Tao Lin: Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009)

Sometimes I forget  something very important that I want from literature. I read books, I like them but at the end of the day, they are often far from our lives and certainly nothing new. And then I come upon a book like Shoplifting From American Apparel and all of a sudden I know what I was looking for. Books that look at contemporary life in a revealing way and are written in a very distinct voice.

Tao Lin was first only well-known in underground circles but starts to get more and more appreciation from everywhere. He is also known as the writer of a blog called Reader of Depressing Books. The title has changed meanwhile but the blog still exists as you can see here: Tao Lin’s Blog.

Lin has published poems, short stories, two novels and this novella.

The book tells about two years in the life of a young writer. It’s mostly set in Manhattan but some of the chapters take place in other cities.

If it was only a writer’s story it wouldn’t be that special but it’s also an exploration of relationships, alternative lifestyles and the meaning of happiness. The characters question what our society takes as a given. Forms of living, culture and social conventions are explored and this with a total absence of sarcasm or cynicism which is refreshing.

Sam is a young writer. To make a living he works in a vegan restaurant but he has hardly enough money to buy things he likes. Shoplifting has become a habit for him. Getting caught seems to be part of it. Everything in  his life seems to be changing constantly. He goes through phases. At the beginning of the book he sees a girl called Sheila and his best friend is Luis, who is a writer as well. Their friendship takes place in cyberspace, on Gmail chat. They both blog as well. They met once but did not have all that much to say to each other although they can chat for hours.

“Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like blogniks to describe us?”

A year later he is seeing Hester but they drift apart very soon. His best friend is Robert, with whom he goes to parties.

This book is rooted so deeply in contemporary life that it’s almost eerie. Sam meets the DJ Moby, he drinks smoothies, eats organic and vegan food, chats online and writes a blog. He sees friends and wonders if they are happier than he is. Some of his relationships take place in real life others are limited to cyberspace.

The dialogue is one of the best elements in the novel. It sounds very authentic with its frequent use of “like” and “or something”.

“I played video games,” said Luis. “Perfect Dark. I killed people for two hours then I got bored. I know what you mean by impossible.”

“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.'”

But more than dialogue, many of these exchanges are intimate conversations in which people listen to each other and take each other seriously.

I liked this book so much because it’s fresh, irreverent and looking at other ways to live, far from the mainstream but the characters are not self-destructive nor cynical or sarcastic, like they are in so many other books about young writers. Apart from the shoplifting, Sam is quite tame. And the shoplifting is not so much delinquency as silliness. The characters are insecure and floating but very close to their feelings. They can talk about their emotions and dreams and wishes. And even when a relationship has come to an end and they have nothing much to say anymore, they can put this into words. This doesn’t mean they are happy all the time, on the very contrary, they feel often sad and lonely but they express it, they don’t just act it out.

I also liked that there are references to so-called high culture standing next to the references to pop culture. Sam tests what works for him, in music or literature but doesn’t feel tied down by something being called “classic”. I read somewhere that Tao Lin also uses his books as a means to raise awareness for alternative lifestyles. It’s interesting to see how many times food is mentioned and what type of food. The way he writes about it makes it sound playful, not preachy at all. This made me think that there was once a time when writers felt they had a responsibility, that they should contribute to making this world a better place. I think Tao Lin can bee seen in that tradition.

I want to read more of Tao Lin and am very curious where he will go from here as a writer.

Have you read him?

27 thoughts on “Tao Lin: Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009)

  1. I have read it. My review is here: http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/tao-lin-shoplifting-from-american-apparel/ I got a massive number of hits after posting it. Tao Lin has a lot of fans.

    My thoughts were similar to yours. I liked the freshness of it. The capturing of how conversations work in new media such as gmail chat was very good. There was that playful quality you refer to. It’s an interesting book and one I was very happy to have read.

    • Have you read anything else by him? I’m interested in reading something longer and his poems.
      I thought he must have a lot of fans, when he is reading he seems to do it more like a performance. I thought all his refrences to contemporaray culture or youth culture were well done, sometimes it just doesn’t feel right when writers integrate it but the way he uses it makes it very natural. The different levels of relationships he captures are interesting. I read a few of his blog posts and liked those as well. Thanks for the link.

  2. Now I’m curious. I’ve seen the name “Tao Lin” spammed across online forums by hipster trolls, and wondered what he was about (and whether he was any good). I may have to check out one of his books.

    • He has absolute cult status, like a DJ almost. I like the way he thinks and looks at things. “Fresh” is really the best word I could come up with. I hope you will like him.

  3. Nice review, Caroline! I haven’t heard of Tao Lin before. From your review, he looks like a fascinating author and this book looks really interesting, because of the way it depicts contemporary life! I will look for it. I checked in Wikipedia and discovered that Tao Lin is quite young – in his twenties – and his books are all published by Melville House Publishing. Yay to Melville House 🙂 I should really get their catalogue now!

    • They have a great catalogue.
      Yes, he is still very young, at least he was when he started his blog and published his first book. I read one or two of his blog posts and the way he looks at literature and writes about it is interesting. A lot of these thoughts are in the books which seem to be autobiographical.

    • You’re welcome, Carole. He is interesting and especially this combination of modern life and gentleness is refreshing. Witty doesn’t need to be sarcastic or snarky. And he is witty.

  4. He’s new to me as well, but I like the sound of this book. I like the idea of writing about finding happiness, but in an upbeat way (at least this sounds upbeat). As I don’t read very much contemporary lit I will have to look for this one!

    • There is some sadness in it but it’s not depressing. It’s just part of the floating up and down. I liked that very much.
      He has quite a few books published by now, I’m sure you will find the one or the other at the library. I’m looking forward to his novel.

  5. I’ve never heard of him but I’m curious.

    However, reading the quotes I’m not sure I’d catch all the references.
    I know nothing about DJs, video games and underground life.
    Do you think he speaks to everyone or you have to be part of his world to understand him? He sounds like a modern Kerouac, demonstrating another way of life.

    • I think you could see him in that tradition and that seems to have been Max’ reservation, too many refrences to other authors. I think you would get the cultural references, it’s not that much.
      I’m not sure whether you need to be part of his world. Difficult to say. I think you can read some of his stories online. Maybe he even left a link on Max’ blog.

  6. Sometimes I like this kind of writing and sometimes I feel it’s trying too hard to be hip and trendy. Plus, I wonder what it will sound like in 15 years when the contemporary culture has moved on. But that being said, I do love it when literature tries new things and takes risks. There isn’t enough of that (not in these pressured commercial times) so it’s great to think that someone out there is forging a new trail.

    • That’s actually the big difference between Tao Lin and others. He doesn’t try to be anything. This is a book that feels right and effortless.
      In 15 years it can be read as a testimony and will still be valauable.
      The question is for me, what will Tao write in 15 years.
      I just think it is admirable to analyze our society and to refrain from being cynical.

  7. Hi Caroline
    I read this and liked it as well. I just replied to your comment on Max’s blog, so I won’t repeat all of that. But my experience of “where Tao Lin goes after this” is: nowhere. I think his “shtick” can quite quickly become attenuated to the point of losing the qualities that make it interesting in the first place.
    As an example, here’s a clip of Lin reading a poem at a (presumably) hipster event in NY:
    http://allthingsordinary.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/tao-lin-whale-poem/

    He’s doing the filming as well as the reading. The reactions of the crowd are the point, I guess. But he does push it too far, what’s funny becomes boring and finally pointless. It that the point? Maybe it is.

    • I replied to you on Max’s blog as well.
      I’m going to read some more of him but I’m glad I didn’t order “Richard Yates”.
      I was really wondering while reading if this is all he can do. It’s a huge differnece if you choose to write one way because you’re not able to do it any other way.
      The only thing I’m sure about is, I really liked this book but I will only be able to judge whether I like Tao Lin as a writer in general when I’ve read something else.

      • I just watched the poem or rather listened to it…
        It’s ok as an experiment but indeed a tad long. The beginning was interesting as it sounded like mixing but towards the end rather like a broken record. Certainly some musical allusion…

  8. I have never heard of Tao Lin, judging from the title and his name, is he a Chinese American? Not that it matter much…just curious.

    The book sounds interesting, it reminds me of Japanese contemporary writing….which then remind me I need to go to the library and explore new kind of books.

    What’s Blogniks anyway?

    • Taiwanese-American to be precise, yes.
      I wouldn’t go as far as making a comparison to Japanese writing which i do like much better but it was unusual, interesting, touching, as well.
      Blogniks is a pun. Some writers in the 60s like Kerouca and Ken Kesey were called Beatniks. He just says that if they are very famous one day they will be the Blogniks, guys who wrote blogs and got famous.

  9. Caroline, I’ve not as yet read anything else by him. I am tempted, but for reasons Leroy explained it probably won’t be Richard Yates (a brave title that).

    He flirts with boredom which is dangerous territory for any artist. Pull it off and it’s impressive, but there’s always a huge risk of simply being boring.

    • I’m wary after Leroy’s comment and will read something older but that will not tell me where he is going from here. I sure though that he will always come up with thought-provoking images and ideas.

  10. I’ve not read anything by Tao Lin, but you’ve gotten me very curious about this book. It’s not always easy to write a novel that comments on contemporary society in a way to be thought provoking but not judgmental. It sounds like Tao Lin has achieved that.
    Have you read Joshua Ferris? His book “Then We Came to the End” is another great example of this. It takes place in the cubicle culture of an ad agency – so well done.

    • I didn’t think he was judgmental or preachy which is also something I’m kind of allergic to, I just thought he was spot on and refreshing. It seesm he is overdoing it a bit by now… I couldn’t tell. All I’ve read is this novella and I liked it a lot.
      I heard Ferris is very good but didn’t get to it yet.
      I read Délphine de Vigan’s Underground Time earlier this year and it was really good too.

  11. That’s what I want from literature too, Caroline: “books that look at contemporary life in a revealing way and are written in a very distinct voice”. I find it’s easy sometimes to read for the sake of reading, and forget what I’m really looking for. I hadn’t heard of Tao Lin before – clearly I’m not a hipster! Looking forward to reading this novel.

    • I had a feeling I was reading too much for the sake of reading lately and was glad to find this novella because it did remind me of a lot I find important. I found Tao Lin purely by coincidenece because I was browsing the Melville House site and the title caught my eye. I thought it was funny that someone would choose American apparel to steal from. It’s almost like product placement.
      I think the Art of the Novella series and the sub series this is in (The Contemporary Art of the Novella) is very interesting.
      I’m very curious to hear what you will think of it.

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