Shoplifting from American Apparel
Like Lin, protagonist Sam is a Taiwan-born novelist with a cult following living in New York City. He spends more time than most would consider healthy on his G-chat, and he gets nabbed stealing a shirt from American Apparel. Though, like the offense, the event in the novella is minor. Even when it’s not, the dialogue reads like instant-message conversation, somehow both stilted and confessional.
All of which means not much happens, and not much insight is offered beyond a shared philosophy among Sam and his friends that “we are fucked.” As a story, it’s not even remotely compelling—though Lin’s dialogue is often funny (When Sam’s in jail, he tells a fellow captive that he’s from Taiwan, “that little island off China,” and the man responds, “I know, I am geographically sound.”). But arguing with the lack of narrative drive in Shoplifting would be like complaining about the lack of ballet in a Tarantino flick. Lin is doing his best to capture a mid-twenties malaise, a droning urban existence that—in the hands of a mildly depressed narrator—never peaks nor pitches enough to warrant drama. In a way, it makes more sense to think of Tao Lin as a painter or performance artist; his work attempts to evoke through persistent, dull-edged provocation—exactly the type of work that polarizes readers. But it’s even more fashionably annoying to dismiss it than it is to write it.