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Steal This Book

By Josh Potter

Shoplifting From American Apparel

By Tao Lin

Melville House, 103 Pages, $13

Let me begin by saying, I wanted to hate this book. Thing is, it’s a sentiment Tao Lin counts on. Long before I picked up Shoplifting From American Apparel, a svelte novella in a series that specializes in publishing books of this peculiar length, Lin’s cult of celebrity had trickled into my awareness by way of the blogs upon which literary word of mouth seems to travel these days. This too, Lin counts on. He was being heralded by the likes of HTMLGiant and others as a zeitgeist-defining genius, the full package, a writer who understood the peculiar contradictions of this age, could articulate them and, most significantly, embodied them. His fiction, I understood, wasn’t fiction at all; it was thinly veiled memoir that explored vacuous hipsterdom and the mundane trappings of boredom in the information age, existential microdramas of a hyper self-aware era. Relevance aside, he didn’t cut an especially likeable figure.

His reputation only solidified itself for me when, this fall, I heard him read at the Brooklyn Book Fair. In the company of authors Ben Marcus, a personal hero whose heady language-intensive work has seemingly launched a new school of surrealist experimental fiction, and Nicholson Baker, the jolly master of the postmodern mundane, Lin, 26, played the punk wunderkind, deadpanning his way through a short passage of the novella before disaffectedly answering a few questions. It seemed a tired Dylanesque stunt, more narcissistic than coolly sarcastic, as his awkward evasiveness elicited visible disdain in Marcus and only passing humor from Baker. (Baker: “Um, in your writing, do you use a computer or pencil?” Lin: “Computer.”)

His orientation toward his work and his readership, it seemed, was deliberately off-putting, but the shtick was just offensive enough to be totally compelling. This from an author who first made a name for himself through an irreverent blog called Reader of Depressing Books and routinely stages conceptual art events for the promotion of his work. Every generation has its Andy Kaufman or Alice Cooper, someone who can comment on the authenticity of an era by assuming a dubious persona and letting reputation precede artistic output (in this case, sparking heated blog threads about whether his work is satire). Almost to dispel the myth of genius behind all this, I clenched my teeth and picked up the book.

The story ostensibly begins as an account of the final episodes of a fizzling relationship. Sam, Lin’s stand-in, is rendered in the third person, but the brief chunks of narrative read almost like shorthand diary entries. Sam talks around his issues (mostly boredom, indecision, and inertia) with a friend on Gmail chat, makes a smoothie, decides not to masturbate. Four months later, he’s living with his girlfriend in suburban Pennsylvania, which, by virtue of its distance from New York City, is portrayed as paralyzingly vapid.

On a train to New York, Sheila offers the most emotionally direct sentence in the book, stating simply, “I feel really happy right now.” Nonetheless, barring a couple of e-mails, this is the last we see of Sheila, as the story begins to skip between minor episodes and Internet correspondences, each separated by months.

There’s an incidental quality to the way the plot unfolds from here, with Sam spending the bulk of his time making smoothies, watching child prodigies on YouTube, G-chatting with friends, bathing “in the soft blue light of Internet Explorer,” and occasionally interacting with people face to face, as at his job in a vegan organic restaurant. In the hands of a lesser writer, this sort of thing could come off as shallow, arch, or self-indulgent (especially, given Sam’s obsession with his Amazon sales rank), but Lin is surprisingly subtle in his handling of events and impressively resolute in his commitment to rendering the entire story through surface detail. There may not be a single lick of internal dialogue in the whole book, while characters routinely wear “a neutral facial expression.” By the time Sam commits the act foreshadowed by the title and a passing joke in the opening scene, it’s thoughtless, natural (“He looked at things and sometimes touched things.”), without significant repercussions, and therefore remorseless.

The story from this point on is just as incidental, suggested themes of love and theft giving way to something more existential. The real genius of Lin’s writing is his ability to capture the cadence of life for the first generation whose time, attention and emotions are significantly mediated through electronic interfaces. There’s nothing smirking, hip, or especially clever about references to Gawker, Suicide Girls, or speculations that history will remember this generation as “blogniks.” These are simply necessary elements in charting the way human narratives have splintered and come to double back on themselves. There’s actually something already quaint about Lin’s social-media landscape in that it doesn’t include Twitter and iPhones.

Most significantly, it’s because of this cadence and the disaffection it breeds that Lin can quietly explore some of the definitive questions of our time. Although inert and distractible, his characters are surprisingly earnest (joking, at times, about buying emo CDs to make themselves feel better), a fact that distances them from the contrarian slackers of Generation X and sarcasm, their emotional crutch. Early on, Sam confesses to a friend that he’s constantly evaluating the events of his life for use in his novels—often while the events are still happening. Sam may be an author, but something about this should ring true for everyone who communicates in text, funneling real-time experience into text messages and Facebook status updates. More telling is an episode near the end when, amid playful flirtation with a new girl, Sam has the idea that they should run at each other from a great distance and give a jumping high five, but he stops the girl when she gets up to act. “It’s better just to think about it,” Sam says, and this is when the book turns from melancholy to slightly scary. Is it true that we’ve retreated this much from our bodies, through the atomization of our attention via electronic means, that we prefer the representation of phenomena to its lived reality?

It’s certainly getting harder to distinguish between the two. Like Lin himself, the book seems to contend that truth is as elusive as ever, and that all we may have left is appearances.

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