I submit to you, dear reader, a pair of pie charts showing the varieties of “facial expression” that appear in Tao Lin’s novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel. This ridiculously simple phrase, repeated over 25 times, never once dropping the redundant word, “facial”, is one of many signals that in this novella, the style is the story.
It is easy to hate Shoplifting from American Apparel: its narrator is disinterested and nearly monosyllabic, and if Sam, the main character, ever does, thinks, or says anything interesting, the narrator has left it out. The story skips along in a spare and breezy way. It covers two years in about 20,000 words (short even for a novella, you can finish it while someone is watching a movie in the next room) and in that time we learn much more about Sam’s eating habits than anything else. He drinks an iced coffee every ten pages.
This is a book emptied of conflict, description, character development, metaphor, symbolism, or even commentary. What it gives you is jotted down reportage. Things are said and done, but it reads like the minutes of a meeting:
Sam and Hester went downstairs into a room and sat on a padded seat. People came out of a door and smiled at Sam and Hester. Sam smiled at them and waved and they went upstairs.
“Are you bored,” said Hester.
“No, I feel calm,” said Sam. “I like Brandon.”
They went upstairs and stood in a crowded hallway. Sam stared at people’s faces with a neutral facial expression.
The entire novella is written in a terse, pronoun-shy, and concrete shorthand. It would take a certain willful ignorance to call the story “poorly written.” Its style, while suspect, is clearly deliberate and careful. It takes a lot of restraint and editing for a person to write a narrative this devoid of figurative language, this emptied of significance, this blind, deaf, and dumb to people and their real, lived, psychologies. This is anti-literary writing, though perhaps no more anti-literary than much modern avant-gardism is anti-art. It simply refuses to do what we expect a book to do.
Lin narrates an aimless existence troubled only by boredom. But what really conveys the shallowness and emptiness of Sam and his friends is the prose that never tells us what people are thinking but always tells us what they’re drinking (iced coffees: 10; beers: 5; smoothies 4; mojitos: 3; vodka and grape juice: 3; glasses of water: 2; energy drinks: 2). This is a narrator, and a main character that never fails to specify when something is “organic” or “vegan”.
Tao claims to be confused by readers who see the characters as apathetic or dead inside:
Some people are maybe thinking that just because of the prose style, or because of me as an author deciding not to include thoughts or feelings, that these characters don’t have thoughts or feelings, which is like thinking that just because a book doesn’t have any moms or dads that moms or dads don’t exist in the book.
Fair enough: just because people only say things like, “I feel weird,” and “That’s funny,” without every elaborating, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the mental life of a clam. At times, the book does drop hints that some of the characters might actually have feelings that go beyond what can be conveyed in a single word like “confused” or “normal”, but the narrative always pulls away immediately. In one of his more introspective moments, Sam indulges in a rare, long sentence:
Sam looked around. His cup of iced coffee was empty.“I felt emotional today thinking about the past, like a year and a half ago, at Sheila’s house,” he said. “I think because I haven’t been awake in the daytime for an extended period in so long and was reminded of the last time I was in a sunny room on a computer after having been up for four to five hours, which was at Sheila’s house, I think.”
“Wow,” said Robert.
“But there was nothing I could do with the emotion really,” said Sam. “It just went away after a while.”
I want Shoplifting from American Apparel to be more than a portrait/symptom/both of empty hipsterism. The extreme minimalism of its dead-to-the-world narrative voice is daring, but Tao Lin has edited his notes down until there is nothing left but a short story whose main accomplishment should be measured in how much it doesn’t say, and how little it engages with anything at all.
Your homework, if you are willing, my dear reader, is to create a chart (whether pie, bar, or other) showing the repetition and variation of something in a text.
Or, for an alternative assignment, submit anything else on the text discussed in this post.