Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American Apparel

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.

Tao Lin: Shoplifting from American ApparelA 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.


  1. I don’t need to read a book to be maddened and sad about current society’s state.
    Admittedly I read to forget about it.
    I prefer to plunge myseld in the maddening and saddening states of past societies.

    Does this book offer anything else? (Except the beautiful design and aspect of all Melville House books)

  2. A good question, Nick. I suspect that this is a book which will divide opinion. For my own part, I found it entertaining (as indicated above), though already, a couple of weeks after reading it, not especially memorable.

  3. I’m with Nick here. It sounds depressingly vacuous. Tarantino celebrates a similar type of vacuousness in his films and I find them loathsome. Maybe it’s a generation thing or possibly a gender thing. The dialogue between the two men discussing `cartoon porn’ isn’t remotely funny for me but I’ll allow that humour is a very personal matter. ( Hence my failure to appreciate Tarantino’s murderous `wit’) However it does remind me of something I heard on the radio last week where someone was talking about constructing his entire life through twitters and photoblogs and seemed to think this was a fascinating archive he could leave for future generations…..

    1. I’m with you regarding gender and generation. In fact, a lot of times when I don’t “get” something, I just put it down to me being “a woman of a certain age” (and so do my kids), and that may be the case here. But, John’s excellent summation aside, this book sounds utterly vacuous and self-referential in a completely meaningless way.

      I’ll pass, thanks.

  4. I think it’s safe to say that if you expect to find Shoplifting from American Apparel vacuous, you will not be disappointed (as it were). I still feel it had a certain something, and I’ve found an interview with Lin which doesn’t make him sound like a … like he does in the ones I referred to earlier.

    Incidentally Mary, I’ve never seen a Tarantino film (I got about 15 minutes into the hamburger talk at the start of Pulp Fiction and gave up). This might score highly in a modern pop culture version of David Lodge’s game Humiliation.

  5. The excerpts you’ve put up here reminded me of Nick McDonnell. I find this kind of flatlined ennui immediacy engaging in the first instance, entertaining and ultimately unmemorable. I do like caustic listlessness, though, I have to admit that. I’ll even read James Frey. For a bit. If it’s the only thing around. Whatever.

  6. Lee mentioned Nick McDonnell and I just feel the need to say to anyone wondering whether to read him that I did think Twelve a minor masterpiece. His second novel… not so much.

    Anyway, sorry, as you were…

  7. i don’t think women will have a difficult time appreciating SFAA or finding it funny

    i like SFAA. i was as ‘maddened’ and ‘saddened’ as i was ‘delighted’ and ‘moved’

  8. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and felt similarly. I enjoyed it, polished it off in an hour or so, wondered at the oddly affectless prose, and since then have barely thought about it. For what it’s worth to the doubters, I never use Facebook or online chat or anything along those lines, and in fact actively dislike them, but thought Lin handled their incorporation into the story well.

  9. Yes, Sam, I would agree with your comments. The Third Brother is fun (for the ‘difficult’ second effort – not read the newie) but not in the same class as Twelve, which I would suggest is under-appreciated and seems to be along the lines of what Tao Lin is attempting.

  10. Hi John,

    Have you read any Douglas Coupland? It reminds me slightly of Generation X from your description, though that may be an illusory connection. Coupland also embraces the everyday and a kind of comfortable ennui in the absence of greater problems.

    I should probably read more Coupland actually, Generation X and Microserfs were both good, it’s odd I’ve not gone on to his others.

  11. I’ve read some Coupland, Max, though not Generation X. I thought Microserfs was very good but, at 400 pages, about 300 pages too long. I thought Eleanor Rigby and Miss Wyoming so-so. But I really loved Hey Nostradamus! and it was after it that I went on to read the other three. As I didn’t like any of them as much, I haven’t bothered trying any more.

    Nick McDonnell: I remember when Twelve came out, and I dismissed it summarily because the author was only 17 (or something). My loss, it appears.

    1. Again, from the cranky old woman, I don’t think you missed out on much, John. I read Twelve and thought it read like the work of a teenager who had been told by his creative writing teacher that he had some talent and who had read “The Plague” and decided “I can do that.”

      Next thing you know, I’ll be yelling at hippies to get off my lawn!

      1. But no one can do The Plague but Camus.
        Ok, ok, I plead guilty of vulgar French chauvinism.

        By the way, I preferred the Stranger.

  12. I’d have to disagree with Deb. Twelve is nothing of the sort: it’s a perfectly captured glimpse of a Larry Clark-esque New York coterie of young, indolent fuck-ups imploding. It looks very simple – so much good writing does. Executing that style is quite another matter.

  13. When I study Tao Lin’s blog I find that he has a well-thought-out philosophy that is coherent and compassionate. He responds to his critics with respect and humor, by using what Buddhists call ‘skillful means’ (I don’t know if he is a Buddhist, it does not matter). I have learned useful things from his blog, but especially from his responses to comments.

    Marie Ant

    *It is interesting that Tao Lin promotes himself, instead of being promoted by the editors of the Best American Poetry series, which is published by Scribners, which is owned by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS.

  14. John,

    you quoted one of the most relevant truths in SFAA. within this quote lies the reason for war, addiction, and endless suffering in this life;

    ”But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really. It just went away after a while.”

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review!:)

  15. This actually sounds kind of interesting, mostly because I know so many people with that kind of attitude. I am, on the other hand, typically wary of books with chat conversations (they often end up terribly done), but if there aren’t any question marks, it just might be okay! After all, chat-speak is a different language from English. Also different from Internet, the strangest language of them all…

  16. It seems that the author’s first name contains more significance than his work itself.
    John, is the book itself passing judgement on the attitudes described within or is it just portraying them? Does it try to justify the empty lives of the modern subset of [born to middle-class parents in rich country, children until 35, life managed via online software, creating “art” because it’s easier than work]?

    The style (though not the content) reminds of me a bit of Etgar Keret in that it is simple and modern but without resorting to slang and is probably lapped up by teenagers (Keret’s are the most shoplifted books here in Israel).

  17. Should we be passing judgement? Are these attitudes really so terrible, or indeed so unique? Is this the first young generation to feel ennui and apathy? I don’t think so.

    Also, isn’t it a trifle incongruous to criticise life managed by online software (whatever that may be) by means of a response to a blog post?

  18. I read Tao Lin’s collection of short stories, Bed, earlier this year and thought it was excellent. For me, the story ‘Nine, Ten’ really stood out.

    There’s also a short story of his called ‘Sex After Not Seeing Each Other For A Few Days’ available online at Nerve, which I found very funny and well written. I’m looking forward to reading some of his longer work.

    Unlike some previous commenters, I must say that images from Lin’s writing have stayed with me and that his work and voice are very memorable.

    For those who like Lin’s style, it’s worth trying Naive. Super by Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe.

    Also – as a regular browser of Asylum – many thanks to John Self for another excellent review.


  19. Thank you Eva. I read Naive. Super earlier this year, and enjoyed it, but it was just one of those books about which I couldn’t decide what to write; and then the time passed.

    I saw Bed in a bookshop in Edinburgh earlier this year and almost bought it, and still intend to do so at some point.

    Here’s a link to the story you mentioned, Eva – thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Gadi, I don’t think the book is passing judgement at all; but I don’t mind that.

  20. Yes mr waggish (and welcome, by the way); I’ve read The Mezzanine a few times and think it’s wonderful. It comes to mind any time I use a hot air hand dryer, or pull my shoelaces taut, or walk up an escalator. I did also read Room Temperature, but can’t remember much about it except that I thought it too much a retread of The Mezzanine.

  21. Loved A Box Of Matches. I think Stephen King is rather vociferous in his disdain for the minutae-centric style that Baker favours. Always thought that rather a strange standpoint. I love the fact that the aforementioned book centres on a guy who basically gets up extremely early and scrutinises whatever takes his fancy, be it the water dripping from a tap in the gloom of dawn or how the reflection from the fire bounces off walls in silence. Tom Clancy it ain’t, but I love it.

  22. Lord, don’t get me started on Stephen King criticising other people! At least Baker doesn’t end his stories with meaningless solutions pulled out of nowhere, and then tack on ‘The End–or is it?!!’ final paragraphs. And I’d rather carefully considered minutiae than thudding brand-name references and folksy bullshit.

    Really liked all three of the Baker little-details books, though his new one sounds like a bit of a disaster.

  23. I’m surprised and pleased that you read this. But also a little displeased–because you’ve made me want to read it too, a possibility I had finally (after much shilly-shallying) written off after reading about how “Shoplifting can be justified morally. I was shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants.” (http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-09-19/the-hipster-thief/full/) Between that sort of thing and my irritability towards Melville House (awesome design, awesome books, awesome name, annoyingly political blog)…well, anyway. That chat conversation really does it for me. Darn.

  24. I read Baker’s first few and lost track of him after that. (What does it say that the only bit of Vox I remember is the part about music that fades out vs. stopping?) I enjoyed The Mezzanine, but the real winner was U and I, his memoir about his John Updike obsession. Lots of painful details about being a writer and having a writer hero.

  25. Yes, U & I – “a lovely thing”.

    nicole, sorry to have been so damn tantalising. That Lin quote you give sounds like another example of his expert self-promotion.

    Stephen King: what can you say? I’ve only read a couple of his stories (from Different Seasons: ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ and one about a boy who helps an old man who turns out to be a Nazi, or something), neither of which set my world alight. The afterword to the book, however, was more interesting. In it, King tells of how, early in his career, he was warned by his agent that he would get ‘typed’ as a horror writer:

    And I decided … that I could be in worse company. I could, for example, be an ‘important’ writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a ‘brilliant’ writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE McCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers.

    This isn’t a response to others’ criticism, but an unsolicited salvo from King which seems to show what he feels about his own writing. In more conciliatory mode, he goes on to accept his own limitations:

    [M]y stuff … is fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes (though it hurts like hell to admit it) downright clumsy. To some degree or other, I would guess that those very qualities – unadmirable though they may be – have been responsible for the success of my novels. Most of them have been plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries from McDonald’s. I am able to recognise elegant prose and to respond to it, but have found it difficult or impossible to write it myself.

    Anyway, he still finds time to make the odd bitter public proclamation, like this one, that literary awards should pay more attention to popular writers like him. Typically, the only awards King gets nominated for are those voted for by the public. The notion that popularity is a factor that should be taken into consideration when judging literary excellence is one I find odd: the bestseller lists, the money, the huge readership are the rewards of the popular writer. Let them cry all the way to the bank.

  26. Nicholson Baker’s U & I, I enjoyed reading that, both U and Baker had psoriasis. I still don’t understand why self-promotion is ‘bad.’

  27. Max: Actually, I think it was the nutbar who founded the company and still leads it — he may be even further out on the limb than Tao-Lin is. Check out this profile from the Globe and Mail’s business magazine:


    It does make an interesting contrast with the book that John Self has reviewed — which one of these characters is crazier?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s