Let us begin with the etymology, since every time that I read the word “mall” I want to howl, “IT’S SHOPPING CENTRE!” Why does Ewan Morrison, the author of the innovative short-story collection Tales from the Mall (2012), plump for “mall”? Strictly speaking, this word is native to Britain, deriving as it does from sixteenth-century “pall-mall alleys,” one of which would later live on in the names of the London streets, The Mall and Pall-Mall. At public readings, Morrison pronounces mall as “moll” rather than as the American “m-all,” but he nonetheless designates his chosen subject with a faintly alien, American name. How can we account for his aversion to the best-of-British “shopping centre”?
Morrison ultimately wishes to sustain the fantasy that consumer capitalism is somehow an import. In reality, of course, this system is now just as intrinsic a part of life in Scotland as it is throughout the rest of the modern world. When Morrison does eventually acknowledge the existence of the shopping centre, he will bracket it within an apparently separate ideological category to that of the mall. Until the 1980s the latter “did not fit culturally, as it was associated with American private enterprise, while the land on which most British “shopping centres” stood was council-owned.” The word mall “came into common usage,” Morrison claims wildly, with “the selling off of such public land to private developers in the Thatcher-Reagan era.”
Unfortunately nobody seems to have told the shopping centres themselves. Morrison refers repeatedly to “Silverburn Mall,” for example, but, oh no, this is not its name. On its website, Silverburn still has a “centre map” and “shopping centre opening times.” Anybody who types the word “mall” into its search engine will be told that, “Sorry, no items could be found.” Despite this, Morrison has single-handedly changed poor Silverburn’s name. What about community consultation!
After studying the way in which Mall of America’s name “acts as a guarantor of qualities that are “American,”” Morrison concludes that “in this sense, every mall, everywhere is a “Mall of America.”” Just as every British shopping centre, everywhere, is a shopping centre. You will have never heard a British teenager say that they are going to “hang at the mall.” Rather, they will say, “Mum, please get me some biscuits from the shopping centre.”
But this is exactly Morrison’s plan – to give the shopping centre a strange new name, subtly detach it from Scottish culture, and then expel it in the direction of America. The antithesis of an American spaceman, Morrison plants a little American flag over the splendours of the shopping centre to designate them as Other rather than as booty, and he will hammer down the word “mall” at every opportunity. There are incidents “in a mall” and episodes from the history of the mall, all crowned with the warning “Don’t Get Malled!” But if the characters from his stories were authentic British people, none of them would have ever uttered this word in the first place.
Anti-Americanism is basically a complicated snobbery and Morrison is inevitably a bit of a snob. He finds the fate of Victor Gruen, the pioneering shopping-mall architect, to be tragic. This old boy would lament the “ugliness” of the American shopping malls which he had helped to invent and he would subsequently die, Morrison tells us without apparent irony, “on his private estate” in 1980.
Morrison submits a sort of potted history of the shopping centre, but he will not admit that snobbery towards these enterprises remains a relatively recent historical development. For Western Europeans, the “Arabian Nights” account of medieval bazaars mythologised large-scale shopping and cloaked it in wonder. French arcades represented the pinnacle of elegance; the cartoonist Carl Giles paid tribute to British department stores with Hogarthian relish. Morrison fails to consider how China’s vast, glamorous super-malls (some of which are still composed of bazaar-like mazes of small stalls) may have rejuvenated the mall/shopping centre aesthetic.
The buck stops at the shopping centre, rather than with capitalism itself, because Morrison regards shoppers as passive victims of this particular setting rather than as active participants within a broader economic system. He will not countenance the idea that shoppers might reward ambition and innovation, or even kill off shopping centres altogether by flocking to online alternatives.
It may seem strange to us that the corporate “Joe” hero of the story “Redacted” has never looked up his childhood tormenters on Facebook, but this may symbolise his (and perhaps Morrison’s) refusal to see beyond a late-1990s capitalism which has everything under control. This story could be even set in the 90s. When Morrison can bring himself to mention online shopping, and by implication the supremacy of consumers, it is not until page 236. Even then, he manages to put a miserablist spin on this phenomenon, eyeing the “new generations of solitary consumers” with evident nostalgia for the good old, sinisterly manipulative “malls” of 1997.
Morrison’s analysis of consumer manipulation makes it out to be far more sinister than it plausibly is. He confides that, “there is, in fact, a covert and ingenious science of consumer manipulation at work,” but this is not a “science,” and I doubt that one in a million of Morrison’s readers would ever admit to having been personally brainwashed by a bunch of shops. Morrison describes how corporations deliberately “understaff their checkout counters so as to manufacture waiting… the opportunity to impulse shop, has a calming effect and gives the illusion of choice and control.” This analysis may appear shrewd, but if you are familiar with how they do things in Primark, you’ll know that most shoppers in the queue sense that they are being manipulated and accordingly refuse to take an interest in the passing shelves of “impulse” purchases, as if to spite them. Indeed, the long queues usually create a pressure to avoid being seen as the weak one who caves in.
Morrison’s writing gradually sheds its layers of sophistication and faux analytical objectivity to reveal the misanthropy which we surely sensed was waiting underneath all along. He teases us with our own hopelessness: “[however] much we protest that we know all of these facts already and that we’re not dumb, easily-manipulated consumers, we still shop in malls, precisely because malls and the corporations they house are monopolistic, and aggressively put all other competitors out of business.” Alas, he is soon claiming that the “dead” shopping centre “vividly demonstrates the unsustainability of the consumerist project, built, as it is, on… the idea that new “needs” can be artificially manufactured and manipulated indefinitely, in a world with finite resources.” We are “dumb” consumers who are “easily manipulated” by a system which is just as moronic. And universal darkness covers (m)all.
“Hang on!,” you might exclaim, “this edition of “Short Story Review” does not seem to be reviewing many stories. I’m not here to read about politics, you know!” Successful fiction should indeed contain no trace of politics and yet some impurity remains within Tales from the Mall, occasionally spoiling the flavour. You might counter that all art is inescapably political, but a writer’s role is to transform or even mystify politics into art. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, says nothing explicitly about American slavery, and if it did we would be probably repulsed by Poe’s views on the topic, but slavery nonetheless remains at the heart of this story.
There is actually a great deal to be said for Morrison’s fiction in this respect. It may threaten us with politics, but in the end it dodges the didactic. Despite the political angst which frames these stories, there is often a reflective calm within.
The “Store/Story Guide” for Tales from the Mall tries to make out that the book is like a shopping centre, packed full of something for everyone. Most people regard shopping centres as colourless places, and so the general unpersuasiveness of this analogy is actually a point in the book’s favour. It is more of an old curiosity shop, with eye-catching, well-made, and even traditional items amongst the wares.
There is some yarn that Morrison is supposed to be travelling around the world, researching the shopping centre and collecting stories from “mall workers.” Some of these stories sound plausible; others sound like urban myths; and some like “Solitary Car” and “Rena the Cleana” sound like they have been retrieved from real workplaces and like they are urban myths at the same time. Whether these stories are invented or procured journalistically, the effect is essentially the same. It is perfectly acceptable to suspect that everything in this book is made up. Morrison’s “Twenty Top Tips for Brightening Your Day in the Mall,” although supposedly “found in a chain mail on a networking site popular with teenagers, 2010” is in the very least rewritten in Morrison’s own prose. Not a trace of the list remains on the internet today and the last tip, with its wistful fantasy of mobilised teenagers (“Remember: the only way to make things better is to make them worse, first.”) is 100% Morrison.
Morrison fears that our culture is too nostalgic and that we have forfeited “the historical obligation to document our passing lives and the conditions we live under.” His question at the start of the book, “Why are there so few books about malls?,” might trigger the response that literature is supposed to offer enlivenment and escape, rather than merely describing the local shopping centre. Yet we do not get snagged on this and Morrison’s writing is often genuinely entertaining.
His prose always matures appreciably whenever he reverts to fiction; he abandons his pointed, aimless criticism of consumer culture, the hunt for significance in every attribute of the shopping centre layout, and instead assumes the task of entertaining the reader. Morrison’s stories are, for all his attempts at “innovation in the form of what a book can be,” very old fashioned in their straightforwardness. They often simply want to amuse you and there is no more to them than that. “The Key to Happiness” and “Beethoven” are virtually, in their structure and delivery, jokes.
Unusually for a short-story writer, Morrison commits himself to making each character distinctly different from the last. There is a sort of equality between Morrison’s protagonists, with tales narrated from the perspectives of a sarcastic teenaged girl, a Tesco till lady, a gay corporate tactician, and a grumpy pensioner. These characters are inevitably simple, given the length of the stories, but they remain fresh and realistic. The nearest thing to a default protagonist is the forlornly bemused boyfriend, who features in two of the strongest tales: “Exits” and “Borders.” Competency may be a middlebrow virtue, but in these later and better stories, we may be excited by the promise of something more to Morrison’s writing.
Unlike the till workers in a superstore, Morrison’s characters at times depart from the script, giving an impression that the boss is not looking. His nameless “daily terrorist” may not threaten the life of the shopping centre but she has blown up the myth of the flâneur. The terrorist is not a dandy because she is veiled, while she has replaced the flâneur’s mere aloofness from capitalism with an exercise regime. She has, in fact, bent the shopping centre to her will, contrary to Morrison’s usual insistence that it should be the other way around. Far from being a “dumb” consumer, Claire, the teenager from “Food Court,” remains similarly resilient at the shops, scoffing at Burger King and Build-a-Bear, even as they provide the backdrop for the fairy-tale reconciliation of her family.
Tales such as “Top Man” and “Beethoven” have a comparable fairy-tale quality and they remain fun even whilst reflecting Morrison’s trademark pessimism. Each of their heroes is an outsider who exacts a pleasant sort of revenge upon everybody else in the shopping centre. Dave, out of all the guys on the Pickup Artists weekend, gets to snuggle with a girl, even though he is the only one who is uninterested in getting laid. Everybody else in the shopping centre aside from the cleaner Beethoven is an arsehole and everybody else comes to be included within its Sodom-style mass punishment. Rena the Cleana and Betty McAlpine from “The Three Degrees” are wondrous old battle-axes who offer a spirited resistance to the shopping centre dreariness which everybody else accepts. The storyteller Pope Jim, on the other hand, is somewhat more sinister, in hamming up an Irish geniality to reconcile drivers with the torturous procedures of his car park. He is consciously an Uncle Tom and it all “came from a documentary he saw on how African-American slaves used to outwit their masters.”
The sparse power of “Redacted”, in which the protagonist Joe returns to a small Highland town, invites comparison with James Robertson’s fiction. Joe seems to bring his own ghosts, his own town, and finally his own supermarket to this nameless Highland community. He is an agent for the same corporation which sweeps away his hometown’s old shops; perhaps he signs the papers without registering the town’s name, as a subconscious revenge. Yet whereas the town had once repelled him, they have at least accepted his supermarket and invited it into the heart of their economy.
Lizzy, the Tesco till girl from “Recycling,” suffers from “the dejas”: an ability to predict what her customers will look like from the items that they give her to scan. She despairs that, “it’s the always being right about folk. What, two, three hundred folk a day, ten years. There’s folk buyin Redbull and reduced packs o mashed tatties, and sure enough they’re students, there’s Birds trifle and Ibuprofen Plus and it’s some old dear with arthritic knuckles like golf balls.” Lizzy is in effect a human loyalty card, but her witchy insight is superfluous since Tesco’s own loyalty cards and its invading self-service machines will control the same knowledge. Just as Lizzy compulsively steals random goods to “get rid o the dejas,” the loyalty cards supposedly give away freebees as “rewards” in exchange for gathering customer information. Lizzy’s own mother regards her with the dazed indifference of a Tesco customer, although her mind is ravaged by dementia rather than by Tesco. “there’s a bit o hope, just a wee bit, that it’ll be somethin new, somethin she’s no heard a million times afore…”
Les from “Baby Care” is similarly haunted by the statistic that “93% of the population, in spite of all promises to the contrary, would never escape their demographic box.” “Borders,” on the other hand, portrays a woman who completely transforms herself beyond recognition: “Zoe Grove was twenty-seven when a profound spiritual transformation virtually dissolved her old identity.” Does Zoe’s lurch from Marxism to new age therapy represent an evergreen refusal to submit to the system or a fantasy escape? Harry only finds her again in a shop and he dismisses her as a “sell-out, a hypocrite.” He has surrendered to capitalism, defining himself by what he has bought rather than reinventing himself, so that he is reduced to memories of purchased products. Eva, the insecure American from “Exits,” personifies Morrison’s idea that “malls” are imported. She flees when things get difficult, leaving her ex to pour over piles of discarded consumer goods. If he warns that “You are not just the things you own,” it turns out that she is even less than this.
“Show Rooms” is a beautiful story in which we glimpse life before or after consumerism. Carla, who has “never made anything in her life,” recovers from an abusive relationship by building a new bed out of wood. The bed, it is implied, satisfies a deeper need than any trip to a shopping centre. But there is a sort of wry tragedy to Carla’s story which is similar to that found within “Vasyl and the Empty Space.” Vasyl’s disastrous introduction to a Western shopping centre, in which he is disturbed by the way in which milling shoppers “are all free from each other,” cannot bear the weight of all that it is supposed to signify. It is practically unheard of to meet anybody from a former Stalinist nation who takes consumerism for granted and Vasyl (although his name echoes the word “vassal”) may not ring true to us. Yet in both stories some unexpected subtlety, the generous licensing of further interpretive possibilities, may impress us for a moment. Vasyl finds some residual flavour of Stalinism in his work as a surveillance operative. Carla had obtained all of her materials and tools in Homebase.