Book Review: Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin

Title: Shoplifting from American Apparel
Author: Tao Lin
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 9781933633787
PP: 112 pages
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 3/5

This novella is a slice of early 21st century life among middle class creative types in urban US. The characters live detached lives in which nothing much happens but everything is observed and worthy of comment. The main character is unable to judge his own reaction to things or his own emotional state. He tries to make connections with people, often making heroic attempts, but is largely frustrated by a mixture of the cultural environment and his own character.

It has a certain ring of truth to it, and I know people in the UK whose lives are not dissimilar to those described here. However the narrative drifts as much as the characters lives – presumably deliberately but I’m not sure it makes for compelling reading. I read on in the hope of more of the semi-nonsensical but realistic conversations that are the book’s strength. Perhaps this was the intention.

The weak structure would be forgivable in a book this brief if there were something beneath the surface to grasp at. Unfortunately I ended up feeling the author was as shallow as the culture that his characters battle against. They strive for morality of some sort, but in a consumerist way that undermines any thought of them really having a positive impact on the world. The author seems to buy into the ethical posturing that, for example, extends to constantly eating vegan organic food but not to wondering who picked the food and what they were paid. The thefts in the book pass by with an admirable lack of judgment but there is no indication of why an American Apparel t-shirt would be desirable in the first place. The final theft then is the denial of any substance to the reader.

This reads like a harsh review, perhaps because I had high expectations. I’d recommend the book to people interested in novelists trying to do something different, but not to someone who wanted a good read or an interesting insight into US culture. I’m afraid Kurt Vonnegut said it better and much more succinctly:

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

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