Monday, November 09, 2009

It would be easy – but wrong – to misread Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel as being the literary equivalent to something akin to the late lamented (but not too much) Simple Life, the E! network TV series that starred Paris Hilton & Nicole Richie. Both cultural artifacts are hi-gloss homage to slacker youth, and both feature protagonists whose predominant surface characteristic is obliviousness. I’d even go one step further & say that each also depends upon one figure (Tao Lin, Ms. Hilton) who is in fact a cagey businessperson uniquely tapped into evolving, and previously unacknowledged, aspects of contemporary life.

Consider the following self-contained passage, which comes midway through this fragile, quite well written 102-page novella.

On Hester’s sofa in her apartment in Chelsea Sam said he had sort of been seeing someone named Paula for a few weeks but didn’t think they would see each other anymore. Hester asked why and Sam said he didn’t know. Hester asked why again and Sam said he didn’t know. Hester said she needed to pee and went to the bathroom and came back and sat on Sam’s lap and began to kiss him. Sam tasted mouthwash. Hester stood and walked around and said she shouldn’t be doing that. She said Sam was too young. She sat on Sam’s lap and they kissed and she stood and walked around.

“I’m one year younger than you,” said Sam. “You aren’t making sense.”

“I’m not going to have sex with you,” said Hester standing near her front door, almost out of view. “Should we go buy cigarettes and condoms?” she said not looking at Sam. “I’m out of cigarettes. I haven’t had sex in so long.”

“I don’t know,” said Sam after a few seconds.

“Why don’t you want to have sex with me?” said Hester.

“What do you mean,” said Sam.

“I don’t know,” said Hester quickly.

“I don’t . . . not don’t want to have sex with you,” said Sam.

Tao Lin’s writing, spare to the point of anorexic, accentuates Sam’s sense of emotional & physical paralysis. Hester moves, Sam doesn’t. When Sam asks something, it doesn’t even warrant a question mark. Half of the six remarks he makes in this passage are “I don’t know” or variations thereof. His one question evokes exactly the same response. And his final comment is a little masterpiece of tangled syntax.

Sam’s only action in this narcotic instance of foreplay is to taste mouthwash. The sentence that ends with Hester kissing him for the first time is almost architectural in its construction: five separate actions on Hester’s part, all connected by and but with not one bit of internal punctuation. Tao Lin gives the impression of being someone who has read his Faulkner very carefully. The master could not have done this better.

If the author uses grammar to capture Hester’s anxiety, the closest he gets to prodding an actual response from Sam comes in the protestation “I’m one year younger than you …. You aren’t making sense.” Does Sam want to have sex? Does he even know?

Tales of alienated youth are at least as old as Holden Caufield, who first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in 1941. Whether or not you think of Sam as being a 21st century equivalent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (the title of a 1944 study of the use of hypnosis with criminal psychopaths before it referenced the apotheosis of youth culture sexuality) or the figure in Tom Petty’s Great Wide Open, “a rebel without a clue,” he’s carefully constructed & passionately drawn in this book that appears otherwise to eschew passion as some sort of sucker emotion. When he’s caught shoplifting (not for the first time) earbuds from the NYU computer store, Sam denies having done so just for a second, before fessing up & waiting quietly for campus security. When another busted shoplifter (Urban Outfitters, where she appears to have been part of a pack or squad of semi-organized thieves) points out to Sam that one can buy earbuds for $4.99, the blankness of his response – “No, but I wanted forty-dollar ones” – captures perfectly the degree to which Sam operates not outside of society, exactly, but in almost complete ignorance of its social / ethical norms. Both Sam & this girl believe they are in custody simply because they failed to run when doing so might well have kept them free. They’re not dishonest people, whatever their klepto tendencies, and Sam doesn’t particularly distinguish custody from the ennui of daily life on the outside anyway. The cops are polite. When a cop wants to know if Sam would like something from a vending machine, he asks for some of his vegan cookies from his backpack.

Jail, like sex, is the abrupt confrontation with Other People, and especially people of other cultures & classes. Sam hears it, sees it, but he’s so insulated that it comes across as very distant – not the reality of class so much as its faint echo. If it still has any meaning, Sam can’t hear it. But at one level, this muted effect is what this novella does best. American Apparel has the most up-to-date feel of any fiction I’ve read – it’s as if Sam (or perhaps Tao Lin) can’t remember the 1990s, as tho the past were entirely absent. That this isn’t entirely accidental is, I think, telegraphed by the abrupt way the book’s untitled sections advance time:

A few weeks later Sam was walking to the library holding a large iced coffee.


A few days later Sam met Kaitlyn in Williamsburg to go to the annual work party for the organic vegan restaurant where he worked.


A few weeks later around 1 a.m. Robert and Sam were on a bus to Atlantic City.


A few months later Sam was sitting on his mattress with his MacBook drinking iced coffee and listening to music.


About two months later it was November and Sam was at Joseph’s house in Florida.

These are not merely instances of extraordinarily fast & effective narrative set-ups (tho they are that also). Rather, one is being given a real sense of time flashing past, almost strobe-like, but in a minimalist world in which the clutter that is, say, Brooklyn is virtually invisble. If Sam doesn’t feel, exactly, whether it’s class or romance or the large questions of what to do with his own life, it’s literally because this book is all about emotion anaesthetized in a universe where the funky bodega or the corner drug dealers fade from view & are replaced by the very large Gatorade message on the digital signage: That’s G!

American Apparel is a book that thus goes down pretty easy & feels light in the process, but afterwards you can’t get it out of your mind. Once you cancel out all of Tao Lin’s publicity stunts for his work, you realize that this is the book of a terrific writer.