Like Lin, protagonist Sam is a Taiwan-born novelist with a cult following living in New York City. He spends more time than most would consider healthy on his G-chat, and he gets nabbed stealing a shirt from US clothing store American Apparel. Though, like the offence, the event in the novella is minor. Even when it’s not, the dialogue reads like instant-message conversation, somehow both stilted and confessional.
All of which means not much actually happens, and not much insight is offered beyond a shared philosophy among Sam and his friends that ‘we are f*****.’ As a story, it’s not even remotely compelling – though Lin’s dialogue is often funny (when Sam is in jail, he tells a fellow captive that he’s from Taiwan, ‘that little island off China,’ and the man responds, ‘I know, I am geographically sound.’).
But arguing with the lack of narrative drive in Shoplifting would be like complaining about the lack of ballet in a Quentin Tarantino flick. Lin is doing his best to capture a mid-twenties malaise, a droning urban existence that – in the hands of a mildly depressed narrator – never peaks nor pitches enough to warrant drama.
In a way, it makes more sense to think of Tao Lin as a painter or performance artist; his work attempts to evoke through persistent, dull-edged provocation – exactly the type of work that polarises readers. But it’s even more fashionably annoying to dismiss it than it is to write it.