Notes on Shoplifting from American Apparel

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In a new series, Notes on Writing, Matador editors examine different books and writing styles. We begin with Shoplifting From American Apparel, a new novella from novelist and poet Tao Lin.

Synopsis: Shoplifting from American Apparel is a short (103-page) novella about Sam, a young writer living in Brooklyn.

Sam is in ambiguous relationships with various girls. He travels to different places where he gives readings, goes to parties, and sees bands. He shoplifts twice and goes to jail each time.

No matter what the situation is–chatting people on the computer, being with different girls, working at a restaurant, or shoplifting, Sam always seems to treat everything the same–neither fully detached or fully connected, but perpetually confused and yet somehow hopeful.

Some of Tao’s former roommates wrote about how the events in SFAA were mostly true.


1.The story moves forward in a linear way with little details throughout to remind you how time is passing:

Sam woke around 5:30 p.m. and saw no emails from Shelia. He made a smoothie. He lay on this bed and stared at his computer screen. He showered and put on clothes and opened the Microsoft Word file of his poetry. He looked at his email. About an hour later it was dark outside.

2. There are many places where the story simply skips forward random lengths of time–a week, a few weeks, a few months:

About 4 months later Sam was living with Shelia in a suburban area of Pennsylvania.

3. The continual reminders of time and the abrupt transitions seemed arbitrary when I first started reading. Affectations. But at the same time they also built up tension. They had the effect, especially after reading for a second time, of making me feel empathy for the characters.

4. At certain points the narrator observes people both in real-life (within the linear time of the narrative) as well as reflecting on his connection to them via their online presence. It seemed to further the temporal sense of each character’s own individual existence.

Paula put kimchee and vegan mayonnaise on her bread. Sam had read about her doing that on her blog.

5. In an interview with Raymond Carver, the interviewer referred to Carver’s style as “minimalism.” Carver said, (and I’m paraphrasing / reconstructing from memory) that he didn’t think of it as “minimalism,” but that he simply kept taking out things that weren’t necessary and stopped just before it was “no longer readable.”

The narrator in SFAA pushes this concept until nearly everything has been taken out everything except characters’ rawest physical descriptions.

At the police station Sam was put into a cell with a bald Caucasian, a skinny Hispanic, and a tall Asian.

Although many people might be afraid to admit it, this way of quickly indexing / categorizing people based on age and general physical traits seems to typify the way our minds work in everyday life, especially in an urban environment where you pass by hundreds or thousands of people each day without any real interaction.

A woman in her forties, two teenagers, and a person in a bright red shirt who was maybe 20 turned their upper bodies and looked at Audrey while walking forward.

I think it’s a survival instinct to observe the world in this way. Our caveman brain. Aren’t we programmed to scan landscapes and people, quickly ascertaining whether or not they’re a threat, then act or react based on those perceptions?

6. Similarly, the narrator notes only the most surface details, using almost no adjectives to describe them: “a concrete bench,” “a normal amount of stars.” The one exception: he always recognizes specific brands, names of bands, celebrities, or internet applications.

Kaitlyn had a “Synergy” brand kombucha in her jacket pocket.

As with the way the narrator perceives people throughout the narrative, essentially ‘scanning’ them, this ‘brand-recognition’ also seems like an honest way to both render and subvert commonly shared frames of reference–pop culture, advertising, and the internet.

7. The language in SFAA, especially the dialogue, is exactly how people talk:

“When you DJ,” said Sam. “Do you use, like, polyrhythms?”

“Um, sometimes,” said Brandon in a quiet voice.

8. I noticed one prose ‘trick’ I’ve never seen before, or at least not in this exact form. The narrator gives the character Hester a line of dialogue which refers back to an earlier conversation that you never actually hear.

Sam questioned Hester existentially while lying nearly facedown covered completely by the blanket. It was quiet and then Hester got off the bed.

“I’m going to sleep,” she said. “So I can get up tomorrow and live my ‘goalless’ life.”

This trick has the effect of making you feel like you’re inside the conversation somehow.

9. If this book were going to be made into a movie, a good choice for a song playing during the trailer would be “Walkabout” by Atlas Sound / Panda Bear (Check track on right).

The trailer might show a couple different kids typing on computers in two different locations with a split-screen effect. Then it would divide into 4, then 8, then 16, then 32, each window a little scene of someone on his/her computer, at some point getting up to do something else in their day, maybe all going to Sam’s reading that night.

10. One of the windows in the trailer would show Sam trying to steal some headphones, then looking nervous but then laughing as he got caught.

There would be a close up of the Sam’s ice coffee getting thrown away by the security guard, then a cut to Sam in jail lying on his hoodie on the floor. I don’t know who the actor would be; it would have to be someone who could lie on the jail floor somehow looking beleaguered and imperturbable at the same time.

Community Connection

Tao Lin is currently on a reading tour in support of SFAA. Please check his blog here for more details.

Please submit your notes on writing to david[at] for consideration.

Watch the video: Thieves use aluminum foil to shoplift

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