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Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin

January 14, 2010

You Should Read If: you are currently being chased by a army of hamsters while simultaneously dealing with a severe depression/loneliness that you desperately require solace from.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m a big Tao Lin fan. I first heard about him in the blogosphere circa the summer of 2007 (seems like ages ago) and I voraciously read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on (back in the day it took a little more work to buy his books than it does now; you couldn’t just find them strolling through an urban outfitters). I mean this guy revolutionized the way a person could write things, for me at least. His poem “Washington Mutual Is A Bank That Is Everywhere” still boggles my mind. But enough with the flattery and exposition because it’s time to write this review, which is going to be a pretty painful process, not only because it’s my first review on this blog but also because, frankly, it’s not a favorable one:

I love Tao Lin. But I don’t like his latest novella. It’s not as engaging as his previous one, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and certainly not as engaging as his poetry books. This work, Shoplifting From American Apparel, is an autobiographical novel that follows Sam–a carbon copy of Lin’s protagonist Andrew from Eeeee Eee Eeee (a story about vague relationship issues and neutral facial expressions that would be identical if it didn’t feature talking animals)–and his mishaps in (mostly) New York City. There is this sense throughout the book, particularly in the two scenes where Sam is caught shoplifting–first from American Apparel and then from the NYU campus computer store–that Sam is an absent participant, a third party viewer whose actions are orchestrated by fate. It is common that Lin’s protagonists are like this, unable to act or influence their lives, tied down by past relationships that were never that profound or monumental, involved in a disconnected network of friends who are only friends because they know it is socially necessary to have friends. The men Tao Lin portrays are intelligent yet socially awkward, incapable of processing the world around them. This is most evident in the two jail cell scenes where Sam watches his cell mates interact. I often felt as a reader that Sam himself had been white washed from the pages during these passages, providing an interesting effect:

“Around midnight a young Asian wearing many layers of clothing was put in the cell. He walked to the trashcan, leaned over it, took out four or five cheese sandwhiches, and sat eating very quickly with unfocused eyes. Someone said “damn.” Someone gave the young Asian their sandwich…

‘Damn man, you stink,’ said the bony Hispanic to the young Asian. ‘Get your stink-ass in the corner.’

The bony Hispanic kicked the young Asian’s back.

The young Asian moved in place with two jackets over his face.

‘Don’t move, said the bony Hispanic. ‘You’re fanning your stink.'”

The jail scenes are likely the best scenes in the novella, maybe because they feel real (and I’m guessing they are), maybe because they manage to explore the interesting mixture of violence, ‘patheticness,’ and solitude. Tao Lin frequently tackles unexplored emotional states, like boredom or indifference, in his books, and I feel that he is often as successful as he is ineffective. The jail scenes however are pungent, raw; they manage to channel an emotion without ever particularly stating one, tell a story without making you feel as if a story is being told. The other scenes, often situated at the bars, apartments and campuses of Manhattan, Williamsburg, NYU, or The University of Florida,  try too hard to “show not tell”–they feel like someone wrote them, and I can’t forget myself in the story. In the first few pages, when our protagonist Sam is IMing his friend, Luis, there is an exchange of dialogue between the two of them as they relate their boring, strangely syntaxed, very pathetic lives. At times it sounds as if it were nearly transcribed in the spirit of Waiting For Godot (though I might just be making the comparison because I recently reread it):

“‘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 this 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.”

If I analyzed this passage I could begin by saying it is about missed connections between two friends of convenience, and that the unsettling lack of question marks in their speech is intended to signify their indifference towards each other and life. But the passage doesn’t appeal to me enough to think further.  Perhaps the reason why I don’t like this passage or this scene, why I don’t like this novella even, at least not in comparison to Tao Lin’s other work, is partly because, as I said before, he tries too hard to show not tell, but also partly because the book is written entirely in statements. I often wondered as I read this book whether the narrator was merely an obedient stage manager notating every movement and word the ‘actors’ made or spoke, and whether there was really an artist (ar-teest) hiding behind the curtain. The end especially appeared overly narrated, stressed to emphasize each unreadable detail:

“Sam said his name and shook hands with Audrey and Audrey’s friend Thomas. Joseph shook hands with Audrey. Sam looked at Joseph and heard Audrey say something to someone. Sam saw Audrey leaving. Sam and Joseph walked through the crowd towards the exit. They walked on the sidewalk towards Joseph’s house. ‘I thought people would hang out with us,” said Sam. ‘We talked on the internet before and said we would hang out or something.’

Around 2.a.m Joseph ate toast with peanut butter while talking to Paul in the living room. Sam sat without talking. He had taken his contact lenses out and could not see people’s facial expression. More people came in the house. Joseph said he was going to sleep. Sam went in the kitchen and ate toast with olive oil. People were laughing in the living room. Sam stared at things in the sink. He carried a piece of toast outside to the backyard. He went onto the bus and lay on the sofa in the dark….”

I admit that Tao Lin’s writing is sometimes a matter of taste, but the fact that Tao Lin’s most popular book so far is also his worst doesn’t seem like a coincidence. I don’t subscribe to the belief that when cult writers like Tao Lin become more successful they ‘sell out,’ but some of Lin’s tried and true phrases are getting overplayed (“neutral/angry/insert adjective here facial expression” comes to mind) and his story lines (with a few exceptions) appear to have the same arc, the same generally named characters. Shoplifting From American Apparel may have garnered the most attention, and may have the most sensational title (the average shopper just can’t help but buy something that has “SHOPLIFT” in bold letters across the cover) but more times than not it is only an eye-grabber, merely 103pgs of words interspersed with enough references to porn, Starbucks, iphones, and American Apparel that a reader can think it’s ‘cool’ and ‘relevant.’

Reading this however wasn’t a waste of time, at least not for me. There are a few glimmers of ‘authenticity,’ places where I lost myself for a few pages. And if you want a writer who “writes from moods that less radical writers would let pass—from laziness, from vacancy, from boredom” then, as Miranda July said in review of his short story collection, Bed, Tao Lin is your man. But this book isn’t Tao Lin’s book, no matter how I wish it was. And believe me, I was really hoping for something great.

Other suggestions: Read You’re A Little Happier Than I Am by Tao Lin

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2010 12:08 pm

    Waiting for Pointot/Waiting for the Point Tao

    Damvlad: It will come.
    Estrogen: Yes, I know. When it does, we move.
    Damvlad: Right arm.
    Estrogen: You mean right on?
    Damvlad: That’s right.
    Estrogen: On.
    Damvlad: Arm.
    Estrogen: But the point!
    Damvlad: It will come.
    Estrogen: Perhaps.
    Damvlad: Yes, perhaps, but why wait?
    Estrogen: Maybe that’s the point.
    Damvlad: It could be. Either way, we are waiting.
    Estrogen: True.
    Damvlad: Lots of people think there’s a point.
    Estrogen: Some don’t.
    Damvlad: Some do, some don’t, but either way, we must wait.
    Estrogen: That doesn’t mean there’s a point.
    Damvlad: What other point could there be?
    Estrogen: Do we even need a point?
    Damvlad: Some people might.
    Estrogen: Even if there’s no point?
    Damvlad: Perhaps.
    Estrogen: Maybe we should go.
    Damvlad: No, I still think that we should wait.
    Estrogen: Maybe that’s the point.
    Damvlad: Right arm.

    • January 20, 2010 6:12 pm

      Estrogen: Do we even need a point?
      Damvlad: Some people might.

      That sounds like me. Sometimes I think I am a little too worried about there being a point to a story. Though I absolutely appreciate the literary craft of something with no point–even the absence of a point has a point….maybe….or something.

      Okay, so are you saying I should wait? I can wait. I’ll wait hopelessly forever for you Tao, because the problem is I can’t seem to get myself away from you. I love your stuff, I hate your stuff, but I always end up fucking buying it and quoting it and having people look at me funny when I say I’m “putting shampoo on things. My roommate’s shampoo.” But now I’m just blathering.

      Anyway, that was quite a witty bit of script, sexistfather. Thanks for commenting.

  2. January 20, 2010 8:53 pm


  3. January 20, 2010 8:55 pm

    Oh, and check out my poem, Cao: An Etymology, at Word Riot. I’ll take a look at yours.



    • January 20, 2010 10:30 pm

      Thanks for sending me the link. Cao has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
      By the way, pretty cool that you’ve worked/lived in all those places. Seems ‘worldly.’

      • January 22, 2010 12:03 am

        再一次,谢谢! Mai…is that Asian?

      • January 22, 2010 9:53 am

        I think it means beautiful in Vietnamese…but according to the parents, I was named after an African princess named Mai who went to school with my mom. So, go figure.

        Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, Mai is actually my middle name. I always go by it because it sounds 10x cooler than my actual last name.


      • January 22, 2010 4:58 pm

        The character is probably this: 美. In pinyin ‘mei’ and pronounced ‘may’.

        But your parents would know the story about your name…I’d guess the Vietnamese pronounce it differently, thus Mai. Maybe there’s a double meaning with the African princess.

        My Chinese name is 柏越. The second character is pronounced ‘yue’, and is the first syllable in Yuenan 越南, the Chinese word for Vietnam.

      • January 24, 2010 1:56 pm

        I have my own Chinese name now! That’s so great. But ahem, why did you choose that name for yourself? Unless your real name is 柏越=Bai Yue? That’s pretty cool.


  1. The Contemporary Art of the Novella with Tao Lin and Lore Segal «

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