The Mallby Kavish Chetty / 31.05.2011
Malls are hyperreal. Each one is built of an architectural brainwashing campaign: you lose your sense of time in feint pulses of department-store music. Cyclical, repeated and uniform; you lose your sense of place in the labyrinthine corridors. Slithering perpetually past the whores of your manufactured desire: peabody jackets, caffeine, plasma-screens, mobile phones, cigarettes, burgers. There are fewer markers – perhaps the modern gym with its hamster-wheel participants sweating it out on treadmills, or the casino with its arcade-machine energy are more potent examples – of a succesful delusion. The reality of the mall, a compressed space of consumerist lusts, is wallpapered over by the products which speak to your desire, dolled-up and well-upholstered, waiting for your “fatty, dirty dollar.”
This is the locale of Sarah Lotz ‘s latest work of pulpy genre-fiction. And not just any shopping mall; a shopping mall in Joburg. Lotz is an author of all trades, although all trades firmly in the easy-reads category. I recognise her style mainly from a series of detective/mystery-style paperbacks she issued in the last couple of years – Tooth and Nailed and Exhibit A. Both were very much in the vein of contemporary SA crime-fiction (see Mike Nicol and his Payback trilogy), a genre which has swelled in popularity along with the rise of bureaucratic corruption, serial murder and xenophobia, nepotism, white-collar swindling: you know, the dejections of our liberated era. Here Lotz is penning in the horror department. I’m always weary of novels with aggressive marketing slogans on the back – this one has the delightlessly gimmicky blurb that there are “no vampires and werewolves here” because “S.L. Grey is a true original”. S.L Grey is the pseudonym of Lotz, who co-authors here with someone else I’m not familiar with: Louis Greenberg. She has also recently finished another co-authorship under the pseydonym Lily Hearne, also in the horror genre. It’s called Deadlands, and stars zombies and other popular confections of the teenage imagination.
I opened with that rather grim and pessimistic account of consumerism because this novel, beneath the layers of semi-streetwise, funky – what’s that other inescapable word to describe this? – “sassy” fiction, is a bit of an anti-consumerist theme, slightly at odds with the marketing on the back of the pre-release review copy I have here. The story is about two kids called Daniel and Rhoda. He’s a bookstore clerk fantasising about his co-worker, she’s a druggie babysitter. She loses the kid she’s looking after in the shopping mall when she very responsibly nips out to score a casual line of coke. Then, panicked, she ends up bullying Daniel into helping her search the mall for her charge. After circling through service corridors and plummeting into the depths of the mall on a freight elevator, they enter some kind of bizarre horror universe. They manage to escape back into the mall, only it’s been totally defamiliarised – its surface pleasures are stripped away. In place of McDonald’s there’s McColon’s; shop assistants are shackled to their counters.
The horror pedigree has variously consecrated the shopping mall as a site of horror, perhaps most memorably in Dawn of the Dead. In The Mall, you have to battle through a rather adolescent-aimed narrative to get at the commentary, which itself doesn’t provoke beyond the usual nonconformist platitudes. The book has alternating chapters, each narrated by one of the protagonists, and appears to be written with a very obvious audience in mind: the Stephen King crowd of the younger persuasion; kids who carry the usual string of adjectives in their Facebook profile “about me” section – spunky, “sassy” (again), cool etc. As far as commercial fiction goes, The Mall can comfortably said to be a good novel.
Writers “write what they like”, and the proliferating masses of local genre-fiction pays tribute to that. They appropriate the tropes of and compete with the Twilight franchise, crime novels, horror novels, and all the other conventions of pulpy fiction (I don’t say “pulp fiction”, because that is a particular and peculiar kitsch nostalgic genre that’s set to be revived, I am told, with the first issue of South African pulp fiction zine Jungle Jim). Sapphire (an imprint of Kwela) has recently announced a range of locally-produced Mills & Boon style romance novels, specifically targeting upwardly mobile black middle-class women, to give an idea of how widespread this phenomenon of emulation runs. These sorts of authors emulate excellently, it can’t be denied. And their greatest draw card is simply decentering American fantasies, and swapping out foreign locales for the local. But at the end of the day, they’re still just American fantasies. I think ironically enough, this book might actually be the very subject of its own critique.