Melville House (2009), 103 p.
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll
Let’s talk deadpan. If you’ve seen Tao Lin read, it’s likely you have a sense of where I’m going with this: there’s an affectless quality to his delivery in the live setting that’s disarming, declaiming surreal scenarios and bizarre occurrences with virtually no outward signs of emotion. Early 2007 saw the release of Lin’s first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee, along with a collection of short stories titled Bed. What was most surprising about them was how affecting they could be — from the perspective of someone who had only seen Lin read, the feeling was not unlike discovering that Stephen Wright had a talent for sincerely yanking on your heartstrings. Admittedly, the sort of absurdism that Lin brought to his readings still manifested itself in his fiction: Eeeee Eee Eeee features periodic appearances by talking animals, and at one point a dolphin fatally bludgeons Elijah Wood. But the way that this surrealism intruded into an otherwise realistic, even mundane, narrative evoked moments of escapism that were all too fleeting. Surly mammals never seemed so bittersweet.
Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel has no flights of fancy: no talking bears, no magic-realist interludes. The novella opens with the daily routine of its protagonist, a writer named Sam: waking in the mid-afternoon, he logs into Gmail and begins chatting with a fellow writer named Luis. Lin ably translates the detached flatness of online chats to prose; on the other hand, an evocation of flatness isn’t necessarily all that compelling — though the number of meanings the adjective “fucked” picks up over the course of the book serves as a primer on intentionally defanging the profane.
Over time, Sam leaves and returns to New York City, moves through a series of flawed relationships, spends an unhealthy amount of time in the casinos of Atlantic City, and works at a health food store. And, as the title might indicate, there’s shoplifting, which does not work out well. The aftermath of one escapade finds Sam in a holding cell, the deadpan absurdism of his narrative intersecting with surreal comedy of an entirely different variety. Or, to put in terms of one of Lin’s predecessors in New York deadpan: it’s as though he’s leapt from Stranger Than Paradise to Down by Law.
As Shoplifting draws to its understated ending at a punk festival in Florida, something becomes clear: despite that its protagonist is a writer, despite the fact that he spends a not insignificant amount of his time on Gmail discussing writing, despite the fact that we see Sam on the way to readings, we never actually see the writer protagonist of this work get any writing done. Cue the doubletake: have we just read a book about an artist’s failing battle with procrastination? Is this, in fact, a book-length setup with its punchline implied?
It’s tempting to continue the Jim Jarmusch analogy invoked earlier, to suggest that this is Lin’s version of The Limits of Control — a stylistic change of pace based around restraints and restrictions, an experience at times more interesting than compelling. But that wouldn’t be an entirely accurate analogy. Shoplifting From American Apparel can be frustrating in places, its structure seemingly arbitrary. But with some distance, consider Sam’s romantic stumbling, his inability to make off with anything illicitly, and his track record for writing on time. Viewed as a whole, it’s a bleak comedy about frustration, failure, and procrastination. We may be entirely fucked, but at least we can try to find some laughs in that.