17 November 2009

Feeling calm

Shoplifting from American Apparel
by Tao Lin (Melville House)

Writing that looks artless is a difficult trick to pull off. This trancelike and often hilarious novella by a cultish young New York writer is all about that trick, and the unusual pleasures it smuggles in just below its seemingly flat surface. The tone of apparently apathetic hipsterism is set early on:

“You know those people that get up every day, and do things,” said Luis.
“I’m going to eat cereal even though I’m not hungry,” said Sam.
“And are real proactive,” said Luis. “And like are getting things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck.”

The conversation is reported with the usual novelistic markers of dialogue (speech marks, “said Luis”, “said Sam”), and yet Luis and Sam are not in the same room; they are not even talking, but conversing on “Gmail chat”. A common literary approach is to transcribe such exchanges in a sans-serif font; in writing them instead as traditional conversations, Lin is arguing that, for his characters, this constitutes talking to someone just as much as standing in front of them and speaking aloud.

Later, indeed, the writerly fetish for speech comes under attack, and an apparently important conversation is killed: “Jeffrey [...] said a long sentence Sam responded to by making noises and nodding.” As mine and perhaps yours sometimes does, Sam’s attention here involuntarily passes from words to gestures and sound. At other times Sam’s focus switches suddenly to the purely visual: he “looks” or “stares” at things without thinking about them, and without the text forcing an interpretation upon us. Standard literary signals of affect are conspicuous by their absence. If we are curious to know how Sam is feeling, we will have to wait until he employs his strangely robotic habit of announcing them: “I feel good,” he might say, or “I feel calm”; or, at a particularly ecstatic moment, “I feel really good.”

So proceeds the meandering tale of a young New York writer who stays in bed until the afternoon, chats or watches “child prodigies on YouTube” with friends, eats organic vegan salads, enjoys temporary couplings with various women, and is an amusingly incompetent shoplifter. After the titular crime, he spends some time in a police holding cell, where a drunk man gets a long speech: “I have so much respect for the armed forces. I respect you. You are the NYPD. That is awesome. With all due respect fuck you.”

Not everyone, I have to admit, will find the book funny, since much of its comedy depends on more or less generation-specific cultural markers. Perhaps a good test of whether you will smile while reading is the following exchange: “[T]ry to make yourself happy in some way,” says Luis. Sam responds: “Okay, I’ll buy a new emo CD.”

In some ways Lin’s writing is reminiscent of early Douglas Coupland, or early Bret Easton Ellis, but there is also something going on here that is more profoundly peculiar, even Beckettian. The text is woven around large chronological and informational lacunae, which issue near the end in one revelation about a character’s travails that is the more troubling for Lin’s principled refusal to let it disturb the text’s placid veneer. And then comes this, the climax of the book’s ironically skewed phenomenology:

There was a thing on the table and Sam touched it.
“What is this,” he said.
They touched the thing and looked at it.

The reader never finds out what the “thing” is, which is thoroughly apt. By the end of this deliciously odd novella, Lin has achieved a fascinatingly consistent performance of the author as Bartleby, the famous scrivener in Melville’s short story whose response to everything is an anti-existentially heroic “I would prefer not to”. The text is conscientiously scoured of narrative “purpose”, “characterization”, and anything else that would smack of unthinkingly novelistic bullshit. What is left is an attitude, a mood, a comically despairing abandoning of literary ego. Of course, even the anti-egoist writer still wants you to read his book: that, perhaps, is the cutest joke of all.