Tao Lin’s characters are constantly connected, yet physically detached. The technology they live and breathe often seems less mechanical than its users.
For an indie novella, the opening paragraph of Tao Lin’s autobiographical new book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is conspicuously branded: Microsoft Word, eBay, and Gmail chat all appear within the first 130 words.
The Internet is the purview of young writers, the first generation to grow up in the blue glow of a computer screen, to whom a broadband connection is as essential as running water or electricity; Lin and his cohort give credence to the theory that this generation is addicted to the high of being wired. Indeed, Shoplifting is as much an exploration of the state of mind propagated by constant Internet use as an examination of the technology itself.
The novella spans two meandering years in the life of Sam, a “young, hip writer with a cultish following,” and explores many of the contradictions inherent in the Internet age. Lin’s characters are constantly connected, yet physically detached. They’re garrulous self-promoters, but guarded in their personal relationships. Despite all the talking, Sam and his friends seem cryptic, bored, and ultimately unknowable; oftentimes, the technology they live and breathe seems less mechanical than its users.
Lin’s minimalist tone is exemplified by his repeated use of the adjective-plus-“facial expression” construction: “She walked to the back of the kitchen, leaned against a counter, and looked at Sam with a neutral facial expression. Sam felt that his face displayed no reaction.” This is Lin’s Model T descriptor: interchangeable, generic, one size fits all. The plot of Shoplifting is similarly repetitive, according to Lin, “2 parts shoplifting arrest, 5 parts vague relationship issues.” What does the book gain from such repetition? Not character development—Sam’s reaction to each arrest or “vague relationship” is essentially the same. This resistance to change mimics real life, where changes creep slowly and invisibly until they catch you off guard.
Sam and his friends are self-proclaimed bohemians: “Their shoes were shit, they couldn’t afford haircuts, they were stealing to stay alive, living off of strippers to create their art…” Yet Sam’s shoplifting is motivated less by need than by distraction, the thefts performed so coolly they’re almost subconscious. In an interview with New York magazine, Lin commented that he used to support himself by shoplifting, seeing himself as an organic Robin Hood: “If I shoplifted from corporations and sold it on eBay and then spent all my money on the best venues possible, like independent organic vegan grocery stores or restaurants, then that would be, like, improving the world.” This all sounds fine, but Sam’s shoplifting reads like a crime of boredom. At the police station, he hums with bourgeois thrill. This is how the other half lives. This is the grit and squalor he’s been looking for.
Throughout the novella, Sam treats the reader like a stranger he has friended on Facebook—keeping us at arm’s length while sporadically sending us updates about his life. The narration often elides important decisions or thought processes, then surprises with their outcome—both in Sam’s shoplifting and in his relationships. In one sentence, Sam is browsing the racks at American Apparel. In the next, he “walked out of American Apparel holding an American Apparel shirt.” You don’t even know he has stolen the shirt until an undercover cop apprehends him.
Romantic interests crop up just as suddenly, gracing a few pages and then disappearing, never to be seen or heard from again. “Sam noticed someone smiling at them and realized that for an amount of time he had not been aware of anything but what he and Sheila were doing.” After a section break, this character who so dominated Sam’s attention is out of the game: “Four months later Sam was living in his brother’s studio apartment in Manhattan, sleeping on a mattress pad. He had not seen Sheila who now lived in Brooklyn in about two months.”
The drama occurs in section breaks and between sentences, where Sam’s most revealing decisions are made. But either Sam doesn’t trust the reader, or else the narrative withholds this information in an attempt to shock. Oftentimes, Sam withholds important information from other characters as well, bandying about until they press him—that is, until he gets “caught.” Then he’s happy to oblige, as when a woman stops him and asks to see his headphones: “‘You caught me,’ said Sam grinning. ‘They’re from this store.’”
Critics debate whether Internet culture has influenced young writers for better or worse, whether the Internet itself is a sufficiently “literary” concern. Is writing about the web still a novelty, or is it more? Has it ruined our generation? Ultimately, Shoplifting from American Apparel supports the more traditional view about the medium: that cyberspace is both home and birthplace to the disaffected, lonely, and depressed.