by Tao Lin
104 pages, Melville House
Life is Bleak, Ain’t it Neat
Review by Marie Mundaca
Is it possible that a book filled with instant message exchanges can also be incredibly moving? In Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao Lin explores the notion that internet friendships are somehow different from real life connections. Imbued with Lin’s dark comedy and deadpan humor, Shoplifting is a fun and penetrating trip into the mind of someone trying “not to be a bad person,” and make connections with people. Readers know Sam, the novel’s protagonist, isn’t a bad person at all. He’s aimless and confused, but his quiet demeanor is incredibly appealing.
Sam spends his days and nights IM’ing with his Internet friend Luis, interrupted by work at a vegetarian restaurant and occasional trips to shoplift clothes from the hipster clothing outpost American Apparel. When he gets caught stealing, the store’s manager has this conversation with Sam.
“Steal from some shitty corporation. We have fair-trade labor. I mean fair labor.”
“I spend my money on even better places,” said Sam, “Organic vegan restaurants.”
“I’m all for that,” said the manager.
Sam goes to jail, but this doesn’t get him down—he’s already as far down as he can go. Sam thinks, “Loneliness and depression would be defeated with a king-size bed, an expensive stereo system, a drum set, a bike, an unlimited supply of organic produce and coconuts, and maybe calmly playing an online role playing game.” If this is what it will take to make him happy, then spending a night in jail is no worse than spending a night at home.
In the second half of the book, Sam travels to Gainesville to see some friends and meet a girl. Of course, the real life conversations are much more awkward than Sam’s and Luis’s IM conversations. When Sam is interacting with friends in real life, his loneliness abates, but the specter of depression looms humorously. “I feel really good right now, I feel like I’ll just kill myself after this,” Sam says to his friends. When he tells his friend Audrey, “I honestly don’t know what to do, like, overall,” she suggests that he draw hamsters.
“ ‘I already did that,’ said Sam.
‘There’s nothing left for you,’ said Audrey.”
When he finally kisses Audrey, Lin writes this awkward exchange: “They kissed some more and then stared at each other with neutral facial expressions. … Sam felt his own neutral facial expression.” Even during passionate moments, Sam tries hard to remain aloof and detached.
Lin is writing about ennui, depression, loneliness—all difficult subjects to write about. How to get these emotions across without sounding desperate and boring? Lin succeeds wildly. Shoplifting from American Apparel is a quietly bleak and humorous book that will stay with you for a long time.