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  • Light-Fingered Fiction
  • Micah Ling (bio)
Shoplifting From American Apparel. Tao Lin. Melville House. 104 pages; paper, $13.00.

On the back of this book, it says, "The inmate with a mop / held back the inmate / without a mop." It almost seems like nothing else should be said about this book. It has very little to do with inmates, except that as soon as that statement is made, it seems like the book has everything to do with inmates. Like everyone is always an inmate to something, and that the whole world is merely about helping other inmates out, or deciding not to. So maybe that's exactly what this book is proving. It surveys relationships, jobs, consequences, and all of the things that happen to young adults in this particular pocket of America.

Most of it takes place in New York City, which automatically makes the pace of life seem sped up. But there are also jaunts to Florida. And mentions of Ohio. It's packed with product placement and name-dropping. The title, for instance, is just the start. It's also filled with Odwalla, Gmail Chat, YouTube, Frosted Flakes, Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwiches, Lorrie Moore, John McCain, Egg McMuffins, "Synergy," kombucha, etc. You're suddenly aware of how used to advertisements we all are; it doesn't seem entirely weird to have all of the products named, or for cravings to be attached to specific brands—that's the world we live in. Emotions might as well be brought to us by soft drinks and light beer. Lin is able to spark this line of thoughts just by the repetition of stuff that's in the story.

Sam, the protagonist, is generally bored, depressed, lonely, and unsure of himself. He's the kind of character that you can imagine creating a set of rules and sticking to them just for the hell of it. Not a lot happens in this story; in fact, you could read it and say that it's about nothing. But then you can't stop thinking about it, so it must be about something. Such is the stuff of a cult following. The novella opens with Sam talking to his friend Luis on Gmail Chat—their conversation is almost entirely about cereal, boredom, and masturbation. "'I'm going to masturbate then do some other shit then try to sleep for like 20 hours,' said Sam. 'Have a good night.' 'Have a good night, I'm laughing,' said Luis." It's almost as if the whole story is a reflection of how communication is changing how we see and relate to one another.

Shoplifting from American Apparel is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. And, if you know anything about Lin, you know that many consider him to be a subtle genius when it comes to art, constantly putting projects together that don't entirely make sense but that end up working. It's like this whole novella is asking, "What is the role of art in an ever advancing world full of technology and at-your-fingertips communication?" This book reflects an alternative youth culture that tests the mainstream. But it also illustrates a generation that doesn't seem to really care about much. Sam is an author, and at one point, he misses a reading because he's arrested, and then sends an email to apologize to the other reader. His life is very nonchalant. Or there's not much about his life that provides for severe versions of emotions. You start wondering what it would take to get Sam really riled up—really passionate about something. Is that where we're headed? A generation full of people with a dulled sense of emotion? This novella certainly doesn't stand as a warning, but it's curious in that way.

Sam gets thrown in jail for shoplifting, more than once. He's vegan. His life is overly repetitive. The sentences in the story are repetitive. It spans two years of time, but if you don't keep up with the passages of time, it almost seems like one long, strange week of interactions. It certainly makes you wonder...


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