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Book Review: Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin

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I've been rupturing my head locks recently over atrocious front cover designs and so it is with glossy delight I present the Damn! That Looks Good In A Minimal Way award to Melville House Publishing for their Contemporary Art of the Novella series — may I suggest the series acronym CAN — which demonstrates you don't always have to employ David Carson design-types to prevent your publications from looking like complete bum rubbish.

Tao Lin is currently a darling of the American alternative set and his novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is the latest title in the CAN series. Forgive me CAN enthusiasts, from now on I will refer to the Contemporary Art of the Novella series as the Contemporary Art of the Novella series or 'series' to avoid any suggestion that it should be canned.

Deep breath!

Lin's diaristic venture tells the story of Sam, a shoplifting writer who trundles through a vegan world of soya and tofu, trying, or not trying, to make sense of nothing. Along the way, he is arrested for shoplifting, has various encounters with various characters in various locations (but mostly Manhattan), fucks around in Florida and then returns home. End of novella. “Hang on a second!” I hear the expectant reader murmur. “Surely there is more?” Well, no, there isn't. That is pretty much it. Now onwards to deep analysis of the narrative!

Lin is adept at publicity and in 2008 began a campaign to procure finance from his forthcoming second novel by offering six "shares" in the novel's future royalties. He sold them all and received much media attention in the process. As a journalism graduate he knows how to engage with the press and turn negative reviews into good publicity — the so-bad-it's good paradox — by using the latter to generate traffic and other statistical goodness. And this is how you are supposed to experience the Tao Lin narrative — through the spectacle of the Lin/Melville publicity vehicle, which creates mystic support for an otherwise deficient product. If you avoid the publicity, you will quickly realize that Shoplifting is book-bound chaff. If you have been entranced by Lin already, then there is no point reading any more of this review.

Tao Lin would have been a much more respectable proposition had he combined all his work together in a KLF style manual on 'how to develop a cult following without getting found out'. Instead, he has indirectly/directly sanctioned the release of a novella which bares the scent of Evasion, a 2001 CrimethInc publication, which tells the similar, more complete story of a vegan writer/zinester who decides to drop out and travel across America using shoplifting and freegan tactics to survive. Instead, Lin has used Shoplifting as filler until his second novel comes out in 2010. Instead, Lin has exposed his weakness as a writer.

Tao Lin's fandom probably has enough momentum to ensure that this review will not make any impact on sales or reputation. And the obsequious cronyism displayed in certain favourable reviews will further enhance the shifting of units. But I sense that the “unidirectional nature of time” will eventually relegate Shoplifting from American Apparel to the bargain bin and the conclusion of the automatic markdown system – the charity shop.

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About Paul Robinson

  • Haven’t read said chaff, but great review writing, as usual.