Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I sampled some stories by Alt-Lit maven Tao Lin back when Alt Lit was the new phenomenon, and I liked them but didn’t really know what to make of them, probably because, even though Lin and I are of the same generation—he’s one year my junior—my idea of literature has never solely involved what the kids today (about whom more in a second) call vibing. I like textured imagery, long sentences, out-of-the-way vocabulary; my Millennial New Sincerity literary style icon, as I’ve said elsewhere, is not a novelist at all (unless I myself count) but rather Joanna Newsom.
Yet culture-vulturing around the stranger spaces of “online,” I recently noticed the brewing recrudescence of Alt Lit, signaled by a forthcoming work from Lin himself. His new constituency appears to be feral Zoomer youth reared on an exclusive media diet of Nick Land, anime, Internet porn, and conspiracy theories, a vanguard of vaguely anarcho-reactionary fashions now shocking but, given the pedigree of those busily adopting them, shortly to be mainstream.
Alt Lit notoriously imploded the first time around 2014 because of what the legacy media and the Democratic Party apparatus had not yet begun to exploit under the name of #MeToo before these institutions had to lock their sexual skeletons back in the closet to protect Bidens père et fils in and after an election year. I was on Tumblr at the time watching the Alt-Lit meltdown happen and thinking smugly to myself, “I’m glad I never read much of that shit!” But the fashion cycle launders everything, and here we are again.
I mention this unpleasantness only to introduce a provocative critical commentary on Alt Lit and New Sincerity as social styles, a critique voiced in that bastion of grad-student radicalism, The New Inquiry, by one of the young women who accused an Alt-Lit luminary (not Lin) of assaulting her, after which she contributed this analysis. Then, without retracting the substance of the original allegation, she recanted it, in the short-lived right-wing journal Jacobite, as a mere publicity exercise enabled by predatory feminism, and then she went on to be a mainstay of that shadowy, ambiguous, and increasingly trendy podcast network where the old alt-right meets the new post-left (e.g., Kantbot, Justin Murphy, The Perfume Nationalist, etc.), before apparently vanishing from the Internet. Anyway, in the middle of this dizzying but symptomatic ideological journey, our critic says,
The Alt Lit voice is fetishistic. Rape is arguably as much of an intention of that voice as the literary work itself. This is especially true when we consider that writers like Tao Lin included actual exchanges between themselves and minors in their published work. The Alt Lit voice is also a teenage imaginary: how these adult writers (many of whom were at a point of existential crisis in their lives age-wise and in turn developed a fetishistic nostalgia for youth) imagine, or wish for, the way a teenager would speak, think, and be. Alt Lit grooms because it is something on a surface level that youth could relate to, media that appears at first glance to be tailored for them. Alt Lit mimics a teenaged affect, establishes a more infantile or youthful voice to use as a vehicle for sometimes very violent or disturbing ideas, and presents these ideas alongside ones that are relatable to adolescents with total indifference.
A bit catastrophizing in the collegiate style—I’m old-fashioned and don’t think imaginary stories have the power here attributed to them—but the fetishizing of youth, the nostalgia for a licensed fecklessness that absolves one of all responsibility, catches something real, something I noticed when, with all these thoughts in my head, I finally picked up a Tao Lin book and read it all the way through, the criminally titled Shoplifting from American Apparel.
The novella, punctuated by two eponymous episodes of thievery and arrest, mostly follows a narrator we are invited to regard as an authorial stand-in through a series of mind-numbing conversations and sexual encounters at parties, at work, and in chat-boxes with characters who appear as little more than names on the page. This is anomie as adult playpen, with little speculation as to the cause; the text implicitly or explicitly floats coming of age online, economic inequality, and Asperger’s syndrome as etiologies for the protagonist’s lack of affect and ethics and his text’s lack of all but the starkest aesthetic. Now this 2009 book’s absence of phony pseudo-socialist self-flagellation is, from the other side of the past decade, refreshing; that the novella only takes flight when the privileged-but-broke protagonist slums it up with the underclass in jail is an irony the adult reader can handle without authorial handwringing. But more compelling even than that are the brief moments when our narrator lets us know that he knows what he’s doing: when he concedes that he exploits his experiences and relationships for his writing, when he tries to arrange his own online publicity by emailing tips about his adventures to Gawker, when he spends the final pages with his groupies. If this is a “grooming” style, it knows it. Knowing is necessary but not sufficient to literature, though, and this exsanguinated performance of the faux-ingenuous isn’t, in general, what I’d call literature.