The Hipster Thief

Tao Lin’s internet stunts and public fights with editors have made him a gonzo lit icon. He talks to his former roommate, Nick Antosca, about his new book, Shoplifting From American Apparel.

The first time he got arrested, Tao Lin was trying to steal a shirt from American Apparel. He spent an evening in jail, did community service, and wrote a short story about the experience for New York scenester bible Vice magazine. Then he turned it into the central event of his new novella, Shoplifting From American Apparel, coming out September 15 from Melville House.

At 26, Tao has published one brilliant novel (Eeeee Eee Eeee, in which dolphins club Elijah Wood to death), one collection of short stories, and two books of poetry. His literary style is a kittenish hybrid of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, and (although he might disagree) Haruki Murakami, and his writing has been lauded by hipster superstar Miranda July, gay literary icon Dennis Cooper, and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler. New York magazine declared him the “New Lit Boy” in their 2009 “All New” issue. He also has a worshipful cult of followers on the internet—and a horde of vehement detractors, who frequently post angry comments on his blog,

“Shoplifting can be justified morally. I was shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants.”

I first met Tao in 2005 at a poetry reading for Opium Magazine. We had both just graduated from college, and soon afterward he sublet a room in my apartment for eight months. During that time, I learned that he was an experienced shoplifter.

“My technique for shoplifting was to take two or four packages of batteries or Moleskine journals and put them in my back pocket,” he said, “then walk out of the store, sometimes faking talking on my cellphone. This went on for maybe a year, and I probably made more than $10,000 [selling stolen goods on eBay]. Shoplifting can be justified morally. I was shoplifting from publicly traded companies and spending the money I gained at independent stores that were socially conscious, such as organic vegan restaurants.”

Shoplifting From American Apparel is marketed as fiction, but Tao says it was essentially nonfiction with the names changed. “Offhand I don’t think that I made up anything. I edited down what happened in reality in the same way I might edit down a massive first draft of an entirely fictional book.”

A retreat from the wild inventions of Eeeee Eee Eeee, the book is a chronicle of several months in the life of Tao’s alter ego as he drifts into and out of emotionally stunted relationships and is twice arrested for his theft habit. There is no plot in the traditional sense. The sentences are deliberately stricken, numb, and declarative. “If I do affectless prose,” Tao says, “I want to do in the extreme.”

When we lived together in 2006, Tao used to wake me up around 4 a.m. maybe once a week by setting off the fire alarm. I’d stagger into the kitchen to find him whacking at the ceiling with a broom while some sort of tofu-vegetable assembly burned on the stove. Once the noise had stopped, he would mumble a few words and flash a shy, apologetic grin. I was always suspicious of that grin. Why did I have a feeling he was actually pleased to have caused a ruckus?

That ambiguity—shy savant, or malicious publicity-hog?—has been a theme of Tao’s literary career ever since. His books haven’t made him controversial, his publicity grabs have. Here’s a partial list of them:

  • Last year, he sold “shares” in his novel-in-progress, titled Richard Yates and planned for 2010. Investors paid $2,000 each for 10 percent of his advance, royalties, and any film rights. Tao made $12,000 and got international press.
  • Before that, Tao got into a public fight with the editors of N+1—the Brooklyn-based literary magazine fronted by Keith Gessen, Marco Roth, and Ben Kunkel—which had repeatedly rejected his fiction submissions. He then wrote a series of stories involving characters, both human and hamster, named Marco Roth. One was published in The Mississippi Review. Then he said in an interview with lit blog Bookslut that “Marco Roth and I are friends now. He called me on the phone and I pitched him an essay on statutory rape to promote my next novel.” Later, a disclaimer was added to the interview: “Editor note: Tao Lin acknowledges neither the phone conversation nor the pitch ever happened.”
  • In 2007, he emailed Gawker so incessantly that they finally wrote a post about how much they hated his “spammy, retarded, deceptive, always on the verge of interesting but never actually interesting Internet stunts,” vowing never to mention him again. Later, after reading a funny essay he’d written for Seattle’s The Stranger, they pardoned him and lifted the ban.
  • After agreeing to publish a chapbook called today the sky is blue and white with bright blue spots and small pale moon and i will destroy our relationship today with respected indie publisher Kevin Sampsell, Tao chafed so much at Sampsell’s editing suggestions that Sampsell canceled the book. Then, in a long, hypnotic blog post, Tao published all of Sampsell’s personal emails along with a detailed “philosophical justification” for doing so. (He claimed that making private information public “decreases pain and suffering in the world.”) Later, after his shoplifting arrest, Tao emailed lawyer and short-story writer Richard Grayson for legal advice. Grayson then published those emails on without Tao’s permission as a book called The Tao Shoplifting Crisis.

Particularly vexing to those he’s angered (a group in which I have occasionally been included) is Tao’s habit of offering a “philosophical justification” for every offense. At times he has seemed pathologically incapable of apology.

Although we’d kept in touch by email in the years after he moved out of my apartment, I’d hardly seen Tao in person since late 2006, and when I sat down with him recently on the Lower East Side, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But he looked exactly the same: physically delicate and hunched as if against an impending attack.

“I believe that anything can be justified,” he told me, “and that all justifications are equally legitimate. If I talk about something in terms of morals I am ever aware of the arbitrariness of the assumptions and limited contexts I have created just for the word ‘moral…’ For example when I talk about morals I assume the following: ‘pain and suffering is bad.’ …When I talk about morals I feel like a single unit of existentially trained bacteria that lives on an ant’s leg in an ant farm in a 7-year-old boy’s room talking about morals, in that I have an extremely, I feel, limited context—and that I know everything I say is based on assumptions.”

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This is how Tao Lin actually talks.

“I wouldn’t be exactly who I am now if I didn’t do everything I’ve done up to this point, and I can’t change the past,” he said. “I don’t regret anything.”

He acknowledged, however, that the person he is today might not have done some of the things he did in the past. For example? “Right now, I probably wouldn’t do the Marco Roth thing,” he said. “Because it just seems kind of mean.”

If he admits it was kind of mean, would he apologize for it?

“Yeah, I would apologize for it.”

Was that an apology?

Tao hesitates. “Yeah, I apologize.”

There’s a first time for everything.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Nick Antosca is the author of the novels Midnight Picnic (Word Riot Press, 2009) and Fires (Impetus Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Nerve, Hustler, The New York Sun, Identity Theory, The Barcelona Review, The Huffington Post, and others. He was born in New Orleans and lives in New York, and his blog is Brothercyst.