above, but it’s less a bird’s-eye view than a plane’s.
For this reason, Lin’s writing has been disparaged as approaching the sociopathic, but that’s missing the point. As the esteemed British novelist Ian McEwan put it, “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.” So the question becomes: what happens when you withhold basically all information?
Two other things that occupy Sam’s life are shoplifting and girls, though he’s as uncommitted to these as everything else. With every paragraph that opens with a jarring “Two months later” comes a new woman, each of whom seems to float into Sam’s life without him trying all too hard. The names are often all we find out about these ephemeral females: Sheila, Kaitlyn, Hester, Audrey.
And lest you think Lin is flattering himself through a thinly veiled alter ego, you should know Sam doesn’t sleep with any of them, though at least one unsubtly propositions him. He’s not Casanova, you see; he’s more the strong, silent, awkward, emotionally unavailable type. He wants to connect, but doesn’t know how.
Then there’s the shoplifting. Sam tries and fails to steal from two different stores, with one of the episodes giving the book its title. Neither has much sway on the general thrust of the book—in fact, the general thrust seems to be time itself—but at least they’re full of excellent dialogue. At one point, a rowdy drunk exclaims, out of nowhere, “You don’t want to fuck with a man who is smarter than Einstein.”
True, the book might not add up to all that much. Sam does remain true to his own moral code, but nobody, Sam included, seems to know exactly what that means. And there’s nothing really at stake, unless you consider the process of growing older and unhappier raised stakes enough (personally, I do).
Regardless, Shoplifting from American Apparel is wry and tantalizing in its opaqueness, and this is no small achievement. Like a Magic Eye, once you figure out the trick, you want to return to it again and again.
Melville House, 112 pp, $16, paperback
(review originally appeared in Crab Town Magazine, November 22, 2009)