Tao Lin’s Five-Finger Discount


“Tao Lin is a revolutionary!” declared The Stranger. OK. Great. The quotation, in all caps, adorns the front cover of my advance copy of Shoplifting From American Apparel, Lin’s new novella. The title itself is relegated to the back cover. It’s a joke: Before you can read Lin’s new book, you have to slog through the white noise surrounding it. And, thanks to the Internet, there’s a lot of white noise.

If you aren’t familiar with Lin, Google him, knowing that’s exactly what he wants you to do. Through various stunts—including selling “shares” of his works and signing a sponsorship deal with Hipster Runoff—the author has created a persona that’s as fun and provocative as his fiction or poetry. Personally, I find it hard to decide what’s sillier/sadder/more disgusting/more moving: that Lin wrote a poem that repeats the line “the next night we ate whale” 4,000 times, or that he has recited the line for minutes at a time during readings.

Shoplifting advertises itself as “an autobiographical novella.” Lin’s stand-in is Sam, a hipster poet who works in an NYC vegan restaurant. Nothing very exciting happens to Sam—he goes to Film Forum; he shoplifts and ends up in court; he goes on Gchat a lot. Nor does he have many exciting thoughts or conversations. Actually, Lin’s self-discipline in keeping all the book’s events unexciting is astounding: The exclusively declarative sentences just flow by, peaceful and unintrusive, interrupted only by occasional puffs of deadpan humor. “Sam woke around 3:30 P.M. and saw no emails from Sheila. He made a smoothie. He lay on his bed and stared at his computer screen . . .” etc., for 103 pages. It’s soothing when it’s not horrifying.

Because Lin withholds any description beyond gender and, occasionally, race, his characters are in constant danger of fading into nothingness—by the last scene, which takes place at a Florida music festival, all of Sam’s original twentysomething companions seem to have been replaced by other twentysomething companions. From start to finish, however, Sam & Co. do have one outstanding, unifying characteristic: an insatiable urge to tell others how they “feel” at any given moment. Sam’s girlfriend, waiting for a train: “I feel really happy right now.” Sam’s Gchat partner: “I feel weird.” Sam, at a vegan brunch: “I feel okay.” Shoplifting might even be neatly pared down to two basic things: a string of arbitrary situations, and characters saying how they “feel” while in those situations.

The result of this combination is—and I apologize for what I’m about to do here—Twitterature.

Lin has claimed that Shoplifting is “an ultimately life-affirming book.” If this statement means anything, it refers to the novella’s muted glorification of the impulse behind the Tweet—the need to inform others of one’s being by giving voice to sensation, no matter how banal that voicing may be. The point is not to describe the sensation, but merely to mark it as proof that one feels and, because one feels, that one is still real. On the verge of total disappearance—barely sketched in by their own author!—Lin’s characters nevertheless manage to remind each other of their existence constantly. And their author loves them for it.

Given this, Lin’s public stunts now appear more hazardous than provocative. He has written a fragile, elusive little book—exactly the kind that can get crushed under the deluge of hype/anti-hype nonsense he invites with his pomo gimmickry. “Tao Lin is a revolutionary!” declared The Stranger. If so, he might be eating his children.