Book: Shoplifting from American Apparel
Author: Tao Lin
Type of Book: Fiction, novella, autobiography
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:
Does it really matter?
Availability: Published by Melville Press in 2009, I highly advise that you not buy a copy, but rather shoplift a copy. If you get caught and arrested, take your mugshot, superimpose it over a picture of your ass, and mail it to Lin. He will then fashion all of the be-assed mug shots into some sort of self-aggrandizing but ultimately morally and socially empty project and thus the circle will be unbroken.
Comments: I genuinely do not understand how anyone could like this book, let alone the nice, earnest, decent people who recommended it to me. The only thing that prevented me from shitting on this book or setting it on fire is the fact that I needed it in a relatively clean state so I could discuss it thoroughly, complete with quotes, even though quoting it will only cause this godless endeavor to be exposed to more people. But as I have always said, when I hate a book, I need to support my case and discuss thoroughly why the book is bad. I briefly considered ignoring this book and just letting the wretched memory of it die but I can’t. My compulsive nature forces me to discuss every odd book I read, and, more to the point, I just want my voice to be out there in the electronic wilderness, urging people not to read this book. This book is the naked Emperor and I don’t want anyone who reads this site to be a part of the crowd that refuses to say, “Hey, the Emperor has no clothes!” Or rather, “Hey, this book is a pile of shit and your soul will be imperiled if you read it lest you lose your will to live and find worth in the emotionally void headcases Lin droned about, stick figures that misguided people think pass for hipsters. Run, run away and avoid this book like it has the plague and wants to ass fuck you without your permission!” Or words to that effect.
Also, for reasons that will become clear, this may be the first bad review I ever enjoyed writing. Seriously, I cannot recall ever reading such an egregiously dishonest book. I say dishonest because I can only imagine Lin wrote this book as a litmus test. People who like it are clearly people he will be able to defraud further. I almost wonder if he managed somehow to track down the addresses of the people who liked his book because those are fresh couches to crash on when he inevitably gets evicted. The reason I say this book is dishonest is because it cloaks the naked and smarmy ambition of a talentless writer behind subcultures that ultimately have little to do with the emotional vacancy represented in Lin’s words. This book mines many counter-cultural ideas, mainly those of vegans, Crimethinc and hipsters, and tries to pass off the hucksterism of the author as an honest look at those cultures when it is really just shitting all over everything.
Look, people have shit on those who write for a new zeitgeist pretty much since publishing evolved from the Gutenberg Press to a more accessible means of conveying ideas. Truman Capote demeaned Kerouac. Half the people I know would like to kill Holden Caulfield if he were a real human. Douglas Coupland mined his generation so thoroughly that some think he wrote himself into a place of relative irrelevance, and Bret Easton Ellis’s scathing examination of 1980s consumer culture, American Psycho, is one of the most misunderstood books ever. Books that speak of a people who may not be our own, or of a culture that is different, or of a people who may be our own but are so morally bereft we can’t admit it, run the risk of being seen as poorly written or inexplicable or exploitative. Moreover, this most commonly happens when the middle-aged make the mistake of thinking they have a finger on the pulse of the young when they don’t, walking into new works clutching their own ideas of art, connection and social relevance like so many pearls.
I can tell you with no small amount of emphatic anger that this is not that, a woman long in her tooth clutching pearls at the antics of These Kids Today. This book is so foul that I didn’t even have to second guess myself. This book is such an egregious piece of shit hiding behind what many consider to be hipster culture that it sickens me that people got taken in by it. To paraphrase the late, great Dorothy Parker, this not a book to be tossed aside – it is a book to be thrown with great force, preferably at a picture of Tao Lin that one has printed out from the Web and taped to a bean bag chair.
Before I tear this book apart with a ferocity born of knowing that this huckster will look at this review from a small potatoes reviewer and smirk as he adds it to all the negative reactions that he uses to build his brand, I feel the need to clear up a few things. One, as a failed vegan who would very much like not to be a failed vegan, do not in any way misinterpret my criticisms of Tao Lin’s use of veganism in this book as an indictment against veganism in general. That One Time You Ate A Hamburger And A Vegan Yelled At You notwithstanding, most vegans are extremely nice, extraordinarily principled and idealistic people who deserve respect for choosing a diet that, the mere mention of, causes even kind people to downshift straight into nastiness born from cognitive dissonance and crow about their Paleo diet or how good cow tastes.
Second, I sort of like hipsters (and I often feel disliking hipsters is a clear sign of incipient fogeyism) so I find it interesting so many hipsters embraced this book. I don’t see this book as a hipster manifesto because after reading this, I grouped Tao Lin into the same camp, ironically enough, as men like Dov Charney who prey on hipsters. Young hipsters, to my eye, are the natural progression of edgy youth once the anger of punk wore itself out and the alienation of grunge wore thin. Sure, sure, the hipsters I have met definitely had an air of pretension about them, as do almost all young people because youth is a time when we are meant to pretend, to try on new ideas and see how they fit. All young people are arrogant if they are doing it right. There is nothing sadder than a humble 20-year-old. One of the reasons I like hipsters is because there is something to be said for people who make a virtue of that which does not require much money. Their currency in trade of knowing the arcane, like music and bands that are discarded when they become popular, is a means of wealth that people with cash in hand cannot achieve unless they are in that particular realm of knowledge. They have created a culture that is a lovely “fuck you” to the rest of us because no matter how often people sneer at them in their thrift threads worn ironically, they have a culture of particular value that permits them to sneer right back at us. They know things that we don’t and never will until knowing them no longer means a thing. There is a cultural renovation and reclamation behind hipsterism, a desire to have that which is unique and unknown that fuels their perceptions of status, that can be as hard to see as the hopefulness behind goths.
So, I clearly don’t dislike hipsters and I don’t think Tao Lin speaks for them, unless co-opting and hiding behind the sarcasm and irony of hipsters is a form of representation. Also, this book is really nothing but a depiction of Lin and he as a person cannot represent an entire subculture. Sam, the protagonist of this book, represents no one, though he seems to be mimicking the hipsters as they mimic elements from certain cultures, taking us back into the recursive nightmare so often present in this book. But really, I have to make it clear that there is no subculture that sucks as much as a whole as Sam sucks individually. The youth of America, a generation that some insist are dumbed down, are not that dumbed down, and they certainly are not this dumbed down.
Third, I have a friend who is deeply into the Crimethinc counterculture praise this book highly to me because he felt as if this was the first time he had seen someone sort of like him in a book. I have seen others in anarchist groups say similar things and their enthusiasm was one of the reasons I read this book, though I have to say I have no idea if Tao Lin understood people like my friend would be drawn to his words via his thefts. I understand my friend’s belief in this book but I also think it is misguided. Don’t misunderstand me – despite the amount of time I spent in the retail trenches, I don’t give a good goddamn if people shoplift. It’s the cost of doing business and if it didn’t happen, prices would still go up so a cultural aversion to theft is not a part of my distaste. This book is clearly autobiographical and Lin discusses his disaffected attempts at shoplifting, two of which got him arrested. No Crimethinc-er worth his or her salt would be that inept and if they were that inept, they would not aggrandize it because the whole point of shoplifting to them is to subvert capitalism and to sustain a life without the drudgery of work. To be known as a shoplifter to that degree would impair anyone’s ability to continue to steal and would subvert the entire point behind stealing. I really don’t want to entertain a conversation about the relative morality of such a mindset – knock yourself out if you want to go there but I find such conversations wearying these days. But it has to be said that since Tao Lin has made a virtue of getting caught stealing, to the point that a flier was made up warning a store about him, and that he uses that flier as a form of self-promotion now, it’s pretty clear that ideology was never at play with Lin and this book cannot stand as an homage to that ideology. A man who uses a flier about what a shitty thief he is to show what an OMG counter-cultural dude he is is simply promoting himself, and however much I want Lin to go suck on a tailpipe for writing this book, one has to tip their hat to his sense of self-promotion. At that he is a genius. Too bad the promotion is, at heart, the substance of what he has to convey to his audience.
(Actually, in all honesty, as a member of the self-deprecating and all too often full of self-loathing Generation X, I wondered if my own complete inability at self-promotion combined with the notion that I probably suck at everything I do played into my utter distaste for Lin. So I did hesitate before I crowned Tao Lin the Emperor of Crap. But not for long. I don’t mind self-promotion and would do it myself were I any good at it. I just want those promoting themselves, however glib and irritating their approach may be, to have something backing it up, some talent worth promoting. Self-promoting one’s self-promotional capabilities is just too recursive for the likes of me.)
So those three points cleared up, I’ll start discussing the book. In many ways, this book harks back to Camus’ The Stranger, a sort of modern update on a book that I admit I am constitutionally unable to appreciate deeply, though I certainly understand its purpose and philosophical relevance. It was as if The Stranger was not only reduced and made trivial (Lin’s character in the book goes to jail twice for shoplifting and The Stranger’s Meursault goes to jail for murder, Lin orders characters around in an empty ego-gesture to show his superiority, Meursault is honest in his deep loathing for everyone around him). There are some similarities too in how the two writers handle conversation signifiers, but ultimately, if I analyze Lin’s work in reference to Camus’ work, I don’t really get a look at a nihilistic character, or a society deserving of contempt, or even a basic existential confrontation of the self. All I get is a look at Lin’s consciousness via his character Sam, and it’s a boring, pointless, tiresome, empty, foul, nothing sort of experience. It is not a nothing sort of experience because the purpose of the novel is to represent an empty character shaped by an empty world. Rather, it is empty because Lin’s life is not worth an autobiographical sketch and because he is a terrible writer.
In fact, as I reviewed the book in my mind, I wondered if this novella was ultimately a fuck you delivered from Tao Lin to the people who consider him a good writer and have defended him as a relevant writer. From the attitudes his autobiographical proxy Sam has towards the craft of writing to the way Sam treats obvious fans, perhaps this is a cloaked but clever way for Tao Lin to take minor vengeance on those who are too dense to see him for what he is – a man selling himself in any way he can. Perhaps Tao Lin wants people to know he is not the naked Emperor preening to sycophants, but rather the clever tailor who produces nothing and everyone applauds.
So let’s dive into this autobiographical novella. There are those who may say that Tao Lin adopts an alienating, flat, pointless, repetitive, meaningless narrative delivered through an alienating, flat, senseless, boring narrator on purpose because he wants to write like a soulless, numb automaton and those who find this relentlessly tiresome just don’t get it. They may be right (but they’re not). But whether Lin created one of the most boring, tiresome, empty narratives ever on purpose or by sheer crappy and purposeless writing means little to me because the end result is the same – a book not worth reading. This book reads like what would happen if an emotionally muffled person got a lobotomy, took a fistful of Xanax every day and then wrote a book. Every word would be “meant” and “on purpose” but the only truth one would be able to know is what it reads like to be an emotionally blunted lobotomy patient strung out on Benzos, and no matter how much one wants to claim the modern world with modern technology has numbed us, I know precious few people whose lives have become such a recursive nightmare that reading their most banal chat sessions repeated in a book appeals to them as an ideal way of experiencing meaning in literature. It may be a reflection of a small segment of society but as a whole it has so little experiential and literary merit that it’s pointless in a way that I suspect Lin himself could not have anticipated.
But then again, if a chemically deadened and lobotomized brain can write well, maybe the words would be worth the trip. Lin, if he can write well, mostly hides it in this book. The book has no structure, no sense of achievement, no sense of connection and no sense of disconnection. It’s just Lin vomiting up his experiences and it’s so pointless that it’s devastating. Here’s an early conversation between Sam (Tao Lin’s stand-in) and Luis:
“Should we kill ourselves now or start crying or punch ourselves,” said Luis.
“What is wrong with us,” said Sam. “Should I email Sheila. Or wait until she emails me. I have no car, phone, bike. I’m going to add more people on MySpace.”
“We are so weird,” said Luis. “We met online a year ago. And we are up a year later being weird as shit.”
“One year,” said Sam. “This is weird.”
“I feel like my chest is going to explode,” said Luis.
Despite the fact that this is not my idea of a good time, generally speaking, this has the potential to be funny. Two dumbasses low on the food chain discussing how full of dumbassery they are. I could see one of them portrayed by James Franco in the Hollywood movie adaptation. Stupid men, slightly melodramatic. Later, I wondered if this book was actually an inversion of existentialism, an inability to confront the self when there is no self to be examined. There is no there there, so all the self-probing and declarations of being “weird as shit” had no choice but to go absolutely nowhere. If this is what Lin was going for, I posit that boring, numb and stupid are not really how most people go through life, and that a novella featuring a soulless, empty carcass that manages to move around, desire vegan snacks and not really give a shit when Sheila has to go into a psychiatric hospital is not just a book that “norms” would not find appealing but one that the vast of humanity would find wholly without merit.
But rest assured, no attempts to assign a philosophical or social context to this novel saved it from what it is, a boring look at banality. A pointless look at banality, as well. The conversation between Sam and Luis continues:
“I am adding random people in MySpace,” said Sam.
“I feel weird,” said Luis. “Like I was molested by my uncle or something. You are on the floor. With the blanket around you.”
“The blanket is over my head,” said Sam.
“Are we fucked,” said Luis and got off the Internet.
I think it was right about here that I wondered if the book was setting me up for a novel in which technology and modern living had rendered these two men incapable of making choices that affirmed their humanity, that perhaps they were trapped in a life where they could not leave, a sort of No Exit wherein there were no moral choices or difficult people forcing confrontation but just a bland inability to do much more than add people on MySpace and state the obvious while feeling a disconnection they can only assume comes from a dark place. These are men so bereft of inner life that they are almost hopeful an uncle raped them, because it would give reason for their dissatisfaction and torpor.
But this is not a treatise about how the world has limited them by oppressive technology or media manipulation. Sam does things that could potentially have been interesting or could have served as some sort of philosophical or social underpinning in this novel. But by the muffled nature of his existence, none of it means anything. This book is not about the disaffection facing some members of a generation who have not known life without invasive technology and as a result have difficulty making choices that would prove their humanity. This particular meaninglessness of life does not come from without – it comes from within. Sam is empty and so is Luis but others in this book don’t exhibit this level of emptiness. But instead of interacting with humans who are fully in this world and having it change them, Sam just looks at them through numb eyes and reacts with a soulless incapacity to feel. And if there was some sort of meaning behind the numbness, I could stomach this book. Meursault in The Stranger is very clear about why he is so flat – there is a disgust for humanity underneath his every action and inaction. There is no such clarity in Sam. This is a book about a narcissist who has no self. It is about a self-absorbed asshole who is incapable of examining himself and the world around him, and a character like this hardly deserves a novella built around him.
So back to the book. Sam has moved with Sheila to Pennsylvania, a transition that takes a paragraph because location is meaningless to Sam and because Tao Lin is a terrible writer:
A few days later he and Sheila were on a train to New York City. They drank from a large plastic bottle containing organic soymilk, energy drink, and green tea extract and wrote sex stories to sell to nerve.com for $500. Sheila’s sex story had chainsaws and Sam’s sex story had Ha Jin doing things in a bathroom at Emory University. Sheila said she felt excited to be in New York City soon. They talked about making their own energy drink company. They got off the train and stood waiting for another train. They climbed a wall and sat in sunlight facing the train tracks.
“I feel really happy right now,” said Sheila looking ahead.
Sam looked at the side of Sheila’s face.
“You didn’t feel happy before?” he said.
“I mean I just feel really good right now,” said Sheila. “Don’t you?”
“You don’t feel good at other times?” said Sam staring at his new shoes. “I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry. That was stupid of me.”
“It’s okay,” said Sheila.
It was around 11:00 am. It was March.
Sam felt himself about to say something.
“Do you not feel good anymore?” he said.
Sheila had a bored facial expression.
“Something is wrong with me,” said Sam.
Fuck Tao Lin for giving the reader little moments like this wherein we can think, “Holy shit, Sam realizes he’s a repellent, emotionally stunted Lizard Man and can change!” But this is not a confrontation of self. This is Sam digging for information because Sheila is expressing that things like writing sexy stories on a sunny day with her boyfriend can affect her mood. Sam cannot be affected this way because he is empty. (Yeah, not gonna touch the whole nerve.com and Ha Jin thing.)
So, as Sam sits here and pokes his girlfriend for information about what it feels like to be human, we also get a taste of Lin’s terrible writing. Sometimes he uses question marks during questions, and sometimes he doesn’t and while I have no idea why he switched back and forth, I do know it was pointless and stupid. And though I can see how inserting that little sentence about the time and the month probably is meant to interrupt the flow of the feelings Sheila was expressing, it also seems like a pointless non-sequitur. I think the worst element of reading this book was realizing that despite being a third person narrative, and despite the fact that this is an autobiography, Lin never uses either method of storytelling to let us into Sam’s mind. A flat character in a first person narrative would be unable to explain himself, but a third person narration could have analyzed Sam in some manner that makes him relevant. We never see why the hell Sam is a useless sack of crap and again, even if it is deliberate, it is a shitty way to tell a story. Of course, Lin could not use a third person narration to plunge Sam’s soul because he doesn’t have one. (ETA on 5/28/12: I have gotten a lot of feedback about the previous sentence wherein snotty people tell me I meant to say “plumb” Sam’s soul. I didn’t mean to say that. I am well aware of how the phrase should be and deliberately used the word “plunge.” Like a toilet. I can’t believe I am still getting pissy little e-mails but here we are, and I hope that clears it up. It was a play on words and one that’s pretty fucking common, y’all. FEH!) He’s just a ridiculous creature that eats stuff, exercises an empty ego and and periodically goes to jail and none of that is enough to justify telling a story.
So in a couple of pages Sam is back in Manhattan, crashing in his brother’s house. He goes to eat a salad with Sheila:
They stood talking near the front doors while looking at each other’s shoes and other things. They left the cafe and went somewhere else then sat in front of New York University’s business school. It was around 10 p.m. They ate most of a giant salad of hijiki, lettuce, spinach, sprouts and tofu. Sam turned the aluminum container upside-down over a large plant. “High-quality fertilizer,” he said.
“Good,” said Sheila from where she sat. “Good job.”
They talked about the salad’s size and organic ingredients.
“We can eat it together in the future sometimes,” said Sam.
“That would be good,” said Sheila. “I would like that.”
Interesting that the same food that nourishes Sam is used to nourish a plant. I suspect this book would have been more interesting if on page 23 we began to follow the life of the plant that received that high quality fertilizer. God knows what wonderful things that plant saw, the wonders it witnessed, the human drama that played out in front of it as it just sat there, composting organic greens and tofu. Had Sam been potted in a planter outside of NYU, I suspect the novella would not have been substantially different than the one I read wherein he was free to walk around amongst human beings.
Also, poor Sheila, eating with this plant of a man. Their future is not one of traveling and making love and having deep conversations. No, she will, if Sam can be arsed, eat salad with him on some unspecified day in the future, maybe, and they will look at their shoes and stuff. Because that is as deep as this will get with Sam. I believe I mentioned that Sheila ends up in a psych ward and Sam’s reaction is no different really if he had been told Sheila had gotten married, gotten a job, belched in public, cried during a sad movie or just walked home by herself one evening. At 10:00 p.m. In March. I hope Sheila, whoever her real equivalent was in Tao Lin’s life, got the help she needed to understand why she hitched her star to a plant-wagon.
Some more things happen. To give the dull devil his due, the first scene when Sam is arrested and taken to jail is reasonably funny. It is one of those times when just regurgitating the interesting things that happen around Sam was enough because no matter how you slice it, a jail cell in NYC is gonna be interesting. Strangely, this pissed me off because it shows that if Lin had tried, just a little, this book would not have been the literary equivalent of eating Vaseline. Sam ended up in jail because he sucks so much at shoplifting that he was caught immediately after trying to lift a shirt he wanted to wear to his book reading. A mixed message to be sure. Sam is broke but wants a shirt. Rather than conform to the ideas of capitalist morality that says one can only own what one can afford, he tries to steal. But because he has nothing inside of him that comes close to being drive or a sense of competent action, he doesn’t even bother to steal in a manner that ensures success. So what is the message here? That sucking at everything one does in life ensures that one will at least get the majesty of witnessing drunk people lose their shit in a jail cell? Who knows…
It was on page 35 when I knew Tao Lin was just a huckster slinging words around, using writing as a method of self-promotion. Tao Lin is not promoting his book when he annoys Gawker or ironically posts links to his bad press. He is promoting himself via his books. This is a key passage:
“I want to change my novel to present tense,” said Sam. “Is there some Microsoft Word thing to do that.”
“I don’t think so. I think you have to do it manually.”
“Manually,” said Sam.
“By hand,” said Luis. “Get an interview on Suicide Girls, that should be your next step. Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like ‘blogniks’ to describe us.”
“Yes,” said Sam. “Remember when we had hope like four months ago.”
Shut up, Sam. This book goes back four months – you had no hope then. None of us did. Also note the return to not using question marks. But mostly note that Sam is so divested from the act of writing that he simply wants a macro to change his book to present tense. It was here that I sensed Tao Lin was making it clear that writing is simply a by-way for him to sell the brand that is Tao Lin, the quirky boy who flaunts his theft failures, who holds readings and recites the same line over and over again, who has taken pestering people for attention to a level previously thought unattainable.
I am a writer. I am not a writer like Tao Lin, but I’ve slung a few words together in my day. Simply changing a name in a story or novel is fraught with peril if one uses “Find and Replace.” Any writer who is worth two shits will go through the manuscript carefully because changing the tense can result in other changes that will have to be made. But Sam is so distant from writing that Luis has to define what “manually” means. Yes Sam, you will have to make changes by hand. Oh how sad, oh how terrible! But of course, Luis knows what Sam needs to do. Who gives a shit about the quality of the book? Get an interview on an edgy website! I genuinely think that at times in this novella Tao Lin is cluing us in to his lack of substance and skill, sort of rubbing it in the faces people who praised him, displaying that he is unworthy of praise and that he’s the only one in on the joke. I honestly wonder if he secretly loathes the people who like this book. (And if I am correct, it is not because I am some great thinker – it’s because I am gifted in the art of self-loathing and secretly know how much I suck even when people praise me. But I don’t want to mock people who praise me. I simply want my ego to be worthy of praise. Subtle difference but the end result of having the skills to see a person who likely knows he is a fraud leaving breadcrumbs to lead us to that conclusion isn’t anything for me to be proud of.)
Sam’s reign of emotionless terror continues. At the organic, vegan restaurant where he works, Sam has a moment wherein he realizes that people affect him and feels happiness but…
He walked to a central area of the kitchen and stood with unfocused eyes. Ben was thirty-nine. Sam knew from Facebook. Sam had a poem in the “drafts” section of his Gmail account called “ben is funny at work.” Sam felt himself grinning. He stopped grinning and stared at different things while people around him worked. “I feel tired of life,” he said out loud. “I don’t feel like working anymore.”
Of course there is nothing Sam really wants to do because all he really does when he is not working or sort of writing is look at stuff and shoes and more stuff. But even as he has a moment wherein he acknowledged another person’s innate worth, it is cluttered with brand names that are as essential to understanding his connection with Ben as knowing that Ben is funny. But the moment he felt happiness he shut it down. I bet happiness to Sam felt like cramp-laden diarrhea feels to the rest of us. A moment of happiness, filtered through the brand names in his mind, and he is suddenly tired of life. Sam is genuinely one of the most tiresome, pointless protagonists I have ever read.
So Sam does some other stuff and has some vaguely funny conversations that become unfunny when you think about the subtext. He has texts with other people on New Year’s Eve:
After midnight he got a text message from Mallory: “2008 feels insane.”
Sam grinned and text messaged: “It does. Feels like 2040 or something.”
This was when I first felt genuine despair reading this book, not the least because Lin likely experienced this and felt this passed for real conversation. Again, you could, in some sense, think this is a cultural lampoon of empty hipster disaffection but it isn’t. It’s just a sad, empty man sharing his sad emptiness.
Then Sam does more empty shit with a revolving door of faces who mean nothing, then he gets caught shoplifting some earbuds and goes back to jail.
A police man asked if Sam wanted anything from the vending machine. Sam asked if he could have food from his bag. The food was organic raw vegan “Raweos.” The policeman asked what the food was.
“Like, cookie things,” said Sam. “Cookies.”
“No, I think we better not do that,” said the policeman.
Yeah, what better time could there be to show one’s indie cred and love of extremely expensive vegan cookies than in jail after refusing to pay for earbugs and getting caught stealing them. Because veganism is not really an ethical means of choosing food but a way to demonstrate a facile allegiance to certain subcultures when shoplifting fails you yet again. Yeah. I see nothing jaded about that at all.
Then we get to the part of the story that left me feeling genuinely sad. Sam and a friend Robert are talking about Sheila being in the psych hospital:
“I wonder if she’ll get better,” said Sam.
“I felt sad. Connie was here. I felt funny about the situation. Later when Connie said things like ‘why are you sad’ I could say nothing and she would say things like ‘are you worried about your friend.'”
“Haha,” said Sam. “‘Concrete reason.'”
“Yes,” said Robert. “‘Easy to understand.'”
These dumb fucks are speaking in air quotes about what would be genuine emotional distress to a decent person. Air quotes. And though Robert and Luis are presumably different people, earlier we got Luis saying his current feelings were similar to what he felt like being molested by an uncle must feel like, that he felt something really terrible and had no frame of reference to define it. Here these two plant-men have a genuine reason for distress and they dismiss it and mock the woman who assumed Robert’s malaise was not the bullshit emptiness Lin and men like him wear like a badge of honor but actually generated from the sorrow of having a friend suffering from mental illness. This was one of the most violently and probably unintentionally sad things I’ve read in a while.
But then again, Sam encounters a seriously mentally ill man he met in jail and decides to follow him through the streets like he’s a mild distraction for the evening, like it’s somehow a normal and fun thing for the emotionally dead to stalk the mentally ill on a lark. So I guess it could have been worse.
Then Sam shows what a nasty little man he really is and never forget that Sam is Tao Lin in this autobiographical sketch. Sam goes to Florida for a book reading, and surrounded by people who knew his name, who thought Sam was the shit, he acts like an emotionally stunted bully. He notices a girl named Audrey who is clearly into him (and why all these girls are so into him I will never know but I don’t doubt that in real life Tao Lin has plenty of girls around him) and makes sure she notices him more while trying to look like he doesn’t care because Sam has no use for these emotions we humans embrace like so many dogs in heat.
Sam saw Audrey standing alone in line wearing all pink. Sam walked past Audrey to the bathroom. Sam walked out of the bathroom past Audrey without looking at her and talked to Jeffrey.
Smooth, that Sam.
Sam does his reading, but “he was going to read from the beginning of his next book and then read about two people alone in rooms in Ohio and Pennsylvania talking to each other in Gmail chat.” He asks Audrey, who was in the audience, to go with him to American Apparel and he and a few other people pile into a car. And hereabouts is where Tao Lin showed himself too clearly. Sam encourages everyone to act poorly because he knows he can and because he knows they will do what he wants. Of course, these people can tell him to get bent but when in the presence of someone you admire, a human brand even, people are willing to be manipulated and Sam knows this. Some examples:
Sam told Audrey to scream “red shirt” at people across the street walking in the same direction as them.
“Red shirt,” screamed Audrey.
A woman in her forties, two teenagers and a person in a bright red shirt who was maybe twenty turned their upper bodies and looked at Audrey while walking forward. “It’s a family, I think,” said Sam. “They’re ignoring it. That’s so bad for them, a family, it’ll probably be all they talk about later, like when they’re eating.”
So, Sam gets Audrey to perform street theater for him, and gets the cock stroke of thinking that this family will really give two shits about some grubby girl shouting at them in the street and they will be unable to think of anything else. No, it can’t be that dumbasses yelling stupid shit is worth ignoring. Nope, they are gonna have to remember this transgression against their person and dwell on it. Tao Lin has a very low opinion of us normal folk, or a very high opinion of himself and his jackassery. You be the judge.
Sam then insists that a political sign about voting on a certain proposition needs to be pulled out of the ground and carried to where they want to sit on a Florida college campus. People think the man carrying it, Jeffrey, is campaigning and yell out to him. This makes him uneasy.
“Here, you can have it, do you want it,” said Jeffrey in a quiet voice.
“No, don’t,” said Sam. “We need to put it by where we sit.”
Oh yes, how whimsical and fanciful is our Sam. Jeffrey should have thrown the sign at him but again, he didn’t. Sam got to see how far he could push him, too. Giving him this inch enabled Sam to take a mile and so he took Jeffrey’s bottle of juice and threw it as far as he could.
“Go get it,” said Jeffrey.
“Are you angry I threw your Odwalla,” said Sam.
Of course plant-Sam needs this clarification about human emotion, but he probably just wants Jeffrey to be forced to be angry or suppress it. Jeffrey suppresses it. Then Sam convinces Audrey to roll on her stomach across the grass to get the bottle, then they throw it around until they break it. Then Sam eggs Audrey into jumping over a hedge, which she does not do to his satisfaction so he insists she do it again.
Later, he kisses Audrey, then having come dangerously close to no longer being a plant by engaging with a non-plant girl, of course he retreats and more or less ignores her, leaving her baffled and unhappy until she retreats emotionally, too. Then a couple of more things happen and the novella mercifully ends with the following banality:
They sat quietly for about ten seconds. There were faraway sounds of people doing things in other parts of the town.
“What did you want to be when you grew up?” asked Audrey.
“Marine biologist,” said Sam.
Sadly, he didn’t go with his childhood dream and here I sit, discussing his book. Yay.
But before I conclude this fairly negative discussion, I need to talk about the product placement. All those fucking brand names given as much emphasis as any person, as any emotion. It’s sort of reminiscent of American Psycho but even more meaningless because Sam and his cohorts throw the words around with no attachment. At least Patrick Bateman placed the emotions he should have had for human beings onto objects. Lin just recites names like a parrot. On page 80, in dialogue that would have been better used as the liner in a bird cage, Sam and Robert toss out “Lorrie Moore,” “Paul Mitchell,” “Lollapalooza,” and “Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich” in a name dropping word salad of a conversation that had virtually no meaning. Later, we have a similar experience on pages 86-87. “Guggenheim Museum,” “Sausage Egg McMuffin,” “McDonalds,” “Synergy kombucha,” “Gmail” and “American Apparel.” And reading these quotes of places and products and brands as I reproduce them will have as much mental impact as their driveling recitation in the book. These are just two examples in this entire book of mindless name and brand mixing, as if any of it means anything. If Lin was trying to make the point that media has made us numb, who gives a shit? It’s not like that point has not been made for decades in far more effective ways than having this man-plant drone.
And while I did not harp on Lin’s style as much as I could have, the fact that this book stands as mental Novocaine should be clear in just the passages I quoted. If being a book alternative to numbing out was Lin’s goal, at least in that he succeeded. If this is a message worth spreading, it is hard to say. I suspect there are those who might think so, that a dull, numb, pointless story that has no commentary on the world but is just a recitation of scenes from the life of an empty narcissist is worth reading if only for the numbing effect it has.
So maybe there is a percentage of people in this world who are narcissists who have no self but I wager it is a very small percentage. And I guess there is a percentage of people in this world who might find interesting a narcissist with no self but I wager that too is a small percentage. Therefore, unless one is a narcissistic but numb person with no inner fire, or unless one is interested in 100 pages of such people, this book will be very unappealing. There is no progression, no crisis, no climax, no realization of alienation and subsequent despair. This is a book wherein a guy does some things and feels nothing as he does them. If you feel this sounds interesting, by all means, read this book. But for most people, this would become hollow and empty very quickly and for a reader looking for an existentialist wallow because of all the comparisons between this book and The Stranger, know that Sam never confronts his existence. He never experiences any sort of existential crisis. He does not exhibit nihilism or even a concentrated loathing for mankind that fuels his actions. He just exists in the most banal way possible, showing a spark only to be an asshole for a few pages then losing purpose and meaning again.
So we are left with a book that seemingly deliberately echos elements of an existentialist classic but is devoid of any real philosophical focus. The writing style is tiresome, repetitive and outside of some mildly humorous scenes, devoid of merit and offers no trade off in terms of novelty, experimentation, social relevance or even basic interest for suffering through it. The protagonist, Sam, who is a stand-in for Tao Lin in this autobiographical novella, lives a squalid, pointless life, showing his humanity only when he is being a complete dick. The story goes nowhere, conveys nothing, and is so poorly written that if the goal was to cause the reader to recoil in horror at youth deadened by media and reduced to soulless utterings of brand names and stupid conversations, it failed because the only horror is the book itself, not its message. If my reading is correct, this book is a middle finger extended in our faces by a writer who shows cleverly how little he cares about The Word and how easy he finds it to manipulate the people around him. This is a terribly written book with a story that could only interest the emotionally dead. This is a novella that conveys a smug, unpleasant sense that the reader is being mocked by lobotomized hipsters. Yeah, read this if that any of that sounds like a good time to you but for the most part, I say read The Stranger, American Psycho, Generation X, The Catcher in the Rye, and maybe even William Shatner’s autobiography. Don’t read this book. Not even if you steal it. The soul you don’t kill may be your own.