07.03.11

Great Weekend Reads

This weekend: a fascinating exploration of shoplifting through the ages, Jesse Ball’s strange fictional worlds, and playful stories about work.

Why We Steal?

The Steal by Rachel Shteir
The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. By Rachel Shteir. Penguin. 256 pp. $25.95. ()

When Winona Ryder was nabbed outside the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue with some $5,500 in stolen designer goods, the plotline felt at once inconceivable and familiar. Here was yet another celebrity wrecking a prosperous career by stealing things she was perfectly able to pay for. In 1966, Hedy Lamarr had launched the tradition of the celebrity shoplifter by swiping a $40 suit and several other items from a Los Angeles department store. The media tracked both scandals with gleeful interest. Life magazine ran a photo of Lamarr with a swarm of reporters, looking beleaguered and delicate in white gloves and a pillbox hat. And in 2002, The New York Times reported that Ryder wore “a black Marc Jacobs dress with peach-and-white collar trim” in court, her “long, swanlike neck seeming to anticipate the ax.”

This is shoplifting at its most mediagenic: disgraced ingénues in tasteful pastels, facing the firing squad. And publicity like this is partly why shoplifting occupies such a prominent place in the cultural imagination, lodged between our dual obsessions with extravagance and thriftiness, between the criminal and the merely taboo. Though the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention estimates the number of American shoplifters at 27 million, the word “shoplift” still tends to conjure images of Ryder on that infamous surveillance tape, saddled with merchandise, staggering out of Saks without so much as a furtive backward glance.

In The Steal, Rachel Shteir sets out to write about shoplifting without reducing it to a “‘he did it’ tabloid headline”—to rescue the subject from the gossipy cloud that surrounds it. “One of this book’s projects is to bust myths and preconceived ideas about who is shoplifting now and why it is done,” Shteir writes. Shoplifting costs businesses 11.6 billion dollars annually, and every family in the U.S. pays a yearly “crime tax” of $450 due to price hikes related to theft. The crime has seen various iterations in American culture: as an adrenaline rush for the wealthy, as an act of real need, as a disease, as a form of a political protest.

The Steal is the first book to take on the task of chronicling the history of shoplifting for a mainstream readership, and it is a valuable undertaking. Shteir’s research is encyclopedic; she wades through literature, philosophy, art, and legal scholarship to present a wide-ranging biography of shoplifting that begins roughly in sixteenth-century London, when urbanization and consumerism transformed the city into a European mercantile hub and anyone who stole goods worth more than five shillings could be hanged. Shoplifting gained notoriety as a political symbol in the early ’70s, when Abbie Hoffman published Steal this Book, a counterculture handbook that touted shoplifting as a revolutionary act.

The Steal is part anthropology, part historical survey, part safari into subcultures such as the surveillance industry and the dark world of theft addiction. Shteir tackles this last bit, her on-the-ground reporting—chatting with police officers about fighting crime at the Woodbury Common outlets, peering at surveillance screens with security guards in the back room of Target, sitting in on kleptomania support groups—with the most visible enthusiasm. She is both clinical observer and giddy participant in the game of trying to catch a thief.

Shteir harps extensively on the shame associated with shoplifting: the unwillingness of shoplifters to discuss their crimes, as well as retailers’ reluctance to disclose just how much shoplifting damages profits. One judge decreed that it was punishment enough for convicted shoplifters to spend several days in front of Wal-Mart wearing a large sign announcing that they had stolen from the store. It is striking that the shame of shoplifting is still so great, Shteir says, in an age when so many species of entertainment are openly devoted to broadcasting our private lives. But unlike alcoholism or sex addiction, kleptomania does not seem quite carnal enough to be easily justifiable as an impulse—it demands too much organization and intent.

Shteir’s survey of the paranoid world of “loss prevention” is eye-opening and unnerving. For instance, salespeople who actively greet customers as they enter the store are often employing an anti-shoplifting tactic called “aggressive hospitality.” Before electronic sensors were invented in the mid-1960s, catching shoplifters was a formidable task. Some stores hired detectives to stand in hollowed-out pillars paneled in one-way mirrors and look for thieves. One supermarket positioned mannequins above the meat section so that  the detectives could peer through the eye holes and catch customers pocketing beef. Equally disquieting are Shteir’s reports on the ingenuity of professional thieves, or boosters. At Woodbury Common, Shteir sees a “booster bag,” a purse or shopping bag designed for stealing, that had been seized by guards. It has tinfoil lining to prevent sensors from detecting stolen goods, and a decoy Christmas present is suspended by a wire attached to the handles. A trapdoor leading to a false bottom allows a shoplifter to suck piles of clothes up into the bag simply by placing it on top of merchandise.

The sections in which Shteir profiles chronic thieves and visits Shoplifters Anonymous meetings—though she doesn’t use real names for her characters—have the overheated, confessional feel of a daytime talk show: “If Clinton can be excused from the whole Monica L. episode because he had sex addiction,” one addict says, “I need to be able to voice how strong of a hold this compulsion has over me, how frightening, how powerful, how life destroying, how crippling, how uncontrollable I feel it is.” “I started with drugs, but it turned out that taking stuff was more of an adrenaline rush than drugs,” says another. Though it is always fascinating to see personal demons dredged up and skeletons yanked from the closet, this sad chorus of testimonials doesn’t build to any larger point or to any substantive claim about kleptomania; Shteir generally seems to favor the accumulation of colorful characters over analysis.

The bookjacket calls The Steal “a tour of all things shoplifting,” and this is about right. It is an exhaustive romp, but the result feels a bit miscellaneous. Shteir’s thinnest chapter is the conclusion, in which we wait for her to tell us what all this impressive research amounts to but instead get a string of trite observations that are not worthy of the original work that precedes them. “There is no single reason for shoplifting’s rise,” she says. “In our world, where greed and consumerism are encouraged, where social and economic inequality are swelling, and where rogues like Robin Hood are admired, the crime will continue to grow.” After so many jaunts through other eras, Shteir could have sharpened her characterization of the cultural significance of shoplifting today. “The shame and burden of being exposed as a shoplifter,” she writes in an earlier chapter, “cannot be erased.” Celebrities who steal may be overhyped, but at least the Ryder affair—with that damning surveillance tape posted on YouTube—feels somewhat symbolic of the modern shoplifter’s particular plight.

—Laura Bennett, Assistant Literary Editor, The New Republic

Jesse Ball’s War Against Conventional Fiction

The Curfew by Jesse Ball
The Curfew. By Jesse Ball. 208 pages. Vintage. $15. ()

Like mercury Jesse Ball’s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, shimmer and appear strangely alive, but his stories have a tendency to jolt or dash in unexpected directions, leaving the reader adrift. They also engage in so many clever tricks—fractured narratives, dreamlike flashbacks, puzzles, surreal folk tales, doppelgangers, odd symbols—that interpretations are fungible. That is, his books can be “about” almost whatever you decide they are.

In Samedi the Deafness, a hapless young man named James becomes wrapped up in a conspiracy. Eventually, he ends up in a “verisylum,” a place for chronic liars, which is also the conspirators’ headquarters. James pursues a love affair with one of the conspirator’s daughters and tries to stop the scheme, but he is thrown off track by his own timidity, the verisylum’s labyrinthine design, and the fact that many of the place’s occupants either look alike or share the same name. The result is a frustrating, intermittently enchanting book that can be summarized with a line from The Way Through Doors: “One felt very clearly a comprehending intelligence strung through the air, setting each new moment into motion.” There’s a sense of an ulterior purpose here, but what begins as something excitingly heady slides into vertigo.

Ball’s next book of fiction (he is also a published poet and visual artist), The Way Through Doors, represents a more focused expression of his talents. Selah Morse, the novel’s hero, witnesses a woman get hit by a car. She’s diagnosed with severe amnesia and has no identification, so Morse creates an identity for her, calling her Mora Klein. He assumes custody of the woman but must tell her stories to keep her awake.

As Selah talks to Mora, the two embark on a kind of intertextual journey. In each of Selah’s stories, when a piece of text (pamphlet, letter, book, etc.) or film appears, it often serves as a wormhole, transporting Selah and Mora, or a version of them, into a story within the story, or sometimes back into the world of a previous story. It’s a difficult conceit to summarize, but Ball handles it skillfully. He also establishes recurrent elements—a drawing, underground chambers, Coney Island, a mind reader—that serve as narrative touchstones, habitually nodding to the reader. Reading as a hybrid of Italo Calvino and Flann O’Brien, the book is a fine exercise in the varieties of storytelling, and though it lacks an overarching plot, it feels like a more coherent work than Samedi, while sacrificing none of the author’s iconoclasm.

In The Curfew, Ball’s latest novel, a civil war has turned the country into a police state. The protagonist, William, loses his wife, Louisa, the daughter of a prominent politician, to the secret police, who go about in plainclothes so as to avoid being attacked by insurgents. A master violinist, William must give up his profession, as music has apparently been outlawed. In one of Ball’s typically charming touches, he has made William an “epitaphorist”—someone who goes around to bereaved families and helps them design tombstones. William’s job allows him, much like a detective, to gain entry to all sorts of social environments, from which we glean information about the society’s slide towards autocracy.

William keeps his head down and tries to live quietly with his daughter, Molly: “He tried to, through a series of habits, insulate and barricade the life that he and Molly lived, so that it could not be invaded or altered.” This sort of willful blindness, combined with reports of secret policeman killing citizens in the streets (and quickly removing the bodies, ostensibly restoring the social order), generates an atmosphere of diffuse menace, akin to that of Fahrenheit 451.

The Curfew exhibits signs of its author’s growth, with Ball finding subtler, more engaging ways to flex his ample gifts. The Curfew is not a full-scale demolition of the traditional novel. Rather, it utilizes Ball’s distinctive use of language and his sense of play to create a suburban dystopia that is frightening in its strangeness—one government pronouncement reads “GOOD CITIZENS PASS THEIR NIGHTS ABED.” Like in previous books, much is left to supposition (for example, no one knows when the curfew starts, only that it exists), but Ball provides enough detail to create a more navigable world.

The novel’s second half signifies its most radical departure from convention. Forsaking his safely hermetic life, William leaves Molly with neighbors to meet with a rebel group. The neighbors, an elderly couple, help Molly, who is mute, to stage an elaborate puppetry show. The show describes the early life of William and Louisa, providing some welcome exposition, and builds to the present, culminating with the puppet-William trying to sneak home, in defiance of curfew, just as the real William attempts to do the same. Here Ball brings in several of his idée fixes—doubles, folk art, games—and weaves a story both thrilling and satisfyingly original.

All three of Ball’s novels clock in at around 200 pages, often with large margins, and The Curfew, despite its remarkable last stretch, can feel a little thin, with more story to tell. One wonders what Ball, in full stride, could do with a bigger canvas. But The Curfew is reason to take heart: for all the talk about the staleness of the contemporary American novel, here is a young writer unafraid to muddy the waters with a willful experimentalism, and he continues to get better.

Jacob Silverman, Contributor

“Playful Stories About the World of Work”

Orientation by Daniel Orozco
Orientation: And Other Stories. By Daniel Orozco. 176 pages. Faber & Faber. $23. ()

In “Shakers,” the story that closes Daniel Orozco’s collection “Orientation,” a telephone lineman is testing relay equipment in a basket thirty feet above ground when an earthquake hits. Elated—he’s lived his whole life in California without experiencing the unnerving sensation of solid earth rolling beneath his feet—the lineman does a celebratory hula in the basket of his cherry picker. The vibration created by hips exactly matches the frequency of the S-waves buckling the ground below, magnifying the vibration, snapping the arm of the hydraulic lift, sending the lineman to his death on the asphalt below.

The sequence of events is tragic, morbidly funny, and exquisitely described—as are most of the stories in this collection. And, like the lineman, whose humanness clashes with the mechanics of his profession to tragic effect, these stories concern people who for one reason or another are imperfectly-fitted cogs in the machine of work. The title story walks a temp through a first day at the office, blandly introducing characters that range from benign to homicidal. A similar stylistic inventiveness and mounting sense of the surreal pervades Officers Weep, told entirely through police log entries as two officers’ patrol becomes increasingly emotionally charged, and potentially deadly. In both stories, the detached, observational voice calmly belies the impossibility of ever keeping a job ‘strictly business.’

The centerpiece of the collection is the 30-page story “Samoza’s Dream”, which details the final hours of the deposed dictator of an unnamed South American country living in exile in Paraguay. With breathtaking scope, Orozco gets inside the head of the dictator, his staff, his mistress, the Marxists plotting the dictator’s death, and even, in a highly implausible yet somehow credible guest appearance, Josef Mengele. Here, the casual depravity of the main character is undercut by the vibrancy of the language: the needle on a bathroom scale “flutters shyly.” Body heat “purls off” a sleeping woman. An insect is squashed with a “sound like a burst of static.” The night air is “glutted” with the scent of flowers.

Orientation is Orozco’s first collection, and it represents several decades of work. Not all the stories are equally controlled and accomplished. Hunger Tales, several sketches of characters with ‘food issues’ (a compulsive cookie buyer; a morbidly obese shut-in), never coheres into a unified whole, and two paired stories about female temp workers feel redundant. Orozco is at his best when he stretches out, takes his time, and doesn’t let the bleakness of his characters’ lives overwhelm the playfulness of his prose. Work can kill your soul, but the stories in this collection thrum with life.

Jennie Yabroff, Staff Writer