Tales from the Mall by Ewan Morrison
“All you will ever need, under one roof” is the epigraph to Ewan Morrison’s new book, Tales from the Mall, a fascinating fusion of fact and fiction which dismantles, brick by narrative brick, the shopping malls that dominate our lives. In turn he questions our need to shop, our urge to consume: what is it we actually need? Why do we need it?
Tales from the Mall is a structurally ambitious book which is delightfully difficult to define: part historical narrative, part cultural study, part short story collection. The sum total, a biography of the shopping mall, is an acerbic analysis of our contemporary consumerist culture and the impact it has on our individual identities.
The power and dominance of this culture is highlighted by Morrison’s need for an introduction explaining the legalities of referencing brand names in literature; something infinitely more difficult and dangerous than mentioning a mere human being. And it is this battle between “big business” and the individual, the distorted balance of power, the manipulation of the latter by the former, which is played out through the stories in the book. In the fictional short stories, Morrison’s protagonists are seeking salvation through the consumer dream wedded to the belief that by adhering to the ritual of shopping, identity, meaning, and a true connection to ‘reality’ can be attained. This dream, by its very design is an empty vessel. It can never be achieved – the last thing wanted is a sated consumer – so these aspirations repeat themselves.
Happiness only comes from reinventing your individual brand identity. As he points out, malls themselves are designed to disorientate and confuse to make you more susceptible to shopping. The outcome is a cast of characters dislocated, disenfranchised and rebellious.
These emotionally fraught tales are counterbalanced by the “Incidents in a Mall”, stories that Morrison has collected over his years of research and interviews with shopping mall staff. They prove the adage that fact can be stranger than fiction. They capture moments of humanity and rebellion often amongst the lowliest workers and marginalised sections of society. Set against the emotionally raw fictional stories they offer hope of the human spirit’s indefatigability.
Running alongside these stories is the narrative documenting the history of the mall from the Agora in 500bc, to 20th century Supermalls. In addition to this Morrison interjects a series of fragments analysing such things as the entomology of malls and consumer manipulation, deconstructing how and why malls mess with our minds and our wallets. Morrison’s depth of knowledge is combined with a lightness of touch and a strong, confident authorial voice. The fiction and non-fiction sections are heavily signposted at the beginning and personally I would have like this relationship to have been more blurred, dislocating the reader just like the modern day shopper is when confronted by the mall map. However, Morrison has achieved a rare feat capturing our contemporary culture.
Like any great writing, this book tells us something about ourselves, often things we have suspected but which require an authorial eye to bring into focused clarity. It explains history and society in a way that no textbook can, capturing the facts but weighting them with emotional significance and narrative force. Although a fragmented collection of writings, there is a clever, subtle narrative arc running through the collection moving from aspiration to rejection to rebellion, mirrored by the rise and fall of the western mall. In doing so, Morrison offers us hope that things could be different and challenges us to not accept the status quo: “the real choice is to choose not to choose”.
Tales from the Mall
Cargo Publishing, rrp £9·99, 340pp