ok, just to fill people in. ‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’ is a novella written by Tao Lin and published by Melville House. Tao is giving shit away to people who write 1500+ word blog posts about him and/or his book (relevant link here). If you live in Australia you have to write 2000+ words to cover postage from North America. Peter has let me hijack his blog for this because I told him I wanted to “win shit on the internet where you need a blog and I don’t have a blog”.
What you are about to read is 2000+ words about Tao Lin/’Shoplifting from American Apparel’ that I will have to belt out pretty fast because there are only 26 winners worldwide and slots are going fast; I will probably mention hipsterrunoff.com, Brandon Scott Gorrell and Soren Kierkegaard as well, and possibly L. Wittgenstein – these last two I usually cringe at when I see them dropped them in non-academic print – I just want people to know that. I may also use first-order logical notation in which case natural language explanations will be provided. If this stuff doesn’t interest you, you can get out right now by clicking here; although I hope to make it interest you enough to possibly buy Tao’s book or at least google him: this does seem to be the purpose of the whole exercise after all.
Chances are that if you do buy and read SFAA you might find it boring. I guess this depends upon what else you read and how often, and also whether you have a particular front to keep up somewhere; but still not much really happens in this book (…although the main character Sam does get arrested twice and the first holding cell scene with the drunk man is very funny and I’ve read it aloud to four people, which I don’t ever do…). Not that ‘nothing happening’ and getting bored is necessarily bad, boredom is an aesthetic decision/response same as any other after all, and the process of getting bored while reading SFAA does allow you think smug little things like, ‘man, what a relief to be reading something that doesn’t want to wow me about life all the time’. And, ‘man, most people are always trying to be 100% interesting in their facebook/twitter updates when life, man, life just doesn’t work like that. Life, life is misguided Gchat conversations’, and other similar things. Plus embracing boredom is eternally hip/anti-mainstream in any decadent culture, so reading SFAA and cultivating your boredom will make you cool/hip, aware, and accepting of how ‘nothing ever happens’ and how twitter/facebook allows everyone to build 100% interesting narratives about themselves that are false compared to their real lives, which are probably boring.
So anyway, say you did read SFAA and it was mostly boring but still insightful and helped you grow your boredom and was possibly even ‘a mirror’, what are you going to do next? This is an important question in general, and particularly important, I think, to Tao Lin and SFAA.
I’m going to start with the “in general”. Caveat lector.
I think it is safe to say that boredom is quite possibly the most authentic state of existence for people living in developed nations. As far as I can figure out The Greeks didn’t get bored, they didn’t have twitter/facebook/Gchat + hi-tech gadgets but they still found things interesting, in particular they found existing interesting. Imagine being an ancient Greek, waking up, looking at shit and going what makes this work? what is motion? what is change? Really deep things. Imagine, lying down at night, looking at the stars with minimal-to-no light pollution and thinking “well, this is a mindfuck. what are those things up there? how do they move? is there an underlying pattern – like, overall? where do I fit in this ‘cosmos’ everyone is talking about…….” There are subtle inconsistencies in this image, but you get the picture.
After the Greeks and before the invention of the internet there was enlightenment science. Enlightment science answered heaps of shit The Greeks had begun asking themselves however many years before – well, it at least re-framed them. The cosmos was no longer layered top to bottom like the original Donkey Kong with man merely on the earth, and was instead found to be massively 3D, like Mario 64, and man, sorry, ‘Man’, like Mario, was the centre of the universe/cosmos/order of things. You think the stars were a mindfuck to The Greeks, well try self-consciousness to enlightment/post-elightement thinkers, OMFG, imagine sitting at your mahogany desk, popping/unscrewing an ink bottle, picking the crust from yesterday’s quill and sitting down to descibe the dialetic of your insides – the universe within. Imagine self-reflexivity/self-consciousness still being new, still being interesting. Imagine having to know Latin and wait for months/years to receive replies to your ideas from friends across Europe. Imagine having the inkling that the whole of existence was made up of atomistic ‘monads’ and not being able to wikipedia it. OMFG. You’d just have to go with it.
Today existing/existence is fairly passe. Everyone does it. There is nothing special about it anymore. You can split existing between yourself and people like you, and people who Heidegger would have called Das Man, “The They”; people who construct 100% interesting life-stories about themselves via social networking tools/the internet: but then you’re just being smug…
Existing is the level playing field. There are no underlying patterns (…speaking of SFAA there is a very funny chaos theory/polyryhthmns passage which I don’t read to others and just enjoy for myself…), there are no actually existing Gods to fall back on, and if you ‘get self-conscious’ unexpectedly you can always whip out your phone and pretend to text someone. All there is is ‘nothing ever happens’ and ‘immense meaninglessness in the scheme of things’. Let this get to you in any way and everything gets boring, find a book like SFAA and you suddenly get bored + aware = hip/counter-cultural, and on-to-something abt life. And then you have have to do something else…
This now + future = choice, is what I think is particularly important to Tao Lin and his work, and is maybe the main reason why you should google him/buy his stuff. When the general tenor of life is boredom and you know this, how you construct meaning from experience becomes very important. And it is an all the time thing.
Need I mention SFAA is about stealing from a multi-national corporation?
‘Shoplifting from American Apparel’ is a carefully constructed piece; you get that feeling first time through and it becomes even more apparent if you read it twice while keeping the themes from the first reading in mind (which it is possible to do in one day, depending on the day). Everything inside SFAA is meaningful, in and of itself; it is tight. Tao’s main character Sam operates upon life like a mathematical function, selecting, from an infinite range of possible ‘life events’ over roughly two years, a set of happenings big (relatively (‘two parts shoplifting arrest’) and small (relatively (‘five parts vague relationship issues’)), and invests in this set of happenings within the book a carefully constructed meaning, meaning against an otherwise meaningless and arbitary world.
‘To transcend’ is a loaded concept for almost anyone who cares to use it, but particularly I think for American fiction writers. But say you’ve read through SFAA once and got bored/aware, should you read it again you might see that what it really hits at is transcending boredom, whether it is possible and how to do it…
On the possibilities of transcending boredom however, Tao is mute. This is something I really like about the novella and it is where I think it derives its delicate narrative tension from, more than anything which ostensibily happens within the piece. I think that for all the kudos Tao Lin’s ‘minimalist Millennial realism’ has received on the internet (and he generates a lot of talk on the internet, this itself being a prime example…) the fact that he doesn’t ever claim or seem to have transcended boredom is why his writing strikes such a cord. This is also what separates his writing from other similar types of writing that could be accused of wallowing in depression. I never throughout the two times I read SFAA got the feeling Tao or Sam was smugly enjoying feeling depressed, if anything I felt that each event within the novel is couched in terms of its possibilities to relive depression/boredom, and is assessed according to a set of rules which it is the reader’s job to find out.
Which brings me nicely to the another aspect of SFAA which I also like; it’s porousness. That SFAA is both tight and porous is singularly impressive and evidence of the kind of weird intense labour which must have gone into producing it. There are, within SFAA elements which it would be possible to describe as plot holes. Some of these, as I’ve mentioned before, it is possible to weave into an internally coherent narrative within the text itself the second time through, others it isn’t, and no amount of reading the book will give you any insight into what is going on (Sam emails a popular website a photo of cash, for seemingly no reason…), instead, if you want to know what is happening, which lets face it, being knowledgable about fine points of detail is a central desire of many/most people including myself; whether their/my particular knowledge is ‘meaningful in the scheme of things’ and ‘actually useful’, or not – then you are going to have to do a little googling to find clues as to how/why some of the seemingly loose aspects of SFAA actually fit within the unique set of rules within which Tao’s character of Sam plays the game of existence.
Tao Lin seems to know this; read many of the other entries to this competition and you’ll see they mostly paraphrase a lot of the stuff/information you can easily find out about him on the internet and often use language obviosuly cribbed from hipsterrunoff.com, Tao himself, and other similar writers. It’s ridiculous if you actually think about, it is as if Tao Lin has sensed the enjoyment of faithful and discerning research into the whys and hows of his work/net persona, and then got a number of people to collate a lot of the available information in one spot. I think it’s safe to say Tao Lin actually does get this ‘high-concept’ when planning things, especially promotion/self-promotion.
I would like to point out that operations of faithful and discerning research into the life and works of authors is a general concept which also applies to current and historical events, and to people you actually meet in real life – it is not some Tao Lin specific thing. What just might be Tao Lin specific about it, at least in my opinion, is that he is publishing in independent print in an age of omipresent communications technology, and he manages to do so with a moral urgency capable of seducing readers into doing a little work to find out just what this guy is on about. I like that.
This said, you could argue that buying and reading something like SFAA takes on an ethical dimension, which is really what all good/meaningful literature does….
That said, whether I can generalise the above statement in relation to SFAA in particular is debateable, at least in my head; mainly because I don’t want to be too fawning, but also because I don’t really have the word count left to argue it out acutely. I might just leave off on this point.
‘how i will relieve boredom’ by Tao Lin (if anyone is hanging for Kierkegaard & Wittgenstein stuff I promised at the beginning you should be able to find it in here. If you know where to look…)
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