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On Tao Lin’s “Shoplifting from American Apparel”

24 Jun
My "Art of the Novella" collection continues to grow with this edition of Tao Lin's Shoplifting from American Apparel.

My “Art of the Novella” collection continues to grow with this edition of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel.

Purely by accident, I read two novels this week starring completely apathetic, self-pitying protagonists. One was Hemingway writing himself into a torrid affair set in Pamplona, and the other was contemporary author Tao Lin writing himself into Shoplifting from American Apparel, an installation in Melville House Publishing’s “The Contemporary Art of the Novella.” Lin’s protagonist Sam navigates the hipster scene of New York City, various halfhearted affairs, and his own kleptomania in this autobiographical story.

Sam, a young man in his twenties of a nondescript profession is leading a nondescript life. The very nondescriptness of his life sets the tone of Lin’s novella to a droning, tongue-in-cheek pitch–a perfect vessel for Lin’s story about a self-pitying protagonist who’s greatest trouble is creating meaningful relationships. The trouble starts with an instant message conversation between Sam and Luis, a friend Sam knows only through a digital connection. Sam’s other relationships include several pseudo-girlfriends and the acquaintances he makes spending the night in jail for shoplifting.

I imagined Sam to be the brooding type, like Jon Snow. Only Jon Snow actually had things to brood about.

Lin’s protagonist Sam is totally the self-pitying, the brooding type, like Jon Snow. (Only Jon Snow actually had things to brood about, and Sam just feels the loneliness of the postmodern Information Age.)

SfAA is a postmodern novella of a postmodern man, written in a postmodern style. Contemporary readers, myself included, really love our labels. And it’s not just readers. As a society, we love to categorize the hipsters things and the retro things. We love to say things like, “That’s so post-postmodern.” Lin capitalizes on this bizarre level of self-awareness, and seems to jab at Sam/himself through the character’s juvenile personality. Sam spends a lot of time (I mean, it’s a novella for Christ’s sake, so we’re already low on real estate) complaining with Luis about how “f@#cked” they are.

The short form is perfect for Sam’s story. For one, no one wants to spend that much time reading about Sam’s idea of an extreme sport: full contact apathy. Secondly, Lin gives us a narrative made up of snapshots. It’s a montage of curated moments that feels a lot like two-minute football highlight video on YouTube. The distant third-person perspective furthers Sam’s ostracization from the reader. In the same way he struggles making deep connections with his friends and lovers, Sam remains unknowable to the voyeur-reader. All we know is that he’s kind of a prick. It’s Lin’s skillful portrayal of a dislikable character that I appreciate, and I enjoyed this novella in the same way (though, not to the same level, maybe) that I enjoy reading Nick Carraway or Rabbit Angstrom. These are protagonists who feel pride in their lostness, in their f@#ckedness, in tension with their self-hatred.

It turns out Tao Lin is really bad at shoplifting, and so is Sam, Lin's novella doppelganger. But I totally get it. I wouldn't want to pay $90 for a knit, plain heather gray sweatshirt either.

It turns out Tao Lin is really bad at shoplifting, and so is Sam, Lin’s novella doppelganger. But I totally get it. I wouldn’t want to pay $90 for a knit, plain heather gray sweatshirt either.

Read it if … you have a brief moment to contemplate narrative form and the meaning of human relationships. This book may barely hit the 100-page mark, and it will feel like a light read if you let it. Lin’s hyper self-awareness is evident throughout the novella, though, as well as his intelligence.

Don’t read it if … hipsters make you angry, because a hipsters writing about the flaws of hipsters is going to lose its subtle messaging with you. SfAA could also just rub your the wrong way because you read it at the wrong time. I happened to read it at the right time, since Hemingway apparently put me in the mood for the whole asshole-protagonist thing.

This book is like … Ed Park’s Personal Days, which tells the story of a group of coworkers trapped in the cold, impersonal, bizarre world of a digitally based workplace. A third of the novel is written in the format of long, meandering email threads. Park’s characters are decidedly goofier, but it’s a quick read and points to the limitations and nuances of language in a digital medium.

From what it sounds like, and from the Google results of his pictures, Tao Lin is kind of a kooky guy. I'd love to hang out with him one day and have random adventures in NYC. As long as the night doesn't end in prison for shoplifting stuff.

From what it sounds like, Tao Lin is the kind of kooky guy who I would love to hang out with. As long as the night doesn’t end in prison for boosting stuff from overpriced clothing stores.

Tell me in the comments below: Who love-hates their generation more, a writer from the Lost Generation or a writer from the contemporary hipster generation?

 

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On Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

18 Sep
Grab one of the collectible editions from Melville House Publishing.

Grab the collectible edition from Melville House Books.

Somehow, through my rather erratic journey as a reader, I never read any Leo Tolstoy. Well, I met that requirement now, and I’m very proud of myself. Granted, I chose to read his shortest novel, but The Death of Ivan Ilych is so iconic that I still feel pretty good about myself. My other experience with Russian literature has been limited to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Mikhail Bulgakov’s lesser known novel A Dead Man’s Memoir. Dostoyevsky was one of my favorite authors during my college years when angsty spiritual crises were a hobby of mine, and I had forgotten how tedious Russian introspection can be. And I mean “tedious” in the fondest way possible.

The Death of Ivan Ilych tells the tragic tale of a high court judge’s terminal illness and his deathbed regrets, namely his painful marriage to Praskovya Fedorovna. Sound like fun yet? Surprisingly enough, I laughed quite a bit during the beginning of the book, reading about Ivan Ilych’s colleagues and acquaintances navigating the comical labyrinth of 19th Century Russian propriety at his funeral, but after finishing the book, I don’t think Tolstoy wanted me to laugh. TDoII really is as depressing as it sounds. Still, I can imagine a black comedy adaptation of this novel starring Paul Giamatti being his neurotic self and Helena Bonham Carter being absolutely insane and emotionally unstable. You would watch that, right?

Wouldn't they make a great pair? The poster couple for neuroses.

Wouldn’t they make a great pair? The poster couple for neuroses.

We read about Ivan Ilych’s life, from his youth and early courtship of Praskovya Fedorovna, to the doldrums of middle age when he faced a slump in his career and family life. When things finally start to look up for Ivan Ilych, a minor accident plummets our stoic protagonist into a world of physical and spiritual suffering. Ivan Ilych’s dozens of doctors come to a dozen different diagnoses with a dozen different remedies, none of which work. He begins to believe his illness is in his mind, in his evil, evil non-Russian heart.

Leo Tolstoy had the Russianist of hearts, and that's why he lived to the ripe old age of 82 and was always happy and loved his wife very much.

Leo Tolstoy had the Russianist of hearts, and that’s why he lived to the ripe old age of 82 and was always happy and loved his wife very much.

Ivan Ilych’s only relief is in the company of his opposite, Gerasim: the fresh-faced, impeccably Russian, chubby manservant who gives off “a pleasant scent of fresh winter air.” Gerasim is everything Ivan Ilych isn’t. He’s cheery where Ivan is dour, plump where Ivan is sickly, Russian where Ivan takes on Western practices, and natural where Ivan is farcically materialistic. It’s through Gerasim that we start to learn everything that’s wrong with Ivan Ilych, everything that ails him and that ultimately causes his death. Here we are at the pinnacle of Russian existential angst: Ivan Ilych is so materialistic and non-Russian that he dies. Doesn’t get much more serious than that, so thanks, Tolstoy for giving everyone a Russian/non-Russian complex.

Tolstoy’s treatment of Ivan Ilych’s suffering reminds me of Adre Gide’s The Immoralist. Disease, long illnesses, and suffering are difficult subjects to write in literature, and these days readers don’t really appreciate the hyper-symbolic, overly existential route of the 19th Century Russians. If you’re looking for fiction with more contemporary approaches to illness, try J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, or Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

Ivan Ilych spent the last three days of his life screaming in the pain of existential crisis. Don't you want to read this book now?

Ivan Ilych spent the last three days of his life screaming in the pain of existential crisis. Don’t you want to read this book now?

On George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil”

3 Sep
Do yourself a favor and start collecting these things. George Eliot's The Lifted Veil is a good place to start.

Do yourself a favor and start collecting these things. George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil is a good place to start.

In the midst of my recent Sci-Fi/fantasy/mystery forays, I’m making a brief return to my original love: good ol’ symbol-ridden, moralistic Victorian realism, and who better to do that with than George Eliot? The Lifted Veil is one of the many lovely editions of the Melville House Publishing series the Art of the Novella. Now, I already have an addictive personality, but Melville House made obsessive book-collecting even easier. I own eight out of 43, and MHP isn’t showing any signs of slowing publishing. Eliot’s novella was added to the series in 2007, and it pulls me even farther into my love for the Art of the Novella.

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans, but then she was like, “Nah, ‘Mary Ann’ isn’t bad-ass enough. I’ma go with ‘George.'” Using a pen name, Eliot published numerous novels, essays, poems, and short stories. She was well-respected in literary and academic circles and made it her goal to write in as many genres as possible. The Lifted Veil was published in 1859, the same year as her debut Adam Bede and right before her identity as a woman was made public.

She's a fabulous writer, but she definitely looks like a George. Like a nice George that I would want to be friends with, smoke a cigar with, go camping with.

She’s a fabulous writer, but she definitely looks like a George. Like a nice George that I would want to be friends with, smoke a cigar with, go camping with.

In the novella, her protagonist and narrator is a young man named Latimer–a dreamer and would-be poet of “half-womanish, half-ghostly beauty.” He’s the slightly sympathetic second son of an English banker who discovers in himself a rare gift. What he mistakes as a poetic disposition turns out to be a profound ability of clairvoyance. And what he mistakes to be a gift is the most terrible curse. With his other-worldly powers, Latimer envisions his own death. He perceives the hatred from his father and the dismissal from his older brother. What do you think he finds behind the veil of class and coquetry put up by his seemingly perfect, blushing bride? Or the veil of Victorian tradition? Or the veil of Eliot’s nom de plume?

This is Eliot’s one and only work involving the supernatural and written from the first-person perspective. The Lifted Veil isn’t a horror by any means, but there are moments of eeriness as Latimer explores his new gift. You will love climbing through Latimer’s twisted, psychic mind. I warn you, though, this (like most of Eliot’s works) doesn’t end with puppy dogs and roses, but that doesn’t stop me from telling you to read it. After all, as Latimer says, “While the heart beats, bruise it.”