Buddhism and Shoplifting: A Few Notes on Tao Lin’s Early Prose Style

Posted by @ 11:00 am on May 29th, 2013

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With the upcoming release of Tao Lin’s Taipei (and the recent release of the film version of Shoplifting), a novel which I happen to think (based on like an almost incomprehensibly small amount of evidence) will change the minds of those who don’t regard Lin as a “writer” or “artist,” or who don’t think of his writing as “literary” or “artistic,” or who believe he just “doesn’t write well” (a compellingly tedious example of some of these views here) I thought it’d be worthwhile, as a kind of prelude, to reevaluate some of Lin’s earlier prose style. Just to see and possibly help understand and enjoy Lin’s “progress.” In any case, here are a few notes on Lin’s early prose style.

Tao Lin’s “i went fishing with my family when i was five” is often seen as a joke, a gimmick of a poem, or, if the reader is in a more generous mood, as a kind of performance piece (video here) in which Lin is attempting to break down some barrier between reader and listener, poet and audience, by repeating the line “the next night we ate whale” for as long as possible. Or, if the reader is more interested in the poem as a poem, then the poem might be seen as an attempt to challenge what poetry is. The poem is all those things, sure, why not? The audience, in the above-linked video, alternately laughs, becomes uncomfortable, gets annoyed, laughs at their own discomfort or annoyance, and then applauds (when Lin finally decides to end the piece) either out of pleasure, awkwardness, or, well, whatever.  The taping of that particular reading is telling: the camera is trained not on Lin, like most readings would go, but on the audience. So, clearly, Lin and his cameraperson know that it is the response that they’re after, because the poem, possibly, isn’t as interesting without the response. This can be said of all poetry or prose, I think, but the interesting thing here is that Lin brings the response to the forefront: the response, the interaction between audience and poet, etc, is highlighted. Still, I’m just wandering here, and this isn’t what I’m interested in. I’m just saying I’ve seen the poem, and much of Lin’s other work, talked about in a couple rather reductive ways: one, as this thing that challenges what poetry/story is, or two, as one of Tao Lin’s gimmicks for self-promo. Possibly I’ve seen Lin’s work discussed as both at the same time. And weirdly, or perhaps shortsightedly, or maybe better put, narrow-mindedly, I’ve only really seen Lin’s novels criticized in these same fairly simple ways: positively, there’s the “like it/this is funny, I had fun” response, or the “I connected with this” response (both observable in comments on Lin’s stories, here and here), and negatively, there’s the “this is just bad writing, he’s a bad writer” response, or the “the characters are not really characters/it’s just autobio” response,  or the “he’s a stylist, but it’s boring” response, or the “it’s a gimmick/self-promo” response. All of which are fine. And there are some positive reviews of Lin’s work out there (here and here), but all these reviews (even the positive ones) do little more than explain why the reviewer liked or disliked a certain of Lin’s books, and as someone who has a nauseatingly and often unhealthy need to figure things out, all these responses are unhelpful/uninteresting in actually understanding what Lin is doing.

As an intro to Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel then,  I’d like to suggest that Lin’s whale poem– while it may be all the things I described above, and perhaps even more – one of the other things it is that is perhaps overlooked about the poem or not discussed enough, as if easily attributed as the dust of the thing, just a part of it that can be brushed off, is the line “the next night we ate whale” as a mantra. In Buddhism, the mantra often acts as that which opens up the meditative mind: Om Mani Padme Hum (in Tibet) is one of many “formulas and sounds [used] as concentration objects, and through that concentration [one] learn[s] lessons of life” (Watts 72) (And yeah, please excuse my citing Alan Watts, but his thing on mantra is basically correct). One sits in a meditation posture and repeats the phrase (mantra) inwardly, in order to quiet the mind, to get some self-consciousness gone. To stop some want. To stop wanting to stop the want. Yet, there’s another interpretation of such mantras, also squarely a part of Buddhism, and that’s that such mantras mean nothing at all. That the focus on these phrases as objects of concentration is merely that: as objects, not filled with meaning – koans, replete with zennie paradoxes, often lead a student to insight not through their meaning but through emptying the student of the need to make meaning. And isn’t this what happens when Lin repeats “the next night we ate whale”?: it’s not that this line carries some emotional weight because it’s repeated so much and it’s not simply that this is a joke or a gimmick, it’s rather that Lin is, for a moment, giving us one-pointed concentration on a phrase, an object of words. We begin to sense the meaning of language falling away through repetition (try it with any word), and possibly, the reader/viewer/audience is opened up to a new (or old (or forgotten)) kind of consciousness, one that through the repetition of a phrase quiets the meaning-making mind and gets us a glimpse of whatever the world is. In other words, we are directed past the phrase, past what is typically viewed as a mediation of reality (a poem), to a direct encounter with what is. Watch the video again and wait for that quiet where the audience stops talking, moving, and laughing. There is, for an instant, a silence filled with chant.

Stylistically, I think, Lin has pushed this poem toward a Buddhist aesthetic: that is, he’s using Buddhism, and the idea of mantra, as a stylistic strategy in the repetition of “the next night we ate whale.” While this may not have been intentional in the poem, though I think the notion can be clearly seen here, this idea of using Buddhism as an aesthetic style is intentional in Shoplifting from American Apparel. Lin has said so in several interviews, on his blog, and probably in some comment threads at popular lit blogs.

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In an interview with Lin, Michael Silverblatt says, “Would I be crazy to say that sometimes the style and the strategies involved [in Shoplifting from American Apparel] strike me as trying to look at Buddhism as a prose style?” (KCRW interview). Lin replies that this is indeed accurate and he believes that his “detachment is more …trying to advocate to [himself] a way of living life that is kind of pre-language – just like kind of experiencing things directly, whereas most people view the detachment in this book as [him] just being numb.” When first reading Lin’s novella, I was immediately struck by the feeling that he was incorporating a kind of monkish detachment, both into his prose style (which is flat, centered on surface phenomena, and devoid of interiority) and into his characters involvement with the world (Sam seems detached emotionally and sometimes physically, gmail chatting rather than interacting face-to-face). After several re-readings of Shoplifting, I decided that the book fails as an example of a kind of Buddhist prose aesthetic, but it does so because it must, because it is dealing with language, which even if used concretely, cannot ever get at the moon the finger points at (what we might call ‘reality’). Also, Lin’s characters, who he writes as detached (and here I’m talking mainly about Sam and Robert) also fail as examples of Buddhist-like figures who are non-attached for they consistently betray a sense of deeply felt emotion, pain, and even suffering – in other words, they’re not just experiencing reality as it is (nor are they numb). In this way, the detachment in Shoplifting acts more as a kind of clever defense mechanism, or, at best, a way of coping with pain and suffering; the detachment in Shoplifting lacks the kind of peace that comes with real non-attachment. Shoplifting doesn’t portray characters who are free from suffering nor ones who accept it; it portrays characters who mask suffering with detachment. I think it’s important to point out, however, that I believe it is the failures of Shoplifting from American Apparel that make it such a strong/interesting book; specifically, its failures in attempting a kind of Buddhist detachment through both prose style and characterization.

In Suzuki’s Essay’s in Zen Buddhism, he writes, “the masters [of Zen Buddhism] appeal to a more direct method [of understanding truth or reality] instead of verbal medium.  In fact, the truth of Zen is the truth of life, and life means to live, to move, to act, not merely to reflect.  Is it not the most natural thing for Zen, therefore, that its development should be towards acting or rather living its truth instead of demonstrating or illustrating through words; that is to say, with ideas?”(299). If, in Zen Buddhism, the reality of things cannot be gotten at through words, not through ideas (though Dogen, that revered monk dude of the Soto tradition, just could not shut up), it’s fairly easy to see why, from a position of using Buddhism as an aesthetic, Lin would want to strip his book down to only surface phenomena. It is not through reflection, not through the author/narrator/characters wondering or questioning or philosophizing that any truth can be gotten at in Zen Buddhism; it is only through the world, direct encounters – the being being the world.  The being being being, recognizing this without wanting to or willing it or trying to understand. There is nothing great, nothing amazing in this: it is simply a person living, unselfconscious, unattached, going through things as the wind might, unconcerned. How does this happen?  A shortened version of this answer is this: one must practice non-attachment. For Zen students of the Soto school, this means sitting zazen; for Zen people of the Rinzai lineage, it’s doing the koan thing along with meditating. Suzuki writes “non-attachment … is concerned with untying the knots of the intellect and passion, but the feeling implied is positive [not negative], and the final object is attained only when the spirit is restored to its original activity” (174). In Zen Buddhism, the intellect creates passion, or selfish desire, and that desire, that selfishness, is the sort of core of a person’s problems. To be rid of or not caught up by selfish desire for things, for people, is to be in a state of enlightenment, but this enlightenment is also one of compassion, in which a person, though unattached, is able to deeply connect, understand, and help others. Essentially, because Lin constructs Sam as detached (which, in Zen, is a “personality” trait of an enlightened person), it can be inferred that something like enlightenment, or living in a detached, yet compassionate state, is what Sam is after. The problem (for Sam) is that his detachment is used to mask or cope with pain: it’s like using enlightenment to explain away why one doesn’t suffer anymore. Lin, of course, never gives us this posited in any real positive way.  It must all be inferred, and we can sense the idea of detachment in Lin’s prose style:

They stood talking near the front doors while looking at each other’s shoes and other things. They left the café and went somewhere else then sat in front of New York University’s business school. It was around 10 p.m. They ate most of a giant salad of hijiki, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and tofu. Sam turned the aluminum container upside-down over a large plant. (23)

Here, at night with Sheila, at a tentative time in their relationship, Lin’s prose describes the surface phenomena of the evening. Certain words even single out that Lin will be focusing as much as possible on objects, rather than emotions or interiority.  Notice in the first sentence that the two are looking at each other’s shoes and “other things.” It’s these “things” that clearly display the attempt at a Buddhist-like prose style: the objects of the world and the people moving through that world. As in “I went fishing with my family when I was five,” the prose of Shoplifting, focused on “things,” allows for a similar kind of space to open in the reader: the prose is quiet, focused on objects (like the focus on the object of words from the poem), and factual, and if the reader is willing, Lin’s prose makes room for the meaning-making mind to stop, to quiet, to be as quiet as the writing itself. The prose in Shoplifting acts in a similar, if not subtler (and, clearly to some people, duller) way than the repeated phrase in the whale poem.

In this same scene, Lin writes:

Sam pointed to a building across the street and said he used to live there. He remembered standing at a railing in a stairwell inside the building three or four years ago, in college on a Friday night, listening to a self-help tape while thinking about killing himself. He remembered holding the tape player in his hand and looking at the earphone cord coming out of the tape player. The cord had seemed very strange. (23-4)

This paragraph is an example of the failure of the Buddhist-like characterization in Shoplifting. Here, Sam’s detachment is a mask, a way of dealing with the world. In the scene, Sam is pointing out a building he once lived in, where he contemplated killing himself. However, he doesn’t tell Sheila that this is what he was thinking about at the time. He only points to the building, to the object, the thing associated with the deeper feeling, that of “killing himself.” It’s unclear what Sam actually feels about the thoughts he had of “killing himself.” Is he reflecting in sadness, irony, a kind of humor (the cord being very “strange”)? Lin’s prose constraint, therefore, keeps both the writer and reader from entering into larger characterization; also, one begins to see that the constraint Lin has placed on himself as a prose style is similar to the constraint (Buddhist detachment) Sam has placed on himself as a person in the world. Still, what is important is that this moment is worthy of Sam’s momentary reflection (almost like a break or crack in the Buddhist-prose constraint and Sam’s own detached attitude). So, while Sam clearly feels something about his prior thoughts of killing himself, a feeling of “strangeness”, the same way he feels about the earphone cord, it’s unclear what he feels. Yet, this is still a feeling, and one with clear overtones of suffering. The fact that Sam doesn’t share this suicide stuff with Sheila is indicative of the fact that Sam is clearly hiding from her in many ways. Detachment here is not that monkish, beautiful thing that leads to compassion, but rather a coping device, perhaps even a defense mechanism, which keeps Sam from fully connecting or sharing his inner experience with Sheila: rather than tell her of even the strangeness he felt that night, he simply tells her an objective fact – I stayed in that building. This isolates Sam. Furthermore, it suggests that he is not open to this past feeling. In Zen, even when one reaches an enlightened state, one still experiences emotions and suffering. The difference is that an enlightened person would be accepting of negative emotions, willing to look at them clearly, share them, understand them, be them, let them go. This passage, in particular, points to the idea that Sam is clearly still trying to reconcile his detachment: is his detachment in any way connected to a higher state of being; is it merely a social rebellion and lacking the substantial understanding that some go through to be unattached; is it an ideal he is reaching for? It’s unclear. In this scene with Sheila, though, it’s clear that Sam recognizes this past emotion, this depth of depression and feeling of strangeness, but rather than openly accept it, he puts it away, hides it only to share surface phenomena – like a confused monk, not only trying to detach from himself and his feelings in order to be free of suffering, but also, through such detaching, also not able to, or more probably, fearing to connect with others. So, this is really the source of much of the conflict in the book, this hiding, covering over through detachment. (For another example that is much more complicated and fraught with some basic manipulation that is the major focus of Richard Yates, see a section just after this, when Sam tries to analytically explain how Sheila should deal with her feelings in a detached and accepting way – you can feel the disconnect between the two, the detached and seemingly coldly reasoning (not numb, but masking and also, manipulative) of Sam lacking the more generous and giving feeling of sympathy from Sheila)

As another brief and interesting example of this failure of an ideal detachment, later in the novella, in conversation with Sam, Robert says something about a girl named Connie asking why he’s sad. Sheila’s in a mental hospital at this point, and Connie believes this might be the source of Robert’s sadness. Robert explains to Sam that Connie tried to guess at an answer: “‘are you worried about your friend’” (79)? To which Sam and Robert both agree that her guesses are merely attempts to make things certain for her. To make sadness and loneliness explainable for her, when there’s no real cause in their mind. This is their detached attitude – but it’s just an attitude. What really comes across is that Connie’s guessing at what’s making Robert sad is really just a basic attempt to connect. It’s not her attempt to find an answer – as if Robert were some neat equation, his pain quickly figured out and solved – but to simply connect, whatever that might mean. What both Sam and Robert miss is that their detachment is keeping them from connecting with others; of course, they feel connected to each other possibly through the sharing of similarly detached attitude (though Robert’s is pointedly more, well, nihilistic), though the connection is a pretty tenuous one, one that seems frail and thin and lonely.

tumblr_mc095tJoZY1qdkel9o1_1280So?  So, this is obviously not Zen Buddhism (or anything other Buddhism), but the fact that Sam tries to be a Buddhist-like figure and is constantly failing is great “conflict/tension” of the novel. The point of Zen meditation (zazen, in particular Shikantaza) and any other meditation technique based on Vipassana, is to learn to accept one’s feelings and thoughts and not push them aside at all. In this acceptance is freedom, and in that freedom is the realization that thoughts and feelings are illusory, transparent, and not made of self, and this realization breeds a compassion for others, a connection to others; being unafraid to touch these things and being able to discuss them without anything like the cold-analysis or an attitude of detachment would signal the true detachment that Sam and Robert’s characters lack here. But who’d want to read that book? Sam’s failure to live up to this ideal is what drives Lin’s novella. That and the possibility of connection. The isolation and loneliness Sam feels is compounded by his trying to be detached and compassionate; his idea that detachment is a better response to the world than selfish passion, this ideal, is also what makes it difficult for him to connect and be with others.

How appropriate and beautiful that this is what seem to be at the center of all Lin’s books: how we deal with the idea of being separate from each other, with our own little views and worlds, and how we break through that isolation. I wonder what Taipei will bring; whatever it is, I kind of suspect it’ll be filled with that same urgent need to be understood and to connect, while at the same time still aching with the question of how to do such a thing and whether such connections are necessary, possible, or worthwhile.

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Alan Rossi lives and sometimes teaches in South Carolina. More of his writing/etc at www.stories-like-stories-you-know.blogspot.com.

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