Don’t Be a Victim of Modern Times

Craig Dathe

There are plenty of good books out there, but the ever-present dilemma for young people is finding things to read with which they can connect.  The books assigned in school are classics with a lot to teach us, but the most recent of them were written 50 to 60 years ago, a difference of two generations.  Tao Lin’s new novella Shoplifting from American Apparel, a short and sweet 103 pages in length, will immediately connect with our generation as well as provide warnings about our lifestyles from someone who practices that lifestyle himself.

Tao Lin is a recent New York University graduate who was first published as a junior in college.  In a minimalist and direct prose style he spins a tale about Sam, a young vegan living in Manhattan, and his vague and unfulfilling “blognik” life.  Lin calls his book “a shoplifting novel about vague relationships,” which is an apt description.  Communication between people is so suffocated by texting and Gmail chat that when the characters meet each other in person they don’t know how to relate to each other, or even how to pass the time.  They just meander aimlessly, engaging in random shenanigans that many students will find familiar.

Village Voice reviewer Ben Beitler accurately calls Shoplifting “Twitterature.”  Sam and his comrades have safe, empty friendships with each other because they are too afraid and too lazy to take the risk of having substantial human interaction.  Sam has multiple relationships in the book, all of which come off as charming in their awkward innocence as well as depressing for that very same reason.  Sam and his friends and his girlfriends are all grown adults, but they communicate with each other like Tarzan and Jane.

The overall atmosphere of the novella is one of alienation, but Lin is an honest and genuinely funny writer.  Shoplifting does indeed occur, twice, and hilarity ensues as Lin relates the events from within Sam’s holding cells.  The characters’ conversations have a deadpan humor to them, especially because they consist of things people would actually say.  But there are important lessons to be learned, especially in an era when we often only know personal information about others from their Facebook profiles.  There are no cops or assistant principals to police how we conduct our relationships.  We are left to make our own decisions at our own peril.  The high-speed consumer lifestyles we have could bury our humanity if we aren’t careful.
So please enjoy this book: it’s short, it reads as easily as a text message, and it’s hilarious in its exaggeration of the Internet-era lifestyle.  Laugh at its irony, but beware.  If you fail to notice the social commentary then you have some serious thinking to do.  In Lin’s world Manhattan is overflowing with people, but its inhabitants feel alienated and alone, and the same could happen to you.