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.”
… 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.