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The Mall - S.L Grey

The Mall

by 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.

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RESPONSES (15)
  1. Prawn in the RSA says:

    I think decentering American fantasies is exactly what local writers need to do if they want to have more widespread success, especially if they are still in the learning phase.

    There reason why American/UK books, sitcoms, series, and movies are so popular (the good ones anyway) is because they aim to resonate emotionally with a universal human audience. Anybody can relate to the characters and the character dynamics, the writing is witty and sharp, but also works on a multitude of levels, and therefore appeals to a broad audience. I think that too often writing in South Africa is aimed either at a niche of academics and other literary types, or in the case of television, at the lowest common denominator.

    If our writers can emmulate genre fiction succesfully, perhaps it will result in an improvement in the overall quality of popular writing, and also the quality of writing in our local t.v. series and movies.

    I’m thinking of District 9 as an example of a genre piece that was effectively executed, had some financial success, and resulted in widespread exposure of the ideas expressed by the writer (which is surely the point of writing). The content of the story may not have been mindblowing to SA audiences, but I internationally I would have thought it opened some eyes to the fact, at least, that there are no lions in our streets.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    someone shoot the designer responsible for that poster.

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  3. Colleen Lewis says:

    This is a kif review of a kak book. Very erudite analysis by Chetty that will appeal to the kind of reader who probably won’t enjoy The Mall.

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  4. Marlene says:

    Has anyone read the review of this book in the Cape Times today? What the hell? Who writes their reviews, a PR automaton? How is it possible to get excited about this copycat junk? Seriously, I am really unimpressed.

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  5. bce says:

    ‘the dejections of our liberated era’ is a great way to put it

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  6. Anonymous says:

    if this aimed at a teenage audience, surely its a good thing to have an accessible read that questions consumerism?

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  7. Joe says:

    This is a review? Oh, I didn’t realise, it sounded like a synopsis followed by the usual Mahala diatribe about the state of South African arts.
    Awesome work Kavish Chetty, you couldn’t even be bothered to do a little bit of research on Louis Greenberg, the co-author of the book you’re “reviewing”. From your “review” one would assume that this is wholly Lotz’s book with a little help from “someone else I’m not familiar with: Louis Greenberg”.

    Once again Mahala has displayed its lack of understanding, respect and knowledge required to write a decent review that actually tells us something useful about the product in question.
    Don’t get me wrong, if you disliked the book, you’re more than welcome to have your say, but since your “review” actually doesn’t mention anything specifically about The Mall I don’t see how this is even worthy of an article.

    And Marlene – quick question, have you even read the book? Or are you basing your opinion on the drivel Chetty wrote above?

    For the first time in decades, South African genre literature is making waves internationally. We are approaching an era where writers in this country might actually be able to make a living and sell more than the 3000 copies required for a local book to be a bestseller.

    But it seems all Mahala is good for these days is randomly ripping into stuff. You guys actively seek out that which is popular, for whatever reasons, and then make sure that you tear it apart as “commercial” or “consumerist”, like idealistic 18 year-old Arts Majors who want to starve to death creating “art”.

    And what does, “As far as commercial fiction goes, The Mall can comfortably [be] said to be a good novel.”, mean? You are aware that this is a horror novel, a genre considered to be commercial? Perhaps the authors should have written an anti-commercial horror novel.
    It’s a book. Which is a product like any other, and not much point to it if no one ever reads (i.e. buys) it. If they weren’t trying to sell it, they wouldn’t make any money, and making money is a really nifty way to keep authors alive and writing. Stating that its “anti-consumerist theme, [is] slightly at odds with the marketing on the back” is just stupid. Were you just trying to find some random detail to hook your argument on?

    Keep it up guys, arbitrarily spewing ill-considered, poorly researched vitriol at local product is slowly alienating you from your audience.

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  8. bce says:

    hey joe “making money is a really nifty way to keep authors alive and writing” – this is the steven soderburgh myth in a nutshell: he makes one big movie for the studios which buys beachfront property and pleases shareholders, then ‘one for himself’, like an interminably empty bio of a revolutionary say. but it doesn’t work because everything just gets contaminated by market logic. if making money is the goal and cranking out more “product like any other” – why fucking write at all? why be another glut-monger peddling threadbare horror tropes for young readers who deserve better? rather deploy that creative energy on mobile apps or boutique spa concepts or venture capital ventures if the only goal left is social mobility as a genre writer. seriously the market-based complacency you display in relation to writing is incredibly depressing. and you have the gall to diss the website – one of the few independent critical media spaces in this country.

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  9. Joe says:

    At bce.
    Seriously? Here’s me thinking that we, as South Africans, were trying to create a sustainable creative industry. God forbid someone should make a profit from their art – damn you to hell for being able to afford to pay rent this month.
    I don’t think SL Grey will ever have the kind of opulence that Soderbergh, or Bay, or Roth have. They are, after all, writers, not Hollywood stars.

    The word “commercial” has come to mean “crap” and “sellout” and “formulaic” within the confines of “independent critical media spaces” like Mahala, but the truth is just because someone is buying your product, doesn’t make it trash, and conversely, just because the artist is broke, doesn’t make the art good.

    My point is simply that this article is half-arsed and badly researched, about a book that is quite intelligent and works extremely well within the context of its genre – i.e. it is a horror novel. It is scary, it is unpredictable and it is creepy as all hell.
    As a horror novel, it works.
    If we were comparing it to Isabel Allende or Salman Rushdie then, yes, its not that good. But we’re not.
    It’s a horror novel.
    It is scary.
    And, for once, it is garnering rave reviews internationally.
    Congratulations SL Grey – that is what we should be saying. Whether you are a fan of the genre or not.

    I ask again, have you read the book?

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  10. bce says:

    I haven’t and on your recommendation I will seek it out. Though I’m doubting it’s going to meet the heights of Justin Cronin’s “The Passage”, a book that manages to be commercial while maintaining a higher literary ebb, and is scary and provoking and unforgettable.

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  11. 21 says:

    I’m with Joe on this.

    The Mall was published internationally before being brought to SA – how often can South African authors say this? Not only that, but it has had some exceptional reviews, including one in the UK Independent. In fact, come to think of it, I haven’t read a bad review of The Mall yet.

    This book should have gone to someone who is familiar with Louis Greenberg for review – and there are plenty of ’em – or at least someone who could be bothered to do some basic fact checking. It would have been, in any case, more professional of this reviewer to refer to SL Grey as the author. Pseudonyms are pseudonyms for a reason.

    Again, you can dislike a book, but you need a reason for disliking it that is not based on the marketing of said book (this has nothing to do with the author or even the novel and certainly nothing to do with the quality of either). Your review seems to hinge on the latter, as well as a general dislike for the kind of stuff that you think Sarah Lotz writes – by the way, ever read any of Lotz’s “easy-reads”?

    “[L]abyrinthine corridors”, “manufactured desire”? You’ve used more clichés in your first paragraph than most writers use in their entire careers. Also “feint pulses” = LOLz

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  12. Exeter says:

    @21

    Are you joking? Read the last sentence of this piece alone which gives a pretty powerful criticism of the whole book: “I think ironically enough, this book might actually be the very subject of its own critique.”

    What about the critiques based on its “nonconformist platitudes”? Can you actually read? Since when is “manufactured desire” a cliche? Why does the fact that the Independent gave it a good review mean that all local criticism must bow down in its wake? Should no one ever divulge a pseudonym to reveal how the work fits in context with the author’s other works? And who said that when critiquing you should limit yourself to narrative, author or novel? what about contexts, of production, of reception etc. (in which marketing certainly features)?

    You are clearly a bit of twit and not very bright.

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  13. jafta says:

    thanks mahala for mahala goodies that i reiceive/cds/ magazine and all the stuff you send me for mahala.

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  14. 2Late says:

    -Stating that its “anti-consumerist theme, [is] slightly at odds with the marketing on the back” is just stupid.-

    No it’s quite accurate. The authors lack either the insight or sincerity to realize that they deeply aspire to be on the bandwagon of the culture they dis in the first place – as is obvious from the marketing of the book. Their critique of consumerist society doesn’t come from disagreeing with its principles it comes from being marginalised and feeling excluded from it – hating what they can’t have but still aspire to, then drawing on another predefined boil-in-the-bag ideology that expresses that. It’s like the whole Goth movement, being ‘alternative’ as way to compensate for being thought of as a loser at school, find a niche in another kind of cool – not throwing out the ‘in crowd’ concept in its entirety and pursuing individualism, just finding a crowd that will count them in. Excellent review from Kavish and really quite complimentary, cos its a load of try-too-hard kak – no matter the genre.

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  15. Michelle says:

    Wow, what a load of angst over what was intended to be (and is) an enjoyable bit of entertainment. You don’t have to drink artisanal microbrewery beer to have fun, hipsters.

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