This is my first published piece since college. Aren't you proud of me?
Here is the uncensored version. A note about the list of authors: I do not think Tao Lin is as good as most of these authors, but he is certainly as good as some of them. It is merely an illustration of the place that he has carved out for himself amongst the biggest names of today. If anybody is missing, please feel free to comment.
Around 5:15 PM today I looked at the mail and saw that my advanced reader’s copy of Tao Lin’s new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel had arrived. I was dismayed to see it read “DO NOT QUOTE.” One of the staples of my blog is quoting large portions of text from the work being reviewed. If I was allowed to quote from this book, I would choose something that the drunk guy in the jail cell says. That was the funniest part of the book for me. Anyways it is 8:56 PM and I am finished reading the book and in that time I also watched the Cubs play the Florida Marlins in Florida and the Cubs lost.
Tao Lin’s fifth book, and first novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, will probably not register on your pop culture radar. But if you are at all interested in the future of literature, take notice. It is not going to win any awards, but it is a stop-gap between Lin’s first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and his forthcoming second novel Richard Yates, a work that hints at Lin moving in a more mainstream direction, with greater exposure, and an increasing legion of fans. This book is about a main character named Sam (who seems almost entirely autobiographical), and various friends Luis, Sheila, Kaitlyn, Paula, Hester, Joseph, Chris, Jeffrey, and Audrey. Sam does shoplift from American Apparel and then later he shoplifts from the NYU Computer Store, a pair of $40 Sony In-Ear headphones, which particularly affected me as my Sony headphones have recently gone mute on the left side and I would replace them but I don’t want to spend $40. But headphones cost $4.99, says a teenage girl in a jail cell that has been caught shoplifting from Urban Outfitters. Sam works at an organic vegan restaurant in the East Village, I think, and he has to do two days of community service in order for the shoplifting arrest to be expunged from his record.
I have only previously read Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin and I would have to say that there are generally less plot holes in this book than in that one, though “plot holes” is an inaccurate term—“minimalist detail” might be closer to the truth. More to the point, Eeeee Eee Eeee features a number of absurdist elements like talking bears and dolphins and celebrity slaughterhouse imagery, whereas Shoplifting is content to stay firmly planted in the real world, even if it is a narrowly defined one. This is my biggest complaint about Lin’s work as a whole, and I’d imagine a potentially serious issue for his critics. Detail is eschewed in the name of wit, or poignancy. Minimalism is evoked and any hope that a comprehensive exploration of any particular subject is going to happen is squelched. If there is anything this book does explore comprehensively, it is the phenomenon of GChat, along with other internet staples of today, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Photobucket.
Which brings me to my next point. For the sake of neat classification and perspective, let’s look at, who, in my mind, are some of the most prominent (or similarly directed) living authors of today, based on their age-decade:
90’s: J.D. Salinger.
80’s: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, Milan Kundera.
70’s: Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy.
60’s: Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Richard Ford, John Irving, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (the latter two influences on Lin).
50’s: Lorrie Moore (ditto), Dennis Cooper, David Sedaris.
40’s: Bret Easton Ellis, Rick Moody, J.K. Rowling, Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Lange, Chuck Palahniuk.
30’s: Stephanie Meyer, Wells Tower.
20’s: Tao Lin, (Probably his MuuMuu House posse, too)
He is on the wrong side of 25 though.
If it is not already clear at this point, Tao Lin may not be for you. It is easy to see why his work as a whole has been extremely divisive. On the one hand, there are struggling writers who work in a much more traditional style who feel their work may be “about something”—whether it be vampires, struggling with mental illness or a traumatic experience, serial dating in an urban environment, the world of fashion, or the experience of being a soldier fighting in a war—and are constantly met with rejection. These comprise half of Lin’s critics—and the other half are the part of the literary establishment that seek to promulgate their MFA credentials by supplementing their income with teaching, who mistake minimalism in their student’s work for laziness.
But then there are those who understand where Lin is coming from, to a certain extent. He has amassed a rather impressive contingent of fans and in his work they see themselves—that is, lonely, depressed, and probably spending too much time on the internet. Any visit to his blog (formerly entitled “Reader of Depressing Books,” now listed as the difficult-just-for-the-sake-of-it http://heheheheheheheeheheheehehe.com/), and the many comments on any of his posts, will show that now, approximately 50% of his followers have adopted his voice and pose.
But it would not be fair to call Lin’s aesthetic a “pose”—because it is authentic, if anything. Of course it is sarcastic, and while it may come off as flippant at first blush, upon further review the tone is refreshingly honest, and free of pretense.
And it is also not fair to say that Shoplifting is meaningless. True, it does seem that Lin simply doesn’t care about satisfying a reader’s expectations, but there is a story here: Sam’s relationship with Sheila, which is almost immediately over in a very short number of pages with eight months elapsing almost instantaneously; the psychiatric effects of GChats with Luis in the wake of this heartbreak and larger issues of emotional well-being; the shoplifting crimes themselves, which act as fulcrums to the story at the ¼ and ¾ points, respectively; the Scrabble-induced hook-up with Paula and the ambiguous sleepover with Kaitlyn; the pining for Sheila during the course of a later relationship with Hester, who seems to not let Sam be himself; the long denouement, somewhat reminiscent of the ending of Eeeee…,that details the course of a weekend spent in Gainesville, FL to perform a reading (which describes the actual beginning of the Shoplifting…) at a free vegan buffet at a record store; and finally, the revelation of Sheila’s current state. There is one celebrity appearance, by the musician Moby, but it should not offend any fans of his (as certain depictions of Sean Penn did for me in Eeeee…).
Today, there is no other literary figure of his age that has caused so much controversy and received so much criticism, praise, and gossip. Most of that is his own doing. In now “famous” PR moves, he has sold royalty shares from his novel to be published in 2010, Richard Yates, for $2000 a piece, he has sold his profile on MySpace, and he has started his own literary imprint which features similarly-minded writing from authors in the same approximate age group. This leads me to the analogy that, what Calvin Johnson is to music, Tao Lin is to literature. While the underground music scene in the 1980s spread their message through zine culture, the underground literary scene twenty-five years later is conducted through the blogosphere. And like Johnson, Lin espouses some of the same virtues: veganism, a “twee” sensibility, and the support of other artists with a similar aesthetic. If this comparison holds up, Lin can expect as long and fruitful a career as Johnson’s, so long as he remains true to his original ideals.
I asked Tao a few questions about Shoplifting from American Apparel and his career in general. Here are the questions I asked him and the answers he gave:
JK: Why did you want to write Shoplifting….? Was this based on a real experience? I think I remember reading somewhere that you really did get caught shoplifting once.
TL: Shoplifting from American Apparel is based on real experiences. Some events and dialogue are not entirely accurate or in the same order as it happened in reality. But it was 100% based on the concrete reality of my life.
JK: How much of Shoplifting would you say is autobiographical, percentage-wise? Some of the GChats in the book seem almost to be lifted from real life—are they made up?
TL: I would say 100% of Shoplifting from American Apparel is autobiographical. I think nothing is “made up.” There are maybe 2-10 lines that while typing it onto the computer screen, or editing it into what is in the final book, I felt some kind of awareness that the line did not occur exactly "like that" in the memory of my life. If forced to say what percent of the book is "true" I would say 97%.
JK: Do you think you will ever stop writing? Under what circumstances would you be compelled to spend the majority of your time focusing on a different profession?
TL: I don’t feel I will ever stop writing. If I don't write for, say, five years or something I feel I still would not say I have stopped writing, in that it seems like I'll never consciously stop writing. At this point in my life I think I view writing as I do talking or walking or eating healthy food, to some degree, in that it can be a means in itself, but is more often a means to other things, such as friendship, "feeling connected" with someone, money, or to feel less bad physically or emotionally.
In addition I feel "vague" re "what is 'writing' to me." When I am thinking things, in my head, I sort of view that as “writing,” in that most of the time I think in language, in sentences or sentence fragments with words in them.
Maybe I would spend the majority of my time focused on something else if I lived in an environment without computers or pens or humans, like if I lived on an island, alone, and had dogs for companionship and was satisfied. Maybe that would be a situation where I would think less in language and more in "sounds," or something, and "stop writing."
JK: I am just curious—when did you actually complete the final edits on Shoplifting and submit it for printing? I think “Obama” comprises 2 out of the 30,000 words of the manuscript or so—was this after the election?
TL I finished a “final draft” maybe three or four months after the election. I think the novella ends a few days before the election.
JK: Richard Yates will be released next year and I think a lot of people are looking forward to it. Are you working on something new, or still in the revision process? Can you tell us anything about your new projects?
TL: I think a “final draft” of Richard Yates was finished around October or November of 2008. I foresee working on Richard Yates for probably 100-200 more hours, in a period of maybe 1-2 months, maybe this December or January.
Currently I view myself as being focused on promoting Shoplifting from American Apparel. I feel I will continue this focus until November or December, when I will then edit Richard Yates until February or March. After that I will probably begin to view myself as being focused on a new project.
JK: Your work seems to espouse the “minimalist” style. What kind of effect do you like about not providing lots of detail, for example? Is it important enough to you even if it prevents you from reaching a larger audience? It seems like most readers want something more “all-encompassing,” or something.
TL: I view my writing, up to Richard Yates, as having two different styles, in terms of prose (poetry, too, maybe, but will focus on prose in this answer). I view these two styles as distinct relative to each other.
My first story-collection, Bed, was one prose style. Bed had many long sentences, adverbs, adjectives, words I normally don't say "in real life," semi-colons, and em-dashes. The rhetorical parts of my first novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, also employ this style that was first seen in my oeuvre in Bed.
The other prose style I have worked in, I feel, is that of Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates. These two books have almost no concrete details and very little adjectives, adverbs, semi-colons, or em-dashes. The sentences are short and I use only words I would also feel "normal" saying "in real life."
I feel that both styles can reach a large audience. Ernest Hemingway and Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut do not provide much detail and seem to have a large audience. William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon seem to have very long sentences that probably provide many details and they also seem to have a large audience.