From the beginning I equivocated about whether to read Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, both intrigued and turned off by the idea of reading anything with “American Apparel” in the title. Too current—and yet, isn’t American Apparel already dated? But I am all about novellas, and awesome book design.* But then again I am often turned off by the Melville House blog. This profile of Tao Lin from The Daily Beast put an end to it in my mind (“shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants” was more than I could handle), but then John Self’s review of the novella at The Asylum reopened the issue (he wisely notes in a comment that the quote is another bit of “expert self-promotion” designed to do exactly what it has done to me—what a sucker, oh well). The Gmail chat conversation excerpt in his second blockquote sold me; less than 36 hours later the book had arrived, been read, and, somewhat surprisingly, been enjoyed.
I would say I only liked it because I am a member of the target demographic, only apparently I am not (except that I am at least somewhat detached from reality). Actually it made for a strange sort of enjoyment, something you see a former self in that is still part of your self but not really part of your life anymore. For all my aversion to over-currency in books, the Gmail chats at the beginning of the novella were my favorite bits, and the bits that made me stop reading at the realization that I had had these conversations before, or ones very like them, in a hazy previous existence.
“I’m alone,” said Sam. “What would happen if I started sniffing coke.”
“You would kill yourself in a panic attack.”
“I woke at 10:30 then said ‘this is fucked’ and went back to sleep,” said Sam. “I forced myself back to sleep.”
“Luis. What are we.”
“Fucked,” said Luis. “Was that like a cheer. What are we! Fucked.”
John Self says, “The spirit of Shoplifting from American Apparel is that the minutiae of our lives are rarely dealt with in fiction – that the things which take up most of our time are deemed unworthy of writing about.” Lin—for me, at least—successfully subverts that idea. Self is right, though, that the result is “maddening” and “saddening.” I might be old and stuffy now but no less alienated or fucked, you know.
“This is fucked,” said Sam.
“You know those people that get up every day, and do things,” said Luis.
“I’m going to eat cereal even though I’m not hungry,” said Sam.
“And are real proactive,” said Luis. “And like are getting things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck.”
“We get shit done too,” said Sam. “Look at our books.”
“I know, but that brings in no money,” said Luis. “Are we, like, that word ‘bohemians.’ Or something. Our bios: ‘They lived in poverty writing their masterpieces.'”
“We are the fucked generation,” said Sam.
On just the second page, this should close me out: I suck. But fortunately it doesn’t, for whatever reason. Because then I can go on to enjoy Lin’s style, prose so affectless it can only be affected, but very even and very right for the project. At times it felt like a tightrope of reading about people and things that would normally bug me, but generally didn’t here. You don’t think you can sympathize with hipsters, but it turns out when it comes to the minutiae you can, because the things that take up most of our time aren’t that different, are just as mind-numbing, maddening, and saddening, even if we don’t all discharge that through pure liquid irony. And hell, even Sam craves a Wendy’s chicken sandwich at one point, despite his usual thoughts of “Raweos,” energy drinks, and organic grapes.
So yeah, I’m putting Tao Lin’s earlier work on the list, even if the gonzo personality still turns me off in a lot of ways.
*But, on the back, it says, “The inmate with a mop held back the inmate without a mop.” But in the novella it’s the reverse. Feature, or bug?