Book: The Tao Shoplifting Crisis
Type of Book: Non-fiction, epistolary
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Tao Lin will always be odd to me.
Availability: Published by Carnarsie House in 2009, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I love writing for this site, but I think it goes without saying that any online endeavor is going to have a downside. When I wrote my analysis of 2083, the epic-length document by Oslo shooter Anders Behring Breivik, it went mildly viral. The four part discussion, close to 50,000 words of analysis, caught the attention of news sources in Norway and was translated into Norwegian. I experienced praise and pushback, and some of the pushback was upsetting, to put it mildly. But for the most part, even the negativity that came my way was delivered with some modicum of respect, aside from the terminal cases who were outraged that I discussed the woman-hate that I discovered in the document. Even the incoming links from people who disagreed with me, even from virulent racists, simply said I got it wrong, but given that I had read it my take was still worth reading.
Will it surprise anyone that in terms of annoyance and abuse that my discussion of Tao Lin’s execrable novel, the wearying and craptacular Shoplifting from American Apparel, was quite a bit more tiresome than the onslaught of e-mails and comments I received when I discussed one of history’s worst mass murderers? I still get the occasional e-mails from smug readers who insist that a line I used wherein I discussed plunging Lin’s soul was a horrible error and that I am dumb, oh so stupid, for not understanding that. It’s hard to make Lin’s acolytes understand that plunge was a play on plumbing the depths of a soul, as the saying goes. A soul’s depths are plumbed, a toilet is plunged, and I am not the first to engage in that particular word play so all the bafflement, if not assumed, is baffling. But still the e-mails come. October 2012 was the only month wherein I did not receive a plumb/plunge e-mail, though of course the number of messages has died down. And let’s keep it that way!
And yes, I am verbose, a common complaint from Tao Lin fans. Watch my verbosity in action as I use far too many words to discuss this 38 page book!
In addition to the plumb/plunge/too wordy missives, I received a lot of feedback that I can only call bullshit. But given that I hated the book and discussed it in excruciating detail, I understand that I should expect such reactions and that perhaps it is a bit hypocritical for me to consider such feedback bullshit. But then again, this world is big enough in terms of ideas that pro-Lin and anti-Lin can both be bullshit and both be right. I was just mildly surprised by and eventually tired of the lengths to which fans of Lin will go to defend their idol/friend/whatever he is to them.
I tell you these things, dear readers, not to gain pity or to get some sort of ego stroke in the form of protestations that my writing doesn’t suck. I know it doesn’t suck. I have many flaws as a writer but if I felt I was truly a terrible writer, I wouldn’t spend a chunk of my life discussing books. I tell you all of this just so you know that, character for character, discussing Tao Lin will generate more bullshit, insults and nastiness than discussing a mass murderer of children. I find that interesting and, frankly, a little unexpected. For such a passionless book, Shoplifting from American Apparel has a lot of passionate defenders.
I also tell you all of this so as to explain why it is that I waited so long to discuss Richard Grayson’s book. Grayson was kind enough to send it to me after he read my discussion of Lin’s opus and I read it very soon upon receiving it. I had wanted to discuss it but wanted to give myself some breathing room after the stupidity that flowed after my discussion of SfAA. I am disorganized at times, and then 2083 happened, and then some Redditors found me and I received an onslaught of review copies from hopeful writers (one called me “the reviewer of the damned” and I may incorporate that into the site soon). I just lost track of things. But I found my copy of the book again when I transferred everything over to a new computer and realized that I needed to discuss it.
(BTW: Even though I hated the shit out of the book, the director of the movie adaptation of Shoplifting from American Apparel asked me if I wanted to review the movie. Hell yes, was my answer and I will get to that soon. After that I suspect Lin will never be mentioned on this site again, glory hallelujah amen! Well, I say that. I’m sure I’ll read him again should I feel adequate provocation.)
The Tao Shoplifting Crisis is a series of e-mails between Tao Lin and Richard Grayson. Grayson, a writer and activist, is also a lawyer. Tao knew Grayson through common writing circles, and when he was facing a court date as a result of being arrested for, wait for it, shoplifting from American Apparel, he turned to Grayson for help. It is here I need to clear up a couple of things that could upset an ethical reader. At no point did Lin retain Grayson as legal counsel because Grayson was only licensed to practice law in Florida and Grayson repeatedly told him his expertise was not going to be completely helpful and that any advice he could give needed to be followed up with advice from a New York lawyer. For those who may think it skeevey that Grayson published his correspondence with Lin, bear in mind these e-mails occurred in 2007. When Grayson became aware that not only was Lin not keeping his arrest to himself and was, in fact, using his arrests as the premise of a book, and furthermore was using the flyer wherein he was banned from a specific store for his shoplifting for promotional purposes, Grayson no longer felt as if Tao’s arrests were anything he needed to keep quiet.
But more to the point, given the way that Tao Lin has conducted his professional life, Grayson’s revelations about Lin, revealing the private and making it the premise of a book, is in no way different than the way Lin decided to construct SfAA. When one makes a spectacle of one’s life for art, it’s hard to control the spectacle once it’s unleashed. Still, given that Tao Lin has never met a bit of publicity he didn’t like or couldn’t spin to his advantage, even those with the sternest ethics can see how this little book, even if it shows Lin’s underbelly, ultimately does him no harm.
While Grayson’s book made me feel more kindly towards Lin, this small collection of e-mails is interesting because after reading this collection, Lin is far less clever to me. He’s less the crafty showman than just a dude who found himself in various bad situations and made the best of them. Somehow, that’s sort of endearing to me. Besides, if one makes continual bad decisions because one is a screw-up, turning poor shoplifting technique into lemonade is probably the best way to go about life. All the better if you have a crowd of people who enjoy the show.
In this collection of candid writings, Lin came across as a dense young man who had no idea how to navigate the world around him (though that certainly may have changed). He seemed very much like a naif, a little boy who acted up and had no idea of the real world consequences when he got caught. Here’s Tao explaining to Grayson the bind he is in:
should i say ‘no contest’ or ‘guilty’? at american apparel i told them i had stolen from other places before. i told the undercover cops. the other cops came and said i would get community service probably. but online it says i can get jail time or a giant fine. my court date is 9/11. how do you think i should handle this in order to get community service?
When caught he just blurted out all of his sins to the staff at American Apparel, the undercover cops and the police who came to arrest him. Why on earth would he do that? Either Tao Lin is the most machiavellian writer in modern history, creating specific scenarios with a mind to possible self-marketing, or he was a punk kid who got caught stealing and in fear and panic vomited up all his crimes.
After reading this, Grayson more or less implores Lin to get a lawyer, but Lin cannot afford one, so Grayson replies, using far too many words for the average Tao Lin fan’s tastes, asking specific questions. He states again that since he is not licensed to practice law in New York Lin needs to get appropriate legal counsel before taking his advice. He gives him relatively basic information that likely was not that basic to Lin: appear in court on the correct day at the correct time; if Lin cannot get a lawyer, he needs to take his ticket to a court officer who will let him know what he needs to do; ask for a public defender and be ready to bring documentation of his income to prove he qualifies for free counsel; witnesses are useless in a court hearing; and get there early because if Lin needs to apply for a public defender, it will be a long, long day. He also tries to nail down who it was that Lin confessed to and whether or not that person ever gave him a Miranda warning.
Lin’s short reply to Grayson’s long list of advice shows that perhaps things are not as dire as they seemed, that perhaps he had not spilled his guts to a cop. Did he misunderstand the situation or did he change his story? Hard to know but he says he is relieved by Grayson’s advice. and then reveals the following:
the american apparel person was writing what happened, i believe. (he probably wrote what i said, and one thing i said was that i had stolen from other stores before). it may have been for their own records, because i saw on the wall (the wall of polaroids of people who were caught) for some of them they had pieces of paper by them just stating objectively what happened. i did not speak to the officer about the incident. in the police car he just told me that i would get probably get let go the same day with a court date and then probably get community service (said it was up to his boss). which is what happened, the court date. i did not get a miranda warning.
Lin’s shoplifting excursion seems a bit confusing even to him but it appears the person at American Apparel was just gathering records for the store, not taking a legal confession.
In his reply back, Grayson says what all of us are thinking:
I am not sure why you felt you had to say anything to the guy in the store but it is done.
Perhaps Lin’s interactions with the store clerk stemmed from a Dostoyevskian eye to confession but, really, it seems far more likely that he was panicked in that flat manner of his and just spewed. Either way, it’s interesting.
But even as I feel more kindly inclined towards Lin, I do have to note the following:
thanks richard. that is very reassuring. i had been ‘preparing’ myself to be fined $2000 or go to jail.
There they are. The ironic quotes. Much like the scene in SfAA wherein Sam and Robert were discussing Sheila’s institutionalization using ironic quotes to… To separate themselves from the horror of having a mentally ill friend in a hospital? To show how unflinchingly hip and disconnected they were? Who the hell knows but in this case ‘preparing’ means Lin is trying hard to gather money, a substance thin on the ground in his life, or he is going to have to spend time in a New York jail. Doing the former or steeling oneself up for the latter is actual preparation. It’s troublesome that Lin was engaging in this sort of bullshit before he was even a particularly well-known quantity.
Lin and Grayson continue to exchange e-mails and in these e-mails Lin shows even more basic incompetence at life. He cannot find the precinct where he was arrested and Grayson, a patient and kind man, finally just asks Lin for the actual location of the store where he was arrested. With that information Grayson can find the precinct, and if you are wondering why Lin could not gather that information himself, his answer to Grayson will clear that right up.
hi richard. i was arrested at the BROADWAY american apparel. BROADWAY & i’m not sure. i think wavery.
Yeah. Lin wasn’t sure exactly where he was arrested. Sigh…
In that same e-mail, he refers to himself in the third person:
thank you for keeping tao out of jail.
I found myself sighing a lot in this short book.
Grayson is indeed a kind man even to try to deal with this mess and tells Lin to give it a rest, but in far politer terms:
Please don’t put yourself in this position again. It is not worth it.
Indeed, it’s not, especially if one is an inept shoplifter who is going to spill one’s guts the moment one is confronted. But Lin’s response was unexpected and again showed me how oddly his mind works, or perhaps how naive he was.
i will not put myself in this position anymore. thank you for all your advice, it was very nice.
if you need something from me please ask. i don’t know… if you have more poems i could publish you again on 3 a.m .
See! Tao Lin gets it to a certain extent. He is interacting with a human being and having a normal exchange. Of course, he is more or less offering to repay Grayson’s legal expertise and kindness via publication online, but it’s a start. (And lord help me, I am now down to two degrees of separation from Tao Lin because, dear readers, I too was once published in 3 A.M. Magazine, back before it was hip to be a hipster.) Grayson lets that offer go without comment, but it was nice that Lin offered.
I found it strange that Lin had no idea what to wear to his hearing.
do you think i should wear a normal white long sleeve t-shirt with black pants?
See, I find it interesting that Lin could have navigated his way through his education and have no idea what to wear to court. No worries, Grayson also gave him good advice on what to wear. Is it shocking that Lin didn’t own a white shirt with a collar and needed to buy one? Ah well. Graduate school is expensive. I’m being petty. Best to let that one slide, I think.
Lin sends one more plea for information and assistance to Grayson, but follows it up with this:
hi richard. ignore that. my brother lent me $1000 and have a lawyer now. thank you for your help.
It’s really good that Lin’s brother came through in the clutch. Lin is a man who does not need to navigate prison, or even jail for longer than a weekend.
It all ends well for Tao, with community service, cleaning up “Thompkin’s Park” and he sounds like he is going to enjoy working outside for a bit. And then he wrote SfAA and here we are.
I Googled Lin after I read Grayson’s little book the first time and again just before I wrote this. It appears that he got divorced since I last looked into his life, and even if you get ‘married’ ironically, divorces still suck. (His ex-wife is Megan Boyle, whose book of poetry, Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express EmployeeI planned to read before I knew she was Tao Lin’s bride because writer Nick Mamatas linked to her book trailer and it was quite charming, I thought.) He’s had to ask people to buy his possessions twice in order to stay afloat financially, the last one occurring just after he took a job lecturing at Sarah Lawrence but had not yet received his first paycheck. Say what I will about Tao Lin, but it speaks positively of him that he sells things rather than just ask for money because he is Tao Lin. I came across his last hour of need too late to send him money, but even as I detest his writing and bizarre self-promotion, it sucks to be broke and having been there I take no pleasure in anyone being in that boat.
It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Lin is less the exacting master of self-promotion than he is just a strange, somewhat irritating guy who stumbles into fucked-up situations and manages to create buzz amongst those who like him and get him in a way in which I am constitutionally unable. I’m sick of irony. I never liked it much in the first place but increasingly the American cultural landscape is a tiresome desert of people hiding their true delight behind pretentious affectation or embracing that which they do not care for and never revealing their true loves lest they be mocked for earnestness. I’m pretty earnest and I get mocked for it from time to time so I understand the aversion, but refuse to give in. So Lin’s irony, if that is what it is, means I’ll never be able to give a shit about his writing because it will always read as dishonest to a person like me.
So is Tao Lin a neuro-atypical weirdo who haplessly falls into lunatic situations and manages to spin them well or is he really the master-mind of self-promotion many think him to be. Neither? Both? I don’t know but Grayson’s book of e-mails made me like Tao Lin a bit and this is something I like to avoid. I don’t like knowing too much about authors until I have read their bodies of work and know in my heart what my feelings are about their writing. I don’t like being influenced in a manner that leads me away from the author’s words and into salacious or disappointing details about his or her life that can taint the writer for me. I’m emotional like that. But even as I know some will mock me for this utterly unironic declaration, it’s nice to know that perhaps Lin is not such a plant-man after all.