Stealing Zeitgeist

see Tao Lin write, see Tao Lin steal, see Tao Lin capture a present fearlessly with deadpan humor

by by Miguel Morales

illustration by by Angelika Garcia

A book containing gambling, pornography, the University of Florida, a bus straight out of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, vegan yuppies, and of course the titular theft from American Apparel should be one of the most exciting reads this year, right? Let’s be clear: Shoplifting from American Apparel is a lot of things. Exciting, it is not.

That’s just how Tao Lin (Shoplifting’s author) wants things. A 26-year old writer/blogger from New York who is just as famous for pissing off Gawker as he is for polarizing audiences with bizarre, detached readings of his bizarre, detached writings, Lin didn’t so much write Shoplifting as hold up a mirror to his own life. This should not surprise anyone who has encountered his work before. In his blog’s comments section for his short story, “The Vegan Muffin,” which is about a bizarre, depressed—you guessed it!—vegan muffin that works for NASA, Lin says with no irony, “Just read the story [again], the muffin is me.”

Maybe the muffin is, maybe it isn’t, but what is clear about Shoplifting is that Sam, its protagonist, acts as a stand-in for the writer. Both are young, Taiwanese-American writers with a healthy following of some possibly unhealthy Internet trollers and hyper-literary acolytes. This link between an author and his following makes up just one of the many strange, uneasy relationships that Sam tries to navigate throughout the book. That Sam cannot muster any sort of feeling or emotion in the face of these relationships undoubtedly frustrates the average reader, who must be accustomed to the normal give and take of social transactions.
Of course, Tao Lin doesn’t write for the average reader. On his Tumblr presence, Lin says, “My target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans.” In a way, Lin’s Shoplifting shines a light on the world he and his perceived target demographic inhabit. Everything that happens to Sam, and his non-feeling reactions to it, has a refreshing, oddly enough, dullness. There are no scenes in the book that cry out, “This is an important moment and reflects an even more important theme that this book wants you to take away from it.”

It probably comes as no surprise then that this consistent banality is a double-edged sword. The blandness of Sam and his life, while it reads honestly in the sense that most lives are mostly boring and are only punctuated by brief moments of excitement, is in the end bland to read. This undoubtedly is Lin’s intention, and in his defense his writing produces many moments of humor, all while nailing the aimlessness of life after college in dialogue like, “I don’t…not don’t want to have sex with you.”

The problem with Shoplifting though is that Lin has done too good of a job at what he had set out to do. Wanting to infuse his book with a present he sees as faceless, lonely, and boring, despite all that technology and the marketplace have to offer, he has created a work in which none of the characters have any discernible motivation. The author has made a point of not dangling a character’s motive in front of the reader each time the character does something out of line with rational thinking. For example, Sam makes ass-tons of money at a casino in Atlantic City, only to lose it all “twenty minutes later…messag[ing] [his friend] Robert: ‘Lost 600. Steak soon. Excited.’” In Lin’s world, the things people do are interesting and mysterious and sometimes incredibly maddening to other people, and most of all to themselves. What tows the reader along Shoplifting is his inability to know with any certainty what exactly wills these characters on.
This strange logical fabric certainly applies to the two times Sam shoplifts. Lin dangles a few red herrings in terms of motive, for instance:

“Really?” said Sam. “I don’t know. Maybe an asteroid will hit me after my next two books come out. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what to do, like, overall, or something.”

“Draw hamsters,” said Audrey.

“I already did that,” said Sam.

“There’s nothing left for you,” said Audrey.

The lines sound like they might have come from an unintentionally funny translation of Sartre’s No Exit. Sartre writes, probably as bored out of his mind as Sam, that “Hell is other people.” But his quote does not apply to Tao Lin’s world, where people are avatars and Gchats and Tumblr presences. Sam’s network of non-feelings throughout Shoplifiting becomes a reclamation of self from the facelessness of an Internet-fueled world. Why feel when no one can see what and how you are feeling anyways? Hell, then, is other feelings—the feelings that social networks and governments and marketplaces refuse to properly validate. Surely, it sounds, as Lin would say, “emo,” and the results do not make for a classically engaging work in that no one falls in love or dies trying. Perhaps Shoplifting from American Apparel is a failure in this regard, but it is a worthwhile failure because its style is so bold and unhinged from a society that dominates how artwork gets consumed and interpreted, one worth reading because it doesn’t respond to mainstream writing, instead spitting in the face of well-worn plots and transparent characters and landing right in the eye of the unassuming reader.

MIGUEL MORALES B’10’s writing produces many moments of humor, all while nailing.