In writing about Shoplifting from American Apparel, I will try very hard not to say if it’s good or bad. I will also not align myself as a fan or dissenter of Tao Lin, or participate in the murky controversies over what people think about him — controversies which both propel his fame while compromising it. That kind of discourse is inflated and not interesting to me. I will admit I’m ambivalent about writing a review of this book, as it already has had its ample share of attention — I just wanted to write about some formal things I thought about while reading the book. (I am writing this review without the book in hand, and cannot check facts, and I read the book briskly, so this may be a compromised account.)
The political allusions or implications of shoplifting from a “progressive” corporation are provocative, but will not be examined here. For me, the shoplifting scene reminded me of The Stranger where the guy shoots the Arab on the beach, for both Lin and Camus describe their protagonist’s actions without any judgment. Lin does not judge or glorify Sam, so it becomes the reader’s vague burden. This is Crime and Punishment Lite: no guilt, and the only consequence is a brief visit to jail. Of course, such aesthetic stoicism may in itself be an author’s commentary on “moral relativity,” and if so, fine. It just really struck me how coldly Lin described the scene.
Lin culled actual Gchats with his friends, incorporating them in the book. It is notable how he imposed the traditional dialog onto these Gchats, as if by masquerading them with double quotes would either veil or exploit this conceit. If the measure of a good writer is the ever difficult “realistic dialog,” what if such realism is really, well, real? Luis and Sam often interrupt one another, or ignore the other’s questions, or answer them a line too late — incongruencies which mirror real speech. Gaddis, in JR, without the aid of instant messaging, transcribed what he overheard at the office to capture true vernacular; and Director Robert Altman mics up all his off-camera actors for ad libbed material, so the territory is not shockingly new — it’s just that Lin is perhaps more cunning and self-reflexive about it.
An earlier “draft,” in published form, of the conversation between Luis and Sam can be found at Mississippi review. (It may be instructive to compare the two.) One notices that Tao often toggles between names of characters, either subtracting real names to protect the innocent, or adding culturally notable names to fit whatever postmodern or metafictional conceit. He no doubt uses Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” function, an application which even makes an appearance in the book. At one point, Sam asks Luis if there’s a MS Word function to change a manuscript into present tense. Philip Roth has been the subject of Tao’s sarcasm probably because, as a writer so keen on realism, the former’s protagonists are often writers, and there is a slight tinge of self-deprecation with Sam’s vocation.
In the jail scene, Lin designates everyone as either “Asian,” “Caucasian,” “Hispanic,” or “African American”– the catchwords of a sound liberal education; yet such journalistic objectivity smells of faint sarcasm, as if the author’s social obedience while describing such a politically symbolic scene had fingers pointed at those who would have been horrified had he used white, black, or the all-encompassing yet never accurate Mexican. We tend describe what is relevant to us. In line at a roller coaster it’s how tall you are. In a hot tub it’s if you have open sores. And in jail it’s what race you are, because deep down inside that’s what matters to us. One’s race is either currency or liability. Lin’s commentary is not race, or even racism, but our denial of the latter.
Hedonism, for me, is “visceral existentialism,” where the body encounters a meaningless world. I felt that the characters were always reaching for something: food, drinks, phones, laptops, etc., all the while doing so lethargically. If the minimalism of Lin’s writing is a shortcut to zen, then what about all the consumerist clutter? (One character laments that she does not even have Gmail.) Is all this simply texture within “realism,” or do these objects act as surrogate somethings? Sam employs just as much volition towards iced-coffee as he does his friends, as everything is equal and not subject to judgment. Is this mild misanthropy or zen epiphany? And yet, the most consistent and assertive thing in Lin’s writing is veganism — so in a way, the reader, who cannot judge Sam can in turn be judged by Lin. Or am I just paranoid?
The head count of characters per number of pages is many. Most of them felt interchangeable, like they are all casual friends with varying degrees of closeness to Sam. Pynchon and Gaddis use excessive numbers of characters as a formal device to confuse the reader, and I’m not sure if Lin is doing something similar—to convey the transience of sentiment—or if it’s simply a technical shortcoming in the book. I found myself skipping over the names because they felt like place holders for either “friend” and “girl Sam likes.” Lin may be the “hardest working lazy writer,” whose work is so bare one wonders if he even tried. Of course I’m just saying that; I know he worked furiously on this book and edited it way down.
I don’t think Lin is the voice of this (I’m 33 and have difficultly using “our”) generation. The book reminded me a lot of Hemingway, where people just hang out and go from one thing to another. In a reading last night, during the Q&A, a middle-aged man asked Tao why his characters were so “vapid,” to which Tao mumbled “[very long pause] Um, the main guy is me.” I don’t think his characters are vapid. The last scene in the park is so subtle you’ll almost miss it. Audrey wants to move to NYC and Sam plays with his cell phone. Lin honors the reading experience, faithful enough in the reader to feel the terror of opening one’s cell phone then closing it, for no reason other than to stall for time, to make a moment last. The only thing Lin does is describe a world, not impose feelings. The reader, in turn, becomes the god of the book. Inside, people play acoustic guitar, perfect timing on Tao’s part for a scratchy amateur soundtrack. Love doesn’t always work out, but life, it seems, eventually will. I guess that’s what “ultimately life-affirming” means.