The Deceptive Simplicity of Tao Lin: A Review of Shoplifting From American Apparel
Around 3 p.m. Sam was standing inside an enclosed area on the edge of the park holding a trash bag and the grabbing stick, staring into the distance, when he saw Travis, a manager at the organic vegan restaurant where he now worked, looking at him.
‘I didn’t know you volunteered,’ said Travis.
‘I have two days’ community service,’ said Sam.
Sam, the protagonist of Tao Lin’s new novella Shoplifting From American Apparel, has just been caught by his boss doing community service for shoplifting. It is a moment that could be charged with drama and social consequence. A moment where the boss might question Sam’s ability to function at work, or question whether Sam is morally “upright,” or think something about picking up trash. Sam could feel dejected, afraid of losing his job, or think something about picking up trash. This is how it gets resolved:
‘Oh, I had this once,’ said Travis grinning.
Sam moved the grabbing stick around in the air. He had been moving slowly to prevent himself from sweating. It was early October and a little warm.
Shoplifting is an autobiographical novella that spans two years in the life of Sam, Tao Lin’s alter ego. In 2007, Tao Lin published his first two books, the story collection Bed and the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee simultaneously, which hadn’t been done since Ann Beattie did it in 1976. This marked what would begin an energetic and creative venture in self-promotion. In 2008, he sold six 10% shares with the promise of “more meaning in life” at $2000 a piece to would-be investors in Richard Yates, a novel due out in 2010, which at that time he had yet to write. The shares sold out. He has sold his personal effects on eBay, published his “to do” lists online including items like “Steal,” and has signed a sponsorship deal with Hipster Runoff. He has been “despised” by Gawker for “his spammy, retarded, deceptive, always on the verge of interesting but never actually interesting Internet stunts,” and then been pardoned. He has been called “a world class perpetrator of gimmickry.” His internet antics have made some people angry and others delighted. And while some might like to believe that his speedy literary rise is due mostly to his relentless self-promotion, with Shoplifting, the twenty-six-year-old has now put out five books, which fairly represent his talent, intelligence, firm moral grounding and consistent philosophical beliefs, which underlay all of his work, some more obviously than others. He has stated in an interview with Bookslut that his “life is controlled by ethics and morals,” and “without morals life is meaningless in the long-term.” His ethics and philosophy are most openly demonstrated in his two books of poetry, You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, both of which are incredibly strong. And another plus: he knows his audience well–hipsters–and courts it fiercely.
With respect to his writing, Tao Lin remains steadfast about his preference for concrete details to the near exclusion of abstraction. And as demonstrated in the passage above, Tao Lin takes on some of the hallmark attributes of K-Mart realism, such as a compressed style, attention to surface detail, interchangeable characters comically lacking in affect, and conscious abstention from value judgments. Above, Tao Lin avoids revealing the internal states of the characters Sam and Travis and keeps the reader as distant as possible from the characters without relegating the reader to the position of a random observer on the street. Tao Lin doesn’t tell the reader what to think. But that’s not to say that the moment between Sam and his boss isn’t charged, that there isn’t a sense of curiosity as to how the situation will transpire, that there isn’t a sense of surprise and humor at how the run-in is resolved, and that it doesn’t provide information about the character of our protagonist Sam, who, we are told is trying to prevent himself from sweating. Given a small amount of information, the reader is forced to think for himself and determine where to place or not to place meaning and relevance.
While the reader is not given much direction about how to feel or what to think, that moment did not leave me cold. Just the opposite. This brief passage for me was filled with energy, tenderness and surprise. In his refusal to engage the tropes of social fiction, Tao Lin leaves passages like this open to personal interpretation. And I don’t think the emotional effect was unintentional. The passage is handled with great care to produce the effects of energy, tenderness and surprise. Shoplifting is a collection of such moments. And it is a testament to Tao Lin’s talent and skills as a writer that such a passage, which on its surface seems to reveal very little, can give rise to deeper revelation about the characters and even the reader.
The event for which the book is named, and which promises to be the most climactic scene, is no exception to Tao Lin’s industrious leveling. The shoplifting incident is no more or less important than the scooping of steamed vegetables into a carton at work. The event happens early on, and Sam quickly moves ahead with his life with little further mention of the shoplifting incident. There seems to be no larger issue at stake involving the incident, or if there is, it isn’t made clear. There is no traditional narrative arc. The events of Sam’s life during this time are selected and reported in linear fashion with mind-spinning momentum and include trips to Atlantic City and Gainseville, Florida, outings to bars and concerts, an awkward encounter with Moby, unexpected pranks with friends, breakups with girlfriends and felt moments of despair and loneliness, which is a given for Tao Lin’s fiction and poetry.
Tao Lin is aware of the reader’s expectation and with a decisive move, he precisely undercuts that expectation. In that sense he reminds me of another writer who has a similar knack for creating highly charged situations and flouting expectation. In Frederick Barthelme’s story “Violet,” in the collection Moon Deluxe, a sixteen-year-old girl knocks on a man’s door and asks to use his phone. He let’s her in as if he has no choice. She’s in his apartment:
“Got any juice?” She backs toward the kitchen. “I love juice. Any kind. My name’s Violet.”
I follow her to the kitchen, reaching for her hand. “I’m Philip. Let’s see what we can hunt up.”
“I’m a runaway,” she says. “I know it’s old-fashioned, but my parents are intolerable.”
The scene is stripped of any moral or sexual undertones that might ordinarily embellish such a situation, and due to the placement of the events in this upended context, the reader is forced to observe the mores that would obtain to the situation, or that she has been conditioned to attach to the situation. She feels suspense on the one hand, because she expects that someone will be morally compromised. But there is a simultaneous feeling of safety, that no one will be morally compromised, and excitement inevitably follows from the destabilization of the reader’s grounding. And Barthelme plays with that tension. For the next twelve pages the man and girl go out for dinner, run into someone Violet knows, and then go to a bar called The Tip Top Club where the story takes off in a whole new direction and the issue that initially seemed central, that of the girl being a runaway, is left behind. A similar destabilization occurs in Shoplifting. The reader comes to understand that what happens next will be something she had not considered.
Shoplifting seems to fall comfortably in the heritage of dirty realism, or K-Mart realism. Madison Smartt Bell in his 1986 essay “Less is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story” described the work–that would later be called K-Mart realism–of what he called a new “school” of emerging writers, which included Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie and the work of Raymond Carver at that time. Bell outlines the characteristics demonstrated by this school of writing as a “trim, ‘minimal’ style, an obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Shoplifting has the characteristic unadorned language, the declarative sentences, the concern for surface detail–”Sam said he was going to eat a giant steak with A1 sauce if he won $2000 or lost all but $20″–the seeming interchangeability of characters and the kind of determinism that renders his characters at times apparently with no will of their own and with no responsibility for their actions. For example, this passage where Tao Lin seems to be tipping his hat to dimestore determinism:
Sam said he would roll like a log to go get it. But he was facing the wrong direction. ‘roll to go get it, Audrey,’ he said. ‘You’re facing the right direction.’
Audrey started rolling…
‘It’s funny you got her to do that,’ said Jeffrey.
And there are those who present the nothingness-and-nihilism argument with respect to Tao Lin, like Ben Beitler. In a recent review for The Village Voice, Beitler stated, “Because Lin withholds any description beyond gender and, occasionally, race, his characters are in constant danger of fading into nothingness.” And further on, he states, “On the verge of total disappearance-barely sketched in by their own author!-Lin’s characters nevertheless manage to remind each other of their existence constantly.” This argument is reminiscent of Bell’s argument against the work of the K-mart realists, “At every juncture the stories insist on their own lack of depth (e.g., “Everything is for nothing”). Bell railed against stories in which “nothing is at issue except the characters’ groundless angst.”
I’m not convinced that the determinism of the characters is haphazard and isn’t deserving of a closer look though. If someone, like Sam, has no will, he isn’t responsible for his actions. And if he isn’t responsible for his actions, he can’t be held accountable when he does something like steal. I wouldn’t put it past Tao Lin, who has maintained a deeply philosophical position, to highlight this event among many other possible events and then render it consequently flat with the purpose of raising a moral question.
But while Shoplifting presents characters who wander around drinking Kombucha and wearing the wildly rampant “neutral facial expression,” and whose actions don’t work toward the fulfillment of a narrative climax, they are placed in situations that are either interesting in and of themselves or are rendered interesting by Tao Lin’s skillful transitions, which though seemingly superficial, are a substantive quality that is not easily copied. Similar to Barthelme, Tao Lin builds interest and knows when to move on:
“Do you think those two girls standing by that guy are going to make out?” said Kaitlyn.
“That’s a man,” said Sam.
Kaitlyn took out stationery she bought earlier that day. Sam waved at Paula who was talking to Matt. “Do you want stationery?” said Kaitlyn a few minutes later to Paula. “I want stationery,” said Sam. Briana walked by and knocked over Sam’s mojito which was on the floor. Briana walked away. “Did people get really drunk last year?” said Sam.
“Ben got really drunk and fell down,” said Paula.
And while Shoplifting does not make an effort to dramatize “the important issues of the day,” as Jonathan Franzen claimed he once believed was the responsibility of the social novel, it is not a novel about nothing. Tao Lin eschews value judgments in his writing, but he presents situations that raise moral questions in the mind of the reader. He may not tell the reader how to think, but the questions seem foremost on his mind and that is an undercurrent that I’ve seen in all of his writing that I’ve read, including his short story collection, his first novel, and both poetry collections. Tao Lin may or may not be making a point about nihilism, but the characters in Shoplifting, interchangeable as they are, are the most fun-loving group of emo, ragtag, socially challenged depressives you will most likely ever encounter. And while it has been said that nothing new can be done with realism, I think Tao Lin has shown that as long as times change, and new writers are born so too will what a writer can do with the reality at hand.
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