Anyone who has heard of Tao Lin, the 26-year-old Brooklyn writer, is probably aware of his proclivity for publicity stunts. For those who are not, a few highlights bear repeating:
•Last year he advertised an opportunity on his Web site to purchase six $2,000 “shares” in his unfinished novel, each redeemable for 10 percent of his advance, royalties and related revenues.
•People actually bought them.
•He was arrested and spent a night in jail after attempting to steal a shirt from American Apparel.
That last one probably had nothing to do with publicity. It did, however, become the basis for his recently published novella, guilelessly titled “Shoplifting from American Apparel.” In any case, Tao’s tech-savvy self-promotion and unusually brusque style of prose have earned him a considerable cult following and, apparently, pretty good distribution: When I called to ask, a Yale Bookstore employee confirmed the store carried several copies of “Shoplifting.”
It’s hard to say what “happens” in “Shoplifting from American Apparel” (the short answer: not a lot) and harder still to say what the book is “about.” The protagonist is Sam, a stand-in for the author, and the experiences described in “Shoplifting” are, according to Lin, all autobiographical. That isn’t very surprising, considering how commonplace the subject matter is. Working at a vegan restaurant; wasting time on Gchat, visiting a friend in Florida. Even the excitement of being arrested does little to alter the pedestrian, methodical fabric of Sam’s life: “Outside the courthouse he called the organic vegan restaurant where he worked and said he would be an hour and a half late. He went to his apartment. He showered and emailed Robert. He drank two glasses of water.”
“Shoplifting” eschews big words, long sentences and traditional literary forms — just like everything Tao Lin has written. Compared to his earlier books, though, there is less in “Shoplifting” that is unambiguously funny. Whereas “Eeeee Eee Eeee” revolved around surreal set pieces (a dolphin flies to L.A. in order to club Elijah Wood to death), “Shoplifting from American Apparel” remains earth-bound and earnest. Sam and his friends talk a lot about their feelings, on Gchat and in person, and more than once they give voice to a question that preoccupies them daily: “Are we fucked?” At one point, Sam’s friend Robert qualifies his positive assessment of Sam’s new life plan (do Pilates, “be really good”) by saying, “I mean, if I thought there was anything ‘important’ or something it would be being good.”
Inevitably, some people will dismiss this kind of tepid shoe-gazing as self-indulgent and immature, but I can’t judge Tao or his book too harshly. It is too smart and ultimately too discomfiting to be cast aside that easily. In the end, “Shoplifting from American Apparel” draws its quiet force from the implication that, if an existential crisis doesn’t destroy you, that only means it will last a month, a year, a lifetime.