Publisher: Melville House (2009)
Buy The Book: Amazon
Set mostly in Manhattan—although also featuring Atlantic City, Brooklyn, GMail Chat, and Gainsville, Florida—this autobiographical novella, spanning two years in the life of a young writer with a cultish following, has been described by the author as “A shoplifting book about vague relationships,” “2 parts shoplifting arrest, 5 parts vague relationship issues,” and “An ultimately life-affirming book about how the unidirectional nature of time renders everything beautiful and sad.” (Summary excerpt provided by the publishing house.)
Recently, I joined The Rumpus Book Club(TRBC). TRBC is run by Stephen Elliott, author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries and Happy Baby. Each month club members receive an advance reader copy of an upcoming book and have the opportunity to participate in online discussions about the book. This includes an online chat with the author. The August selection is Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates. Upon hearing this, I promptly bought everything by Tao Lin I could get my hands on including Shoplifting From American Apparel.
The novella, Shoplifting From American Apparel arrived in my mailbox over the weekend. It is part of a Melville House series entitled The Contemporary Art of The Novella. In Shoplifting From American Apparel Lin recounts a series of events and nonevents in the life of Sam, a writer and terribly unskilled shoplifter. Sam is a young hipster who peppers his speech with the word “like” and often ends his sentences with the phrase “or something.” Lin tells Sam’s story through a procession of scenes devoid of most conventional structure.
Although Shoplifting From American Apparel is a novella, it leaves more room for thought and discussion than many full-length works. For this reason, it would be a perfect selection for book clubs.This book was both funny and thought provoking. Some of the highlights of the novella include Sam’s observations in the holding cell after each of his shoplifting arrests, Sam’s Gmail chats with Luis, and an appearance by Moby. I found the Moby scene especially funny.
A reoccurring theme throughout the book is the vagueness of relationships developed on the Internet. Sam has some of his most intimate conversations with Luis over Gmail Chat. However, Sam noted that when he met Luis in person they didn’t have much to say to each other. Another instance of this ambiguity occurs towards the end of the book when Sam is unsure of whether to approach a friend he knows from the Internet. Lin skillfully handles the complexity of the isolating nature of relationships fostered through faceless, voiceless interactions on the Internet.
I have read articles where Tao Lin’s writing is compared to Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. I can definitely see the comparisons.However, Lin takes the apathetic nature of the characters in Coupland’s Generation X and points it in a new direction. Sam’s indifference is fueled by MySpace, blogs, Gmail Chat, easy access porn and everything else the Internet brought to the fingertips of society’s latest band of disaffected youth. Smug self-satisfaction is normally a byproduct of indifference. I didn’t see that in Sam. He appears to be struggling with despair and boredom in his quest for an existentially sound life. Sam’s earnest nature is evident despite the vagueness of Lin’s work. I believe that is what makes Lin a contemporary master. The restraint he has shown as a writer in this piece is incredible. I highly recommend Shoplifting From American Apparel.