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Review: Shoplifting from American Apparel, by Tao Lin

Of the contents of his latest release, Shoplifting From American Apparel, 26-year-old Tao Lin says: "two parts shoplifting arrest, five parts vague relationship issues." Critics, of course, would apply a similar formula to Lin himself: two parts hustle, five parts gimmick. And at first glance, the assessment seems apt.

After all, Lin - feted darling of the hipster coterie - is known for his pomp-and-pageantry-fuelled exploits. Witness: Lin glutting NYC with a Britney Spears sticker campaign to promote the release of his 2008 poetry collection, cognitive-behavioral therapy; Lin routinely repeating the same line - "The next night we ate whale" - at readings (seven monotonous minutes mark his record to date); Lin auctioning drafts of his writing on eBay, and most recently, his MySpace account (it fetched a whopping $8,100); Lin selling shares of the anticipated royalties of his upcoming 2010 Melville House novel, Richard Yates (to the tune of $12,000); Lin founding Muumuu House, a publisher that boasts an appreciation not just for poetry and fiction but Tweets and Gmail chats; Lin enlisting fans as "interns" to rally on his behalf by blogging about him, reviewing his work on Amazon and padding his Wikipedia profile.

Given the hyperbolic excess that is Lin's celebrity, it's easy to be wary. But Lin - whose previous works include the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), the short story collection Bed (2007), and two poetry collections, the aforementioned cognitive-behavioral therapy and you are a little bit happier than i am (2006) - can write. The question is whether or not his writing - largely self-absorbed, intentionally vapid, and often ostentatious - can sustain itself beyond the emo-drenched, self-obsessed, existentially fucked (see: you are a little bit happier...) skinny-jean set.

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Shoplifting hits as much as it misses.

At the heart of this purposefully aimless autobiographical novella is Sam, a twenty-something NYC-based hipster writer who spends much of his time "bathed in the soft blue light of Internet Explorer," compulsively checking his Amazon sales rankings, arbitrarily adding people to his collection of MySpace friends, and Gmail chatting - where he and online ally, Luis, exchange witty lines about malaise, torment and bodily functions (sleep and hunger, urination and masturbation), and lament the hopeless, restless mundane within which their "fucked" lives are moored.

Shoplifting's compelling disjunctions and disconnections are blunted by the tedium of its navel-gazing insularity

When he's not idling on the Internet, Sam's dishing up organic vegan fare at the restaurant at which he'd rather not work, consuming copious quantities of iced coffee, fruit smoothies and energy drinks, and meandering through various hipster mixers - a Ghost Mice concert, a club gig where Moby is DJing. He and assorted friends watch YouTube videos, discuss the merits of string theory, and, for no reason, yell things like "Obama," and "Red shirt," at unsuspecting passers-by.

Boredom and its discontents make for the only real motivation in the text, and each event unfolds with dispassionate aimlessness - not unlike the largely transient relationships within which Sam indifferently participates.

This week's Daily Reviews

  • Today: Shoplifting from American Apparel, by Tao Lin
  • Tuesday: Bringing Art to Life, by Andrew Horrall
  • Wednesday: Playing Naomi, by Erika Rummel
  • Thursday: Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton
  • Friday: Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist, by Peter Clarke

Indeed, what's most striking about Shoplifting is its apathetic emotional monotony. For the most part, Sam possesses a "neutral facial expression" and in fact, announces moderate emotional shifts as they strike: "I feel good," he tells Hester; "I feel calm," he tells Hester. These live declarations are as flat as emoticons, and their impact as slight.

All of this would make for a thuddingly dull read if not for Lin's deadpan delivery and his bewitching fidelity to the most banal of human interaction. Consider this online exchange between Sam and Luis: "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 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. "I haven't had sex with one," said Sam. "Okay," said Luis. "What are you talking about." "Luis," said Sam. "What is happening. It's Saturday."

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These gaps - in emotional evocation and communicative clarity - are furthered by the narration's own omissions. There are the obscuring ellipses: "You're being like … pausing," says Hester; "I'm just … have nothing to say," says Sam. There's the deliberate deletion of detail: the undeclared "long sentence" that Jeffrey utters; the "person's name" that Sam mentions. And then there are the ubiquitous "things" - the "bad things" that Sam and Hester say to one another; the "things" that Sam surveys at American Apparel before he shoplifts a shirt ("He looked at things and sometimes touched things"); and the "thing" that he and Audrey encounter:

There was a thing on the table and Sam touched it. "What is this," he said. They touched the thing and looked at it.

These elisions mark a clever critical interruption of larger cultural mythologies - in particular, those hegemonic narratives that claim absolutism of meaning, insist upon certainty, and govern relevance, resonance, and value. But Shoplifting's compelling disjunctions and disconnections - its shoring-up of articulation as a site of simultaneous failure and possibility - are blunted by the tedium of the novella's navel-gazing insularity. Despite its wit, Shoplifting stales quickly and halfway through the novella, I was as ennuied as Lin's characters.

Lisa Foad's short story collection, The Night Is A Mouth, won the 2009 ReLit Award. She lives in Toronto.

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