We are the fucked generation

A common piece of advice given to new writers, is to write what they know. It’s terrible advice. All too many writers don’t know anything much except attending writers’ workshops and struggling to make it as a writer, frequently in New York City. It’s not always New York City, but they often seem to move there, which extends their range to stories about trying to make it as a struggling writer who just moved to New York City, frequently from a small town.

I’ve read that story far too many times, I’ve seen it on film, I’ve been to a musical in the past year which turned out when I got there to be about a struggling writer who had recently moved to NYC and the bohemian people she met there. In the unlikely event anyone reads this who happens to be a struggling writer living in New York (actually, given how many there seem to be, that may not be that unlikely), here’s my bit of advice. Write what you don’t know. Write about a young girl coming of age in 1840s Copenhagen, or about an old man moving into a hospice he knows he’ll never leave, or maybe a satire of contemporary religion from the perspective of a church cat. Whatever. Surprise me here.

Anyway, that aside. Shoplifting from American Apparel is a novella by Tao Lin. It contains a few incidents from the life of Sam, a young Chinese-American writer living in New York. One could possibly call him struggling even. Irritatingly then, I rather enjoyed it. It’s well written, subtle and very unusual in its approach to narrative.

Shoplifting was written in 2007, and is very much of its time. Sam talks to his friends on Gmail chat (as do I most days), checks stuff on Facebook, there are references to the Obama and McCain campaigns. It’s plotless, Sam has desultory conversations, vague relationships with a few girls none of whom he really engages with, goes on a few trips, and gets arrested twice for shoplifting (once from American Apparel, you can’t say the book doesn’t live up to its title). As in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel Less than Zero it starts at no particular point and ends equally unresolved, it’s simply episodes from a life, with the implication that the episodes not in the book are much the same.

Shoplifting opens with Sam chatting online, in a sequence that manages to both be very funny (if you’ve used Gmail chat anyway, possibly less so if not) and surprisingly accurate about the peculiarities of that form. Here’s two snippets of Sam’s chat:

“What should I eat”’ said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”
“Cereal,” said Luis.
“I wanted the bagel. I’m eating the bagel, I don’t know why I asked.”

“Has Marissa ever threatened to kill you,” said Sam.
“Oscar Wilde said that a genius is a spectator to their own life, to the point that the real genius is uninteresting,” said Luis. “No, Marissa has never threatened to kill me.”

I love the inconsequentiality of the conversation, the pointless question about what to eat when Sam’s already decided. Chat for its own sake. Equally, Lin captures the curiously intercollated nature of Gmail chat, where each participant is often a sentence or so out of sequence with the other. Leroy is talking about writing just before that second quote begins, makes his point about Wilde, but while he was writing that Sam’s already asked the question about Marissa. Leroy answers that, which ends up tagged on to the Wilde quote. My own experience of Gmail chat is very similar, if someone changes topic, you’ve often written out a reply to the previous topic before you receive the message telling you they’ve moved on to something new. It may seem unimportant, but then if there’s any theme to Shoplifting at all it’s that everything is equally important or unimportant.

It’s hard, incidentally, not to see that Wilde quote as something of a metacommentary on the novella itself.

Lin is very good at capturing small exchanges, everyday conversations. Although his characters don’t really do anything, and their motivations for what they do do are never really explored (we’re not privy to Sam’s inner life, merely his comments on what it is), there is a sense of the quotidian here which many novelists struggle to achieve. Having just come from The Road, with its dialogue tending to the profound and the symbolic, it’s refreshing to read a work which simply captures the small comedy of everyday life.

There’s a danger to too much analysis of a work like this, it deals very much in surfaces after all, there’s a risk of putting a weight on it it’s not intended to bear. Why does Sam shoplift? Who knows? His only explanation is that he’s stupid, there’s a feeling almost of why not. It is another source of comedy, as an American Apparel manager complains that they’re the good guys and if he’s going to shoplift he should do it from a company with bad labour relations. It also does take Sam from his own milieu briefly, to police holding cells filled with aggressive drunks and possibly crazy people, but he learns nothing from that.

So, Sam learns nothing, he constantly reflects on his own life but in an essentially narcissistic way, there’s no drive to change anything nor does he seem to particularly enjoy it. He just sort of is, aimlessly. His friends are equally aimless, comparing the Amazon rankings of their books and doing occasional readings, but there’s a sense they’re waiting to be discovered rather than working for it. They haven’t opted out, they’ve just never really opted in. Some have talent, many plainly don’t (at one point a band explain with great seriousness that their new song is about how Jesus was a zombie as he came back from the dead, they seem unaware – as Lin I’m sure isn’t – that it’s a commonplace internet joke).

The issue always with plotless novels, is what to read them for. Since much of what I read these days is fairly plotless, it’s a question I have to answer quite often. Without plot, really you’re looking at character and prose. Shoplifting’s light on character, Sam and his friends are fairly interchangeable (itself possibly a comment on them), so you’re left with the prose. Lin has an often dryly ironic tone, which is combined somehow with a stye rather like champagne foam, insubstantial but no less enjoyable for that. He also has a nice eye for the absurd:

“I want to change my novel to present tense,” said Sam. “Is there some Microsoft Word thing to do that.”

or

… my face was bathed in the soft blue light of Internet Explorer.

If I had to criticise, I’d say that some of Lin’s influences are a bit obvious. I enjoy Douglas Coupland as much as the next man, and I’ve read a fair bit of Bret Easton Ellis, but their fingerprints here are easy to spot. At one point a character is even mentioned to be reading an Ellis novel, that’s nicely self-referential and all but (as I’d like a few more TV writers to realise) hanging a lampshade on the point doesn’t mean it’s no longer an issue. That said, Lin has nothing of the ultra-violence (or indeed vampires) so frequent in Ellis’s work, and which for me was the weakest part of Ellis’s material, so arguably he’s improving on Ellis rather than merely imitating him.

Self-referentiality is another big part of Shoplifting, Sam is a Chinese-American writer who writes books about “two people alone in rooms in Ohio and Pennsylvania talking to each other on Gmail chat.” Shoplifting, of course, is a book by a Chinese-American writer and opens with two people alone in rooms talking to each other on Gmail chat. Is Sam essentially Tao Lin? Again, who knows? To me, it’s a form of joke, a metajoke even, Sam writes stories about characters like himself while appearing in a story which may have been written by someone like himself. That said, there’s a laziness to post-modern irony at times, and what works at this length could become very tiresome at full novel length.

If I had to sum up the characters in Shoplifting, I’d do it with the following quote. Here someone is explaining what happened when he ran away from home, an adolescently romantic impulse that descends into banal futility:

Joseph said he stopped going to school when he was sixteen and saved money and left Kentucky on his bike without telling anyone and climbed onto a train, because he had heard of people doing that, and the train went somewhere but then came back and didn’t move anymore and he bought a Greyhound ticket and went to San Francisco and then Arizona.

Sam and his acquaintances lead lives of tremendous material comfort. They have laptops and ipods and all manner of useful things, all they really lack is much of a point. They live in a blanket of pleasant inconsequence, with nothing much to struggle for. They are not religious, or political, or in any way driven. They are the products of a world in which want has largely been abolished, for the children of the middle classes anyway, swaddled until it’s hard to feel anything at all:

“…there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.”

Look on your works, ye baby boomers, and despair.

I heard of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel over at John Self’s blog, The Asylum. He gave it a positive review, the comments to which are also well worth reading. John has my thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Shoplifting from American Apparel

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30 Comments

Filed under Lin, Tao, New York, Novellas, US Literature

30 responses to “We are the fucked generation

  1. Brian

    When you say “Look on your works, ye baby boomers, and despair,” do you mean the literary/film works of baby boomers? I don’t understand this reference, otherwise this is brilliant commentary.

  2. Henry

    he’s talking about the children of baby boomers, whom they have ‘worked’ into the adults the children have become

  3. Brian

    Oh, I thought he was talking about Lin’s work being so much better than anything baby boom writers have produced. Thanks for enlightening me. Makes sense.

  4. That was what I meant Brian. I think, as with every older generation to every new one really, there are those who despair of what they’ve produced. The golden age seems always in the past, never ahead.

    There’s also an irony in that so much effort was, rightly, put into building a better society and yet those of us born into it don’t seem any happier as a result. It’s a rather bitter irony, but there I think nonetheless.

    Glad you liked the piece. And thanks for the clarification Henry.

  5. moomin

    I like reading Tao Lin’s books. He writes about how he feels, or about what happened to him, or about something that is impossible, or about something maybe a friend of his would like to read. I like that. He does not pretend that all kinds of life-affirming things happened to him, with potentially best-selling epiphanies. I like his cognitive-behavioral linguistic style. It seems more sane than lots of other stuff out there.

  6. GB Steve

    I read Bed, a short story collection of his. I got bored with it. Each story is a different retelling of the same one you discuss above and after a while reading them became as pointless as the stories themselves. Perhaps if I’d just read one I’d have been satisfied. Perhaps that was the point. Who knows?

  7. Brian

    Moomin, you are probably very young. When people get older, they’re looking for more than that.

    One problem I have with Lin’s work and that of the other really young writers is exactly what Max said, they write about what they know, and their feelings and adolescent and post-adolescent experiences are all that they know.

    It’s not their fault, of course, but a person of 40 or 50 or maybe even 30 if they’ve had a lot of life experience, finds that kind of teenage-ish introspection boring.

    I gave a friend of mine Tao Lin’s book and he found it unreadable. What he said is that it was like listening in on his teenage daughter’s phone conversations, something he found just dull. To a person who has had to deal with cancer, careers as a banker and musician, the death of his first wife, taking care of a father with dementia, paying bills, etc., it was just dull: so, Moomin, when you say Lin “writes about how he feels, or about what happened to him,” yes, that’s the trouble — not much has happened to him.

    The other problem my friend and I have with Lin’s work is the choppiness of the periodicity of the sentences; there are almost no transistion words, few complex sentences with subordinate clauses, almost no interesting description. Lin can have four simple sentences in a row that start: “He…”

    Obviously Lin does this deliberately, since he’s capable of writing differently. Perhaps his style will change in the future. If he is any kind of a good writer, he will mature and his work will become more resonant to people who aren’t teenagers (today, let’s face it, most middle-class people in their 20s are teenagers; it’s not like the 1950s — the characters in Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” (a favorite book of Lin’s) are only in their twenties but are clearly adults) like Moomin.

    Right now he can’t be faulted because he has little to write about. He seems either not to have the ability or desire to move outside his narrow circle. (for example, there are plenty of people Lin’s age who are working-class, not university-educated, living in slums, running start-ups in Silicon Valley, in the military, etc.)

  8. leroyhunter

    It’s an interesting take, Brian, but not one I’m sure I agree with. I find there is a strange fascination in the affectless, self-absorbed characters he decribes, much like I can’t help being intrigued (rather then just appalled) by the seemingly vacuous, shallow conversations of local teens on the bus or train. I find myself asking: is this really all they’re interested in? Do they really believe the things they’re saying? Is there a hinterland to any of this, or is it just banality facilitated by wealth and technology? I think Lin captures that quite nicely.

    I’d also argue that Lin has taken a more serious approach in this book by ignoring his obvious predecessor (Ellis, as Max said) and his penchant for injecting fantastical elements (murder, vampirism etc) into the mix – a more obviously ‘childish’ or immature strategy that obscures the questions either writer could be seen to be posing.

    In summary, I’ve been through a few of life’s more challenging experiences, and my teens/twenties are dwindling memories…but I still enjoyed this. Agree with Max, I’m not sure I’d want a whole novel in this register, but I enjoyed his style (particularly the comic conversations), and I was left feeling curiously sad about Sam and his anomic contemporaries.

  9. Moomin, have you read any Ellis or Coupland? If not, you might like them, though presently as I said above I think that by removing the murder and vampirism Lee actually manages something more interesting than Ellis does.

    It’s a funny thing with Ellis, when I read American Psycho for the first half of the novel I was convinced the violence was fantasy, that it wasn’t happening. I loved passages such as where the characters compare business cards, or the monologues about Phil Collins. Then in the second half of the novel, when it becomes apparent the murders are real, it became far less interesting to me. More obvious in a way.

    The comment about cognitive-behavioral linguistic style is interesting.

    Steve, that collection almost sounds like a writing exercise. I may read his first novel, and I’ll almost certainly read his new one (Richard Yates I think it’s called) due out in a bit, but I’ll probably pass on Bed.

    Brian, oddly enough I think Lin gets away with writing what he knows. Most don’t. I do think it’s bad advice, it’s a rare writer who pulls it off, I’m impressed and surprised that for me Lin did, but I still wouldn’t recommend it as an approach for others.

    Like you say, most young writers just plain don’t know that much, but if you move from what you know to what you can imagine, then age becomes suddenly much less of a barrier. At 20 you don’t know what it’s like to be middle aged and facing cancer, but you can do some research and use your imagination and then possibly write a good book. Restricting yourself to what you know is restricting yourself to a very small palette compared to what you can imagine.

    That said, I did like the Lin, I thought he captured a world that I’m at best (at worst?) on the borders of, enough for me to recognise its truth anyway.

    I think in the prison sequences Lin recognises that his characters’ world is actually a highly circumscribed one. It’s noticeable that Sam leaves his world twice in the narrative, but he isn’t really affected by that. He carries it with him, into the holding cell, and it stays wrapped around him while he’s in there. There’s a narcissistic element to him I think, which seems to prevent him experiencing life directly. Rather, he reflects on the experience of life, which is no substitute.

    Put another way, the book is descriptive, but it leaves it open to the reader whether to empathise or not.

  10. Leroy,

    I found that fascination too, I love your phrase ” banality facilitated by wealth and technology” – that’s exactly right, but the book takes us into what that’s like, and what else is going on.

    And yes, I do think it’s more serious than Ellis, frankly I see what Ellis is doing with the fantastic elements, but I don’t think he needs them and ultimately I think with some of his work they started getting in the way. The vampires particularly, as one bizarre incident in a short story, which I think is how they first appeared, they worked. When they started recurring, not so much.

    It is a somewhat sad work, I think that’s true too, and the age thing wasn’t an issue for me. It’s not my experience, but Junichiro Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man (which is superlative by the way) is much further from my experience and I enjoyed that. For me, if the book captures the truth of something, then that goes a long way. Whether that truth is interesting or not, well, I think that’s partly what this is about.

  11. Oh, a last comment. I chose a really bad title for this blog entry with hindsight. Every time I see it I get Bob Sinclair’s Love Generation playing in my head, except with the chorus words “Feel the Love Generation” being replaced with “We are the fucked generation”.

    To be honest, it’s something of an improvement on the original, but even so it’s not a tune that works for me.

  12. Brian

    I had been thinking about what I wrote and that actually Lin does have considerable life experience in something unusual, and that perhaps is why he, rather than his imitators, can be more interesting on the mood level and as a social commentator.

    That is, starting at 22 or whatever, Lin has been an ‘Internet celebrity.’ He knows — unlike anyone I’ve ever met in my life — what that is like, what it’s like to be, essentially a ‘kid’ working at a low-level job while being a ‘famous’ writer who gets ‘shit-talked’ about on blogs; whose work is reviewed by prestigious mainstream media publications; who goes on book tours on several continents; who deals with lots of fans and ‘followers’ (some of whom probably want something from him: a blurb, validation, even publication by his own press).

    (He’s actually had a more interesting life even as an adolescent. His father, J.T. Lin, was a famous physicist who became CEO of a corporation, SurgiLight, which promised a cure for middle-aged farsightedness. Lin’s father’s claims were fraudulent, the SurgiLight stock soared on this fraudulent news, the CEO — Lin’s father — was convicted of fraud and served in federal prison. According to the SEC, both Lin’s parents were involved in laundering the ill-gotten gains (estimated at about $1.7 million — Tao grew up as the son of a millionaire in Orlando and all that that entails) and as the defendants in civil lawsuits from the people they defrauded, returned to their native Taiwan to avoid the reach of American law. — For whatever reason, Lin has not chosen to write about his unusual background; for example, I imagine there are few students at a prestigious university like NYU whose fathers are in prison, and that must have made Lin feel…something.)

    I think he will have a bright future if he adapts. He has chosen for now to cultivate an audience that is highly loyal and particularized, but he seems capable of reaching a wider audience if he chooses to do that.

    I just hope the protagonist of “Richard Yates” is not a writer resembling Tao Lin involved with other young writers in ‘the scene’ in New York.

  13. Fascinating stuff, I had no idea. I do think he potentially has a bright future, but like you I hope “Richard Yates” isn’t about a writer taking part in the “New York” scene.

  14. moomin

    Brian and Max,

    I am not ‘young’ chronologically.

    I liked Raymond Roussell, Alain Robbe-Grillet, various other avant-gardists, and today Tao Lin seems to be the ‘freshest’ new ‘face’ around. Just a personal opinion. I think John Cage might agree.

  15. tao

    thank you for the review max, i liked reading it

    i’ve posted 3 stories from ‘bed’ on this site

    some of the stories have long sentences sometimes

    this one has long sentences and is from the perspective of a girl

    ‘damn’ re brian

  16. moomin

    I had laser eye surgery for a badly torn retina. I have to thank Tao Lin’s father and others doing innovative work in the laser area for my ability to see today. I read the SEC transcripts and it remains unclear to me what the situation really was, and a rather small amount of money was involved, and in no way does a law suit ‘color’ my feelings towards Tao Lin. Anyone can sue anyone, and not all first generation immigrants want to deal with American law suits, nor are all the rules clear to them. One can be a brilliant scientist and not very savvy with corporate law or securities law. All I can say is thank you Tao Lin’s dad for saving my vision.

  17. Moomin,

    Just to be clear, I hadn’t formed any view on your age, it’s not something I care about to be honest. It’s not relevant to me in this context (or many others actually).

    I mentioned Coupland and Ellis because you might not have read them. As I mentioned to someone the other day, I’ve not read any Austen. We all have gaps, even obvious ones.

    Re Tao Lin’s father, it’s interesting to hear but it’s not something I express a view on. I don’t know him after all, and it’s not for me to judge (good or bad, it’s just not ultimately my business).

    What’s the John Cage link?

  18. Tao Lin,

    Thanks for the links. And, more importantly, thank you for the book.

    Good luck with the next one, in the meantime I’ll pick up Eeeee Eee Eeee.

  19. Some people called John Cage ‘boring,’ because he focused on silence, extra-musical sounds, etcetera, in settings where the focus turned on the audience reactions. Some people read Tao Lin’s writing and think, “What am I doing?, Why am I doing this? What is happening?” and then, after giving into the ‘neutral,’ sometimes experience a transformative feeling, sensing themselves as a ‘protein’ reading a book written by another ‘protein.’

    I think Tao Lin shares much with the Japanese micropop artists, in having a ‘non-institutional’ position, dealing with exigencies of ‘everyday’ situations, renewing perception of the ‘ordinary,’ being ‘modest,’ noticing minute changes in ‘perspective,’ writing in a ‘minor’ language (as in D & G, re: Kafka), using ‘tactics’ to operate in inventive ways to create and survive (de Certeau).

    John Cage comes to my mind because he was one of the early artists to whom ‘nothing special’ was the ‘new special.’ The Japanese Micropop artists find in the violent and uncertain world ‘a kind of happiness’ in the “attentiveness to the specificity of each phenomenon or fragment of experience that takes place in the singularity of the here and now” (as says Midori Matsui).

  20. Almost a meditational approach then, interesting. Certainly the idea of focusing on something seemingly inconsequential is not new in Japanese culture.

    Who are you thinking of with the micropop artists? In terms of Japanese fiction, I’m more familiar with the more established names – Shusaku Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Akira Yoshimura (and I’ve read some Banana Yoshimoto, though not much).

    What am I missing out on?

    Nice chat by the way, thanks for linking to that.

  21. Max,

    I was thinking mostly of visual artists in the “Micropop” of “Supereveryday” tradition, who were ‘collected’ into several exhibitions by the Japanese art critic Midori Matsui, whose background is in modernist and post-modernist literature. You can read more here: http://extravaluemeal.wordpress.com/2008/03/18/what-is-micropop-by-midori-matsui/

    I am glad you liked the chat. My friend and I ‘won’ the chat with Tao Lin on eBay.

  22. Thanks for the link, I’ll take a look.

  23. I think I liked it somewhat better than you, I didn’t mind the references, but -there is a huge but – I was wondering while reading it whether this is all he can or wants to do. I see the danger of repetition. I’m really curious to read some of his other work and see whether he moved on. On the other hand I enjoyed the effortless way he describes things (like the quote with the blue light from the Internet Explorer).

  24. Interesting to read your review after Caroline’s.
    It only confirms my impression: that it doesn’t reach the universal that I look for in a book, the thing that makes me close to a character imagined by a writer long dead. Most of the references would be lost to me.
    I don’t chat online with friends, I have Twitter and Facebook accounts, to know how it works but they’re useless: my friends don’t have one. I don’t play video games either and don’t know their names.
    Am I part of this world, really? It makes me feel old and out of place.

  25. leroyhunter

    Caroline, I also liked this, enough to buy his follow-up Richard Yates right away when it came out. Unfortunately I thought the new book was terrible. I lost my place a couple of times, and I couldn’t find it again as both prose and plot are so flat and repetitive that one page reads pretty much exactly like another. The conceit of naming the 2 main characters after Hollywood stars, and then spelling out their complete names every time they are referred to, is disastrous. While the kids in American Apparel have some kind of melancholy fascination, in Richard Yates that quickly shaded (for me) into irritation at the self-indulgence on display, from both author and characters.

    I gave the book 50-60 pages and then I just had enough. I think after this experience Tao Lin may well be a dead end.

  26. That does not sound promising, Leroy. I was afraid it could be like that. I ordered some of his older stuff and I’m still looking forwad to it. I thought the idea of calling a novel Richard Yates a bit dubious that’s why I didn’t go for that one. I still think his book is a very valuable contribution. I also think it is far more universal than Emma thinks. Commenting isn’t that much different from chatting, less real time that’s all. I liked that he doesn’t shy away from exactly portaying this and roots his books in our time.
    But I’m allergic to shticks, so if all he does is that…

  27. There are many worlds in this one Emma, we can’t be part of all of them. I don’t tend to think it’s much worth worrying about.

    Shame about Richard Yates Leroy. Most offputting.

    Caroline, I agree there is more universality. Looking again at that soft blue light quote it is very good. You have a point that it’s easy to think there’s something more in media than there is. Chatting is pretty mundane. Tao Lin, here at least, is all about showing the mundane and he does so in seeming effortless fashion (as you say Caroline, and which I suspect must take some effort to achieve).

  28. Max, as a woman, I don’t worry about that. As long as I’m happy in my world, it’s fine. But as a mother, I do. It’s a question of keeping in touch with your children and their generation. On some aspects, I really don’t want to be like my parents.

  29. Pingback: the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated | Pechorin’s Journal

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