Tao Lin is a writer I’ve been meaning to read since seeing praise for his novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. Lin is a self-made phenomenon, seemingly as interested in presentation of himself as in his work, perhaps as keen on ‘being a writer’ as in being a writer: he sold shares in his forthcoming second novel (to be called Richard Yates), and reading his irony-laden interviews, it’s easy to see why various publications have seen in him little but “vacuous posturing” or have considered him “the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with.” Still, the publication of his new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel in Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series, meant the time to read him was finally here.
A way into Shoplifting from American Apparel might be found in Lin’s blog. Just take a look at that URL. Depending on viewpoint, it is stupid, or funny, or – just possibly – a clever reflection on the replication of everything online: the copy-and-pastes, the clicking links, the lack of original content (nobody, after all, is going to be typing that URL in afresh). More than that, the importance of the tiny details also matches the content of the book.
Shoplifting in its opening, reminded me of the first lines of the first story in Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, ‘Bruce Calls from Mulholland’. Lin’s opening shares Ellis’s knowingly blank, mesmerising poetry (“Bruce calls, stoned and sunburned, from Los Angeles and tells me that he’s sorry”) – but without vampires.
Sam woke around 3:30p.m. and saw no emails from Sheila. He made a smoothie. He lay on his bed and stared at the computer screen. He showered and put on his clothes and opened the Microsoft Word file of his poetry. He looked at his email. About an hour later it was dark outside. Sam ate cereal with soymilk. He put things on eBay then tried to guess the password to Sheila’s email account, not thinking he would be successful, and not being successful.
The book continues in this affectless style, which becomes strangely funny when Sam engages in long Gmail chats with his friend Luis.
“I’m going to watch cartoon porn,” said Luis. “No I’m not. I’m going to look at Indian women. Have you ever fucked an Indian girl.”
“No,” said Sam. “Native American or Indian.”
“You are awesome,” said Luis. “Is her picture online.”
“I’m confused,” said Sam. “What are you talking about.”
“How did you meet her,” said Luis.
“No I haven’t,” said Sam. “You’re confused.”
“What are you talking about,” said Luis.
“I haven’t had sex with one,” said Sam.
“Okay,” said Luis. “What are you talking about.”
(The lack of question marks is key, I think, to why I find this funny.) We are in a world where everything is simultaneously uninflected and endlessly reflected upon, which is not surprising given that Sam is a writer very like Tao Lin. “If I’m having a shitty time with Sheila’s mom I think about writing it in my novel later. I think about that the same time it’s happening.” We only occasionally find out how Sam is feeling. “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he tells a friend. “But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really. It just went away after a while.” It’s the lack of disclosure which packs a – bit of a – punch.
Everything here is dealt with in the same manner, almost. Sam’s online chats (which seem a timely acknowledgement of how, these days, so many of us get to “know” others – via social networking sites or blogs like this one – without ever meeting them) are presented with no more or less significance than his arrest for shoplifting from American Apparel. Yet the scales don’t quite balance. When Sam is with his friends, who are as languid and ‘alienated’ as he, the dialogue is pertinent because it’s so cutely banal (“I mean, I feel okay, or something”). In the police holding cell, by contrast, Lin introduces genuine ‘characters’ (“‘I don’t hold in farts,’ said a bony Hispanic lying on his stomach”), who invariably speak more fictionally (in a sense, more truthfully, for the purposes of a work of fiction):
“I am going to kill everyone here,” said the drunk man. “Is everyone okay with that? Is everyone in this cell okay with that?”
Is it a weakness when a book becomes too entertaining? Is Lin adopting a pose, or doing the best he can, and does it matter? The spirit of Shoplifting from American Apparel is that the minutiae of our lives are rarely dealt with in fiction – that the things which take up most of our time are deemed unworthy of writing about. Lin suggests instead that everything is worth writing about, and the result is maddening, saddening and short enough to digest in between reading blog entries and updating your Facebook status.