A Year in Reading: Deb Olin Unferth

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Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances: It’s easy to read this book and be entranced by the protagonist, that lone man on a quest to find the wife who has been stolen from him and replaced by an impostor. But it’s the wife who finally broke my heart. Her story runs alongside and underneath his, submerged but now and then bubbling up through the sea foam of the story—a line of her distraught dialogue, a quick description of her crying quietly on the couch. We never hear her by straight route, we are dependent on his reportage. But still we see her with clarity. She struggles with him, yells at him. She is injured, bewildered, afraid. She runs after him, flies across the world to catch up with him. She is determined to keep him, even by deception. And when he tries to get away, she tells him simply that she will stay by his side, “until the end of time.”

It’s her faith that moves me. I wish it were my own. Don’t you, don’t we? Don’t we wish his illness explained our failures? That when our husband suddenly hates us, it’s not because he has fallen out of love with us. It’s not because we have done something unforgivable—or because we don’t know how to forgive him. Or because he can’t love, or we can’t, or because we are, at core, unlovable.

It’s because he has forgotten who we are.

If only we knew the right thing to say, the password (I will stay by your side until the end of time), he would come home.

More from A Year in Reading

The Millions Interview: Tao Lin

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Tao Lin’s new novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is about a young writer named Sam who, for mysterious reasons, steals from American Apparel repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and lands himself in jail. The story is told a spare, unemotional voice that is, at turns, funny and strange and yet somehow casts a melancholy light over the characters. Here, I ask Lin about his choices in crafting the book. Lin is also the author of four other books including a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed. He has a blog and a Twitter account.

Deb Olin Unferth: In Shoplifting from American Apparel I notice you give as much narrative weight to the episodes where Sam is in jail as you do to the places where Sam is doing more mundane activities, such as going to Gainesville or chatting online with a friend. Why is that?

Tao Lin: I wanted to try to write from a more distant and inclusive perspective, and to the most inclusive perspective (the universe itself) everything has the same value. I think I wanted to do that, in part, because it’s a way of viewing things that is consoling to me, because it makes it so how one feels, in whatever situation, is determined by how one wants to feel or decides to feel, or how one decides to view the situation, not by what the situation is. So when conventionally bad things happen one can view it neutrally and not feel bad.

DOU: Was your interest in the title you chose due to the sound and meaning of the phrase, the catchiness and humor of it, or did you choose it to direct our reading of the story, as in, to call our attention to certain parts of the book—the shoplifting and jail parts—and point to them as significant in a plot that is otherwise unhierarchical?

TL: I sort of modeled Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title on Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade’s title. The Easter Parade’s title references an event about 20% into itself, in which the two main characters (who from that moment forward have, from certain perspectives, very depressing lives), I think, are at an Easter parade and happy, or at least content and calm, and, it seems, looking forward to the rest of their lives with some degree of optimism. The Easter Parade’s title therefore directs the reader, after they have finished the book, or whenever they think about the book, to the idea that the climax of the main characters’ lives occurs 20% into the book, when they are around 18 I think, in a book that ends with the main character at age 50, which to me is affecting, both in terms of me thinking about the characters’ lives and that Richard Yates’ wanted to direct the reader to that.

Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title also references an event that is about 20% into itself. But due to the nature of the novella, that it treats events the same, with the same amount of attention, and without any sentences about the characters’ thoughts or feelings, so you don’t know if they’re happy or sad, it is less referencing a time of happiness in the past than just neutrally referencing a time in the past.

Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title is me saying “time is passing, which is affecting, to me,” whereas, in my view, The Easter Parade’s title is Richard Yates saying “the climax of these characters lives occurred early in their lives, and time is passing, which is affecting, to me.”

DOU: In Shoplifting from American Apparel time shifts unexpectedly. A paragraph may open with “Four months later…” and it feels strange because we had thought we were in the middle of a scene or a situation. The choice seems almost random, not as if it is random, but as if you may have meant it to seem random, to give the suggestion of randomness. Do you mean to do that? Or what effect do you hope to achieve?

TL: When I work on a book such as this one, where the sentences are simple and literal and concrete, and not a lot of time is spent on the words within the sentences, the work I do is mostly on trying to achieve a level of non sequitur (or “randomness”) from sentence to sentence and scene to scene that is consistently “not normal.” I try to make the entire book exhibit a consistent level of non sequitur, ideally the same level of non sequitur from sentence to sentence as scene to scene. I hope to achieve, by doing this, a quality of rereadability due to the book seeming weird or aberrant, to some degree, like it has its own rules that seem to make sense to itself. In a fantasy book, one would create weirdness or uniqueness by changing the physical rules of the universe or changing the concrete details of the universe. In Shoplifting from American Apparel I wanted to create uniqueness by changing the “experience” of the universe, by making it consistently jarring or illogical from sentence to sentence and scene to scene and therefore, if I’m successful, and if one acquiesces while reading to the “rules” of the book, not jarring or illogical (due to it being consistently jarring and illogical), just different.

DOU: What can you say about the ending? Why did you choose to end where you did?

TL: To me, the book, in its lack of rhetoric, and lack of focus on anything else but what I’m about to type, has a kind of theme maybe: that I’m aware of the passage of time and it is affecting to me. The ending is affecting to me because it references childhood in a non-rhetorical and almost “accidental” way. After reading the last line I think about the past but also about the present as the future’s past. The question at the end of the book sort of implies to me another question that would be something like “what did you want to be when you were 25?” which Sam’s age at the end of the book.

DOU: How, to you, is Shoplifting from American Apparel different from your other books?

TL: It has a more consistent and extreme and sustained prose style. It has a more consistent tone. It doesn’t have any sentences about characters’ thoughts or feelings. It has little or no sentences that I feel embarrassed to read aloud. It has no em-dashes and I think no semi-colons.

But overall I think I still view it as the same kind of book as my other books because to me it is conveying the same philosophies and thoughts and feelings about life as my other books, just using different strategies to do so.