Through no effort of my own I scanned across a thin Tao Lin book in the pulic library rife with buzz words. SHOPLIFTING and AMERICAN APPAREL. I figured I’d give it a chance even though Richard Yates, which I read and reviewed a long time ago, was, to put it gently, uneventful. The librarian who checked me out looked at the cover and said, “This is illegal.” I felt snappy, somewhat like a comedian, so I said, “I’m going to shoplift this book.” And I had thought of doing it, shoplifting SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL from the Twin Oaks Library. It would’ve been easy owing to my library experience embedding magnetic 3M security strips as close as possible to the binding of thousands of books. I had already identified where the 3M strip lay in this book. All I had to do was peel it off and walk straight through the metal detectors. But I’ve changed, become more thoughtful, more about society than self. Questions like, If I shoplift SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL from Twin Oaks, who will be able to read it other than myself? Of course the next logical question was, Maybe if I shoplift SHOPFLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL, I’ll save another person from reading yet another uneventful book from Tao Lin, like a vigilante, taking the law into my own hands because I, with my knowledge, know better. Wrong.
At work people wondered what I was reading. I didn’t feel like saying, SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL, so I just let them read the cover. Invariably, after they pronounced the buzz words, they threw their heads forward and laughed. One guy, an internet entrepreneur, said, “You always surprise me, man.”
In this way, through no effort of my own I came to read a book that, through no effort of my own, made people think twice about me. They thought they had me pinned and now they reassessed things. As a conversation starter the title of this novella is great. It makes the reader seem hip and a little literate. But it doesn’t go beyond that.
Case and point. There was a girl at work who asked what I was reading. I put the front cover in view. She read the buzz words aloud, and they worked their magic. She threw her head forward and laughed. Everyone around us laughed. She didn’t bother asking how the book was after a quick glance at the back cover, which only has one sentence on it: “The inmate with a mop held back the inmate without a mop.” Instead, she took out the book she was reading, FRANKENSTEIN, and said, “This is what I’m reading.” Everyone around us started talking fervently about FRANKENSTEIN: how one of the greatest misconceptions is calling the monster, FRANKENSTEIN. If you had read the book more studiously, paying atention to every detail, you would’ve known that the monster doesn’t have a name – it’s maker’s name is FRANKENSTEIN; how it’s a frame story and one of the earliest examples of science fiction; how Mary Shelley started writing it when she was eighteen and was friends with Lord Byron; how it seems to be a cautionary tale about the industrial revolution and the nature of scientific advancement; how it was published in 1818 and is still being fervently discussed in 2012 in Austin. Tao Lin’s novella wasn’t mentioned again. I covered it with a piece of paper. The thing is FRANKENSTEIN is a great story. It just is. When I read the book in 2004, I did most of the reading in a comfortable chair and loved it. I still have images from its words engraved in my brain. I see the title and it restores my faith in literature. The world has elevated it to a special place where it shall be preserved forever.
SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL has its moments. It really does. I read it while on the carpet next to a roaring tipi fire in my fireplace, and, for the most part, I wasn’t bored by it like I was with Richard Yates. I now realize that as long as Tao Lin brings in new characters and new places every several pages, he can be entertaining.
In SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL there is a cast of characters that are fun/social as opposed to deadbeats. Sam, Tao Lin’s character, actually succeeds every now and then at being genuinely funny. And his kleptomania seems to hint at a much more nuanced worldview. The fact that he’s willing to steal not once (and get caught), but twice (and get caught), seems to imply that Sam is a risk taker, someone who isn’t afraid to die, an attribute Hemingway considers prerequisite in a writer. This foolish yet adventurous way to live — an accurate description of the life of a writer — is again emphasized in the Atlantic City trip, where Sam goes to gamble with Robert, a friend. After going up $800, taking a picture of his winnings for gawker.com, and then going down to $20, they return home in the early morning and then return the next night to walk on the boardwalk. Sam looks at the people and says, “Everyone here seems, like, fucked, but in a good way. I feel at home here.” Gambling aligns with his kleptomania. Both are sources of adrenaline because of the hard reality that lurks nearby, the legal and financial consequences that often come after the rush. Both are ‘fucked’ but also life-affirming in that they are the polar opposites of boredom.
It was getting dark out, or the sun had moved, and Sam’s room was less bright. Sam looked around. His cup of iced coffee was empty. “I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he said. “I think because I haven’t been awake in the daytime for an extended period in so long and was reminded of the last time I was in a sunny room on a computer after having been up four or five hours, which was at Sheila’s house, I think.”
“Wow,” said Robert.
“But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.”
There are parts of this novella that fully embody a feeling. Even Richard Yates strikes a chord at the very end, when Tao’s character gets out of the back seat and jumps over a puddle. But too often these high points are weighed down by his unseemly need for emotional sadism. This comes through more in SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL, which Tao Lin says is about “vague relationships.” Ok. Maybe on a certain level this novella is about vague relationships, but really the relationships are explicit, they all involve a girl that seems willing to do anything for Tao Lin, yet he hurts them somehow, usually by criticizing the way they live, like with Hester when he tells her she is ‘goalless’. Either he hurts them or, as with Audrey, the last girl mentioned in SHOPLIFTING FROM AMERICAN APPAREL and probably based on an ‘intern’, he takes pleasure in reeling her in, getting her to do whatever outrageous stunt he says, and then sending mixed signals. It turns out Sam has a need to control other people that wasn’t apparent until the end. It’s unfortunate. He seemed like a good friend and then he became increasingly manipulative. Even after he gives his reading, Sam sits down and says he felt like a ‘little bitch’ while reading aloud the Gmail chat between Sam and Luis (Tao Lin and Noah Cicero) at the beginning of the novella. The thing is he wasn’t a little bitch then, he was real, it wasn’t until the chronicles of his so-called ‘vague relationships’ mounted that this part of him gained mass.
This foible in Sam took me by surprise. I understood him to be a good person. Maybe the Aspergian in him made for some awkward social interactions, but he was still a good person, someone who did in fact mean well and just couldn’t settle on a partner. Fine. Then the final scene in Gainesville came when Sam nailed his character flaw on the head and my reading shifted. It was like my goggles cleared up and I picked apart the dialogue under a new light that shined brightly not on Sam’s disregard for himself but for others.
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