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Consumerism and social alienation in Tao Lins Shoplifting in

American Apparel.

Tao Lin has become a figurehead of a group of writers who have come to be
known by the term Alternative Literature or Alt-Lit. The Alt-Lit scene is largely
defined as being an online community of writers who advertise, self publish and
interact as a community predominantly via social media forums and websites.
Their work is exemplified in novel form, by the use of thinly disguised
autobiographical material, the noted influence of recreational drug use and by
the use of internet motifs such as transcripts of dialogue from chat rooms and
Instant messaging services such as Gmail chat.
Huw Nesbitt in his review on The Quietus states that Shoplifting From American
Apparel is not an exposition of an existential crisis and that the absence of
narrative shouldn't be mistaken for an allegorical anti-narrative. 1 He maintains
that everything that exists in Shoplifting . . . is so neutered, so self-involved, so
purposeless, that it couldn't possibly be against anything and that Shoplifting is
a critique without end or goal; an infinite insult aimed at the entire universe that
affirms nothing but would happily send everything to hellfire. 2
But I would disagree with this. In this essay I shall argue that shoplifting is a
carefully crafted set of contradictions. I shall explore two in particular that

1 Huw Nesbitt, 'Tao Lin's Shoplifting From American Apparel Reviewed', The Quietus (2009)
<http://thequietus.com/articles/02767-tao-lin-s-shoplifting-from-americanapparel-review> [30/03/2014] (para. 5).
2 Huw Nesbitt (para. 5)

demonstrate Lins great disaffection with contemporary American society; its


consumerist nature and the emotional alienation of the computer generation.
The first contradiction concerns emotional alienation. Sam, the protagonist in
Shoplifting, feels socially and emotionally isolated. At one point in a Gmail chat
conversation Luis, a friend Sam has made on the internet asks him: Do you
sometimes look up from the computer and look around the room and know you
are alone, I mean really know it, then feel scared, to which he replies Yes, I
really do that.3 Luis then asks Sam if they should kill [themselves] or start
crying or punch [themselves] in the nuts. 4 The only solution Sam can find to
alleviate his sense of alienation is to add more people on MySpace 5
demonstrating his inability to engage with people outside of social media.
This antisocial tendency is demonstrated again when Sam force[s] [himself]
back to sleep6 to avoid engaging with emotionally and socially difficult situations
and his irregular sleeping hours compound his sense of isolation. Due to his
irregular sleeping pattern Sams only meaningful relationships happen over the
internet and he begins to miss social contact. Yet despite Sams desire for human
contact, when he sees Audrey at a gig, a person he has connected well with on
the internet, he deliberately avoids contact, walking right past her to stand with
his friend by the stage. When they eventually do talk Sam can manage nothing
more than asking her name and a handshake and again ignores her the next day
when he sees her at a vegan buffet.
3 Tao Lin, Shoplifting From American Apparel, (New York: Melville House, 2009), p. 9
4 Shoplifting, p. 9
5 Shoplifting, p. 9
6 Shoplifting, p. 8

In this way the social interaction and emotional fulfilment Sam seeks has become
a simulacra operating through the medium of the internet that bares no relation
to traditional social norms. His inability to reconcile his confident internet
persona and the person he is when directly interacting with people is a paradigm
of the modern condition. This subtle but firm social commentary contradicts
Nesbitts assertion that Shoplifting is a critique without end or goal.7 Whilst Lin
certainly does not condemn the dogmatic use of social media, he firmly asserts
its limitations as a social tool.

The second contradiction relates to consumerism. Sam defines everyone he


meets by their ability to consume, creating an inventory of the food and drink
they eat, the branded possessions they have and the clothing they wear. Lin lists
these items to set the scene or indicate a change in Sams circumstances. For
example Sam was alone in Sheilas mothers house drinking iced coffee and
looking at his poetry on the computer screen. [...] He looked out the window at a
compost pile and an aboveground swimming pool. 8 Lin subtly defines Sams
surroundings as privileged and middle class via the mention of the compost pile
and the swimming pool. Sam is defined within this setting as a cosmopolitan AltLit poet just by the listing of his consumption of coffee and the fact he is reading
his poetry specifically on the computer.
Sams change in circumstances, his move to the suburbs with Sheila, is
punctuated by the mention of his new shoes. As he sits staring at them the shoes
take on a symbolic meaning, they define Sams ability to participate in consumer
society and represent his financial success as a writer. He and Shelia flick
7 Huw Nesbitt (para. 5)
8 Shoplifting, p. 12

through a New York Times supplement asking each other which would you rather
have? Or which would you rather be?9 Sam believes that consumerism and
wealth will empower him to break the boredom and monotony of his life; [Sam]
thought about working hard and becoming rich and living alone in a giant house
in Florida. Loneliness and depression would be defeated with a king size bed, an
expensive stereo, a drum set, a bike [and] an unlimited supply of organic
produce and coconuts. Sam feels his alienation lies in his lack of money and
therefore his inability to consume.
But this affectation with consumerism soon breaks down. During emotionally
challenging times Sam and Sheila are detailed as st[anding] talking near the
front doors while looking at each others shoes. 10 Within a chapter the shoes
have gone from a beacon of hope to an emblem of Sams failure to commit to
people emotionally. Sam later rebukes the concept of capitalist consumerism by
arbitrarily beginning to shoplift from NYU and American Apparel, the incident
from which the book significantly takes its title. Sam steals in an offhand way and
shows little concern when caught. The manager at the store rebukes Sam saying
Dont steal from us [...] steal from some shitty corporation. We have fair-trade
labor. I mean fair labor [sic] 11. The fact that the manager initially calls it fairtrade labour before correcting himself is significant, it demonstrates Lins
cynicism towards American Apparels pretence of corporate morality, implying
via this Freudian slip that they consider workers a commodity, perhaps tradable
in themselves.

9 Shoplifting, p. 13
10 Shoplifting, p. 15
11 Shoplifting, p. 19

In conclusion these contradictions between desire and action, and thought and
action, form the basis of a very subtle critique of American society as a whole
and Lins generation in particular. While I would not interpret the text as strictly
allegorical, as Lin refuses to force an interpretation upon the reader, the tone
created by these contradictory paradigms betrays an attitude towards society
that is in a subtle way critical of its adherence to consumerist norms and the
apathy of a generation that colludes in it.

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