We’ve all been in situations where we are manipulated, are aware of this, but allow the situation to continue anyway. Our world is one of persuasion, slight of hand and pressure to conform in some way or other. We may like to think of ourselves as individuals with free will, but when even so called ‘alternative lifestyles’ become something that can be sold and turned to profit then it does look as if the battle has been fought and lost. You may disagree, but think about a pair of jeans that you own. Are they a well known brand? Then the chances are you spent far more than they are worth buying them. Are they the cheapest you could find? Then you probably don’t want to know where they were made and the age of those who stitched them. Unless you are living in some self sustaining utopia you, like the rest of us, will be caught between a commercial rock and a hard place every day.
The best you can hope for is to be aware of just how this persuasion is being perpetrated, so at least you have the illusion of choice. Ewan Morrison’s Tales From the Mall gives you plenty of ammunition to fire your indignation. I’ve read a lot of books this year but this is the only one where I wanted to return to the start and read over again immediately. It blends fact, folklore and fiction in a manner that is as unexpected as it is exhilarating. I’m willing to bet you haven’t read anything quite like it. Some of what is described you may have heard before but when presented in such a manner it all makes a terrible and logical sense. Morrison isn’t giving answers. He is presenting facts, and fiction, and letting the reader come to their own conclusions. That’s what I want from a writer, to be made to think and be challenged.
It is the most entertaining examination of the modern world that I have read since Michael Bracewell’s The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth (which I suppose is verging on history now) and Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. Like those two it manages to educate while never forgetting to entertain. For those who like their facts and figures there are stats that will have you shaking your head and, at least for a couple of days, heading for your local shops (if they still exist).
Morrison is not suggesting bland acceptance of the state of affairs. There is a tremendous chapter which outlines how to mess with the mall (you do start to view ‘the mall’ as this persuasive and evil entity in its own right, something South Park expressed in the episode ‘Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes’). Tips include posing as a security guard, which you can’t be arrested for, demanding a ‘shop mobility’ scooter and having races, and fun with a bag of marbles and an automatic revolving door. You can tell that Morrison revels in the mischievousness of such endeavours. There is also the feeling that we are past the point of revolutionary change when it comes to our shopping habits, at least until the money finally runs out, so such little victories are the best we can hope for. Depressing, but probably true.
Many critics and reviewers have called this book important, necessary and game changing. It is all of those things but, like those books mentioned above, it should never be overlooked that Tales From the Mall is a damned enjoyable read; amusing, and at times unexpectedly emotional. You may be drawn in by the fascinating, and borderline obsessive, research that Morrison has clearly undertaken, and be intrigued and appalled by the ways in which you, yes you, are manipulated by the psychological and physiological systems and techniques that are central to global capitalism, but what will stay with you are the tales, both real and imagined, of the individuals who work, shop, and sometimes simply exist in shopping malls.
The fiction sections are vital as these are where the heart of the book is to be found. As with anything Morrison writes there is more going on than first appears. The mall on its own is dead. It needs people to live and it brings together a wider demographic than perhaps any other destination. The mall is a place where individuals come into contact with each other, and it is in the interactions between those people that the interest lies. The tales are populated by those who are often looking to blend in and belong, to hide among the crowds; individuals including soon to be divorced dads, transvestites, Hijab wearing power walkers, rebellious pensioners and heroic,racist, cleaners. Their problems are universal. The coffee chains may change; people remain the same.
Three tales stay with me in particular. The list making Sarah in ‘Changing’ who is trying to force herself to be fitter, happier, more productive etc, and is using her lists as part of an avoidance tactic to discovering and dealing with what is really causing her pain. As I type at a desk with Post It notes everywhere I feel the pang of recognition. The same applies to ‘Borders’, where the apathetic Harry lives only to make Zoe happy, adjusting his politics, life choices and ‘beleifs’ in order to do what he thinks she wants him to do. Anyone who has ever obsessed over someone, or who has uttered such a non-committal sentence along the lines of ‘I want what you want’, will empathise with Harry and his situation. As with Sarah’s lists, Harry sees Zoe as his way to happiness, and he is as equally deluded.
But the best image in the book is from ‘Incident in a Mall #103’, where the cleaner known as Beethoven is caught on CCTV mopping with his alcopop ridden urine as he dances with the grace of Gene Kelly around the empty floors, before he vanishes for good. Such characters could have been painted as pathetic or even figures of fun, but the writer’s obvious affection for them shines through, and that is where the emotion lies. To make you care about a character in a few pages takes real skill, but Morrison manages it time and time again.
This is a book which is not only commenting on life today, but is looking back. It made me pay a visit to the first mall I remember from my childhood, the one in East Kilbride which stands (just) as a living example to all that Morrison describes. The section known as The Plaza, which was built in the early 1970s, is ‘dying’ and stands as a stark contrast to the more recent sections which have been built almost over the top of it in the following decades. Morrison talks about the ‘dead malls’ which die as new ones are built nearby and replace them. In East Kilbride capitalist cannibalism is in evidence as the mall eats itself.
Everyone reading this will have spent some time in malls (or shopping centres if the term mall grates as it appears to with some), but the likelihood is that those over 40 will have spent a lot of their formative years eating in the food courts, buying first records and favourite books, getting football boots or school uniforms, in just such places. This sense of nostalgia is perhaps the most unexpected emotion prompted by what is a wonderfully surprising read. Tales from the Mall is an exposition on a thoroughly modern love affair. Like that between Zoe and Harry in ‘Borders’ it is a relationship that we soon realise is one-sided and probably unhealthy for us, but that breakup is one that we never quite manage.
There are some wonderful video clips to accompany some of the stories from Tales From the Mall. You can find them all at ewanmorrison.com or by going to his You Tube page. In the meantime here’s the trailer for the book: