Book Review

Let’s agree on the obvious: no book is for everybody. One book will always appeal to a wider audience than another, and each has its own readership in mind, despite who actually shows up (or doesn’t) at the bookseller’s counter. There are books that don’t even seem to want an audience, while others explore Universal Truths with characters, settings, and plots from a slice of some life that seems hardly a mile away. Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel, a semi-autobiographical novella, fits neither description. It explicitly selects a readership, and a particular one at that. Or, rather, it targets a demographic that includes “hipsters, happy but sensitive teenagers, depressed vegans, Europeans, and college students,” so admits the prolific Lin in an interview published in Stop Smiling. In other words, he writes directly to and for the young, the urbane, the fashionable semi-outsider. His motivation for doing so is simple, but not the kind of thing you hear everyday from a literary author: “I’ll just maximize how many books I sell.” Given today’s struggling book market, I don’t blame him for knowing his potential audience. This book’s status as a product coheres with its conceptual program; though not quite satire, Lin’s angle on consumerism contributes to a pretty tight package. Shoplifting from American Apparel is its own surprising and engaging brand of both minimalism and realism, and it is challenging—as well as irritating, hilarious, and entertaining—in the ways it resembles little else I’ve read.

Our generally underwhelmed protagonist, Sam, is a twenty-something writer who lives (for most of the story) in Manhattan. He works at an organic vegan restaurant and supplements his income by selling shoplifted batteries on Ebay. Sam spends little of his time writing and much of it bored and fretting, often expressing his anxiety and ennui in Gmail chats with his writer friend Luis. These Gmail chats can go on for pages and along with e-mails make up a fair portion of the book’s dialogue. Interestingly, the Gchat conversations are fully punctuated, with capital letters and no IM shorthand. I read this as a smoothed-over transcription of sorts. Though the longhand seems to lack a degree of verisimilitude, it does seamlessly integrate this form of dialogue (not yet commonly seen in fiction) into the exposition. Many of the other characters resemble Sam; they are young, digitally dependent, and they obsess over organic foods, many of which go by their brand names. But unlike the waifish amateur-looking models in the American Apparel advertisements that started appearing everywhere in New York City several years ago, the characters of SFAA are more awkward than sexy. In one scene, after playing Scrabble and watching a Scrabble documentary on a computer, Sam and his friend Paula find themselves on Paula’s bed:

They kissed and Paula began to move around a lot. Paula was scratching Sam’s back. Sam thought “voracious” and felt confused. Paula crawled on the bed and gave Sam a condom and Sam put it on.

"I don't like condoms," he said kneeling on the bed.
"What should I do?" said Paula. "What do you want me to do?"
"Nothing. It's okay."
"I'm sorry," said Paula.
"Don't worry," said Sam.
"Okay," said Paula.

So few words, so much pressure put on them in this supremely understated portrayal of impotency before the quiet dissolution of a nascent relationship. The writing style here is as in the rest of the book: no description or sensory detail, and no mental processing of situations beyond naming a general feeling, just stripped-down statements declaring who did what. Sam hardly responds.

With so many terse declarative sentences, almost all the minutia summarized, and no question marks other than the ones used in dialogue, the extremely careful writing style in SFAA rarely recedes. The austerity of the writing is usually more visible than what it seems to depict. Actually, the writing doesn’t try to depict anything, but rather takes its own precise position of “aboutness.” The third person narration is from a peculiar distance: “Sheila had a bored facial expression.” Later in a jail cell, “the skinny Hispanic stood with an angry facial expression,” immediately followed by a “bald Caucasian…with an angry facial expression.” And just before being introduced to Moby at a club party, “Sam stared at people with a neutral facial expression.” I’m pretty sure this way of presenting visible emotion wouldn’t fly in any other book, but here it gets funnier with each instance. Lin’s audience likely prefers humor that relies on understatement, the sort that leaves open some space for the reader’s imagination to register something ambiguous as a joke and then process how and why it is funny—the opposite of late night talk show humor that beats you over the head with punch lines, exaggerated physical gestures and all. Lin totally avoids the way most fiction attempts to capture the exquisite particulars of faces showing emotion, and replaces it with a technique (for lack of a better term) that makes facial expressions seem like emoticons in a weirdly blank landscape. Readers at the edges of/outside his demographic may find his almost constant summarizing cutesy, amusing at best. Or maybe just ridiculous. It’s probably all of the above, as when “the inmate with a mop held back the inmate without a mop.”

It’s inaccurate to call alienating a greater audience in favor of a potentially smaller one an artistic risk—which isn’t to say that SFAA doesn’t risk escaping the reader who doesn’t know what Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is all about in terms of American creative culture of the past twelve or so years. In refusing to provide any detailed description or sensory detail, SFAA assumes its reader knows the lay of contemporary New York City, as well as what many of its younger denizens look and act like—even when transported to Atlantic City and Gainesville, Florida, the two other settings where Sam finds himself. It might also go so far as to assume its reader knows how clothing stores like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel—which have glossed and packaged the ironic thrift store aesthetic and the fair labor concerns of the late ’90s/early 2000s Brooklyn scene—are socioeconomically positioned in this landscape. (Let me note that American Apparel is based in Los Angeles; Urban Outfitters, who knows.) Both are seen by some as the epitome of new-school gentrification. The officer who busts Sam for shoplifting says to him, while looking at a computer screen, “Don’t steal from us…Steal from some shitty corporation. We have fair-trade labor. I mean fair labor.” The officer is both distracted by the computer screen and a little confused by the similar sounding marketing buzz words. (I too am both of these things.) This kind of poking fun, this glibness, is rooted in Brooklyn’s patented and increasingly ubiquitous brand of irony. Never been to New York City and looking for a virtual trip? Not the book for you. Unless, maybe, you are hip and urbane in your own location, and have read some NYC-based zines, such as Vice and Brooklyn Vegan. Lin has me wondering how necessary it is for fiction to paint photorealistic pictures in a day and age where virtual lives lived in bits, bytes, and pixels seem to allow some users access to all people and places at once—or at least their digital image. The emergence of new media can change the experience of established media. Though it is difficult to track the effect cinema has had on fiction, consider the ways film has informed how readers might shape and therefore experience narrative time. For example, film editing has influenced how I sometimes visualize temporal shifts and scene changes in fiction, and I often visualize dialogue using the shot/reverse shot technique. Perhaps the Information Age is providing authors and readers with a new set of assumptions and prerequisite knowledge that adds up to a high resolution mental Flash video of the world. As writing changes, reading habits and expectations do as well, but not without some resistance, of course. SFAA is too easy to hate. And the haters are out there.

With an aimless protagonist, bare bones prose style, and flat manner of narration, we are given an intentionally underwhelming book. At no point does this story of a petty thief approach any kind of profundity. The reader comes away with a neutral facial expression and puts the book down not to ponder her place in the universe, but to check e-mail on an iPhone. It will prove interesting to see how this book written so decidedly from, for, and about its contemporary moment will hold up over time. Will Shoplifting from American Apparel seem dated a mere ten years from now? Frank O’Hara’s poetry was within milliseconds of its New York minute in some respects, ages ahead in others. O’Hara’s poems are perhaps better now, and they are without a doubt far more widely read than they were half a century ago when they were written. But his poems have a deeply different set of values than Tao Lin’s fiction; O’Hara wore his heart on his poem’s sleeve. If the differences between these writers are significant, so are the similarities: inclusion of the seemingly mundane, a dubious indifference to posterity, and the willingness to risk sounding like nobody else.

About the Reviewer

Jason Labbe is the author of a chapbook, Dear Photographer (Phylum Press, 2009). He has poems appearing in recent or forthcoming issues of Conjunctions, Boston Review, A Public Space, Poetry, Free Verse, and elsewhere.