This is an interesting time for South African genre fiction, with Lauren Beukes's recent Arthur C. Clarke win paving the way for more of the country's writers to garner some international attention. The Mall, which comes recommended by Beukes herself, is a very different kind of book to Zoo City (2010), but one notable similarity between the books is their off-kilter use of city spaces and architecture—these are urban fantasies that actually are, at core, urbanly fantastical. In this case, the main antagonist isn't any kind of traditional monster or undead beastie, but a building. The Mall is a bizarre burlesque of a shopping centre, reached by taking a wrong turn in a regular Johannesburg mall. In this other-mall, the shops have names like "Curl Up & Die" and "Last Call." The staff are chained to their counters and worship shoppers, while the shoppers turn themselves into surgically enhanced caricatures. It's not subtle, but it sure is a gruesome kind of fun to read, and it's easy to imagine that the authors had the same kind of fun writing it.
That's authors, plural. "S. L. Grey is a mysterious, genderless figure, rumored to be more than one person," announces the front matter, before going on to reveal that the author is, indeed, two people. Not quite so mysterious then, although their names aren't given. Collaborative novels tend to have a mixed success rate—at best, well matched imaginations spark and fizz into something brilliant and new; at worst the authors' visions stumble along together without ever quite managing to gel. The Mall sits somewhere between these two extremes. This particular partnership has clearly been a fruitful one in the ideas department, at least, producing an abundance of spiky, sticky details that are hard to shake from the mind's eye.
Where the authors let themselves down, however, is in not quite seeming to know what they want this novel to be. The Mall cleaves close to a three act structure, and each act feels like a different kind of novel: an extended claustrophobic chase scene; a slowed down stumble through a surreal nightmare world; and an escape back into the world where the "real" nightmare seems to be the crushing hollowness of everything. Which provides an interesting tour of various approaches to horror, even if it doesn't make for a particularly cohesive reading experience.
Act I is the closest to the thrills'n'chills escapade promised by the red, black, and white packaging and blood-drooling dummy head on the cover: foul-smelling corridors, mutilated mannequins, maniacal text messages, and a lumbering, screaming monster. Most readers will find a personal phobia trigger or two in this section (mine was the breath-bursting escape by swimming through the sewer tunnels), but one starts to wonder if this is leading anywhere; meanwhile our unlikely heroes Dan and Rhoda, with their bickering, constant pop culture references, and increasingly unconvincing attempts to rationalize the experience, really start to grate.
Both protagonists are thoroughly unlikeable, caught in predicaments of their own making that inspire more apathy than sympathy. Rhoda gets to open the story, and spends her first paragraph swearing and raining down imaginary violence on a security guard; a few pages in we learn that she's desperately looking for a child that she dragged to the mall (that's the regular mall, not The Mall) and ditched while rendezvousing with her dealer. She's vicious and a mess, but at least she's interesting. Daniel, on the other hand, is a self-pitying loner working in a bookshop that he hates; we meet him scrunched up on a corner on a snack break, ogling the female co-workers he doesn't have the nerve to approach. If spending 300 pages in the company of these two isn't an appealing prospect, the action rattles along urgently enough—the two of them must team up to find the kid! in the shut down mall! what could possibly go wrong? etc.—that I was happy to go along for the ride.
We never have to spend more than a chapter at a time in each character's head, at least, as the novel follows a split first person narrative, alternating evenly between the two of them. Daniel and Rhoda begin as seemingly obvious opposites: white, male, whiny; black, female, tough. But seeing them through each other's eyes and their own in rapid succession does an effective job of turning them into complex, raw people.
At first, they find reasons to sneer at each other, Rhoda noting that Daniel "reeks of some sort of cologne—the sort you get free in magazines" (p. 23), while he jumps to equally quick conclusions: "an unconvincing English accent she was obviously putting on to make her sound posher than she was. Because she had a shaved head and dressed like a bum" (p. 17). Subsequent chapters, however, give us a window on their insecurities and baggage, showing that in fact they have plenty in common: cynicism masking alienation, fragile family histories, and an aversion to their own reflections. Both would rather hide from themselves than deal with these issues, and yet the constant presence of mirrors seems to mock them. Dan sums the feeling up best, in a statement about his appearance that can just as easily be applied to his inner self:
That ghastly vision brands itself on me, and I carry that freak inside me wherever I go. And whether I try to hide it with kohl or T-shirts or dye or tattoos or whatever the fuck, it's still me . . . And I have to work in a mall. Fucking malls with their mirrors on every available surface. (p. 74)
The split point of view sits neatly with this running theme of doubling and mirroring, adding another layer of pleasing symmetry: two malls, two viewpoints, parallel but reversed. In fact, I hoped that this would be taken much further, but no such luck. When the pair find themselves in a labyrinth that seems to have hacked into their personal neuroses, and their phones start filling up with the txt-speak equivalent of a sadistic villain's cackling, it's clear we're in mind game country, yet the two-sided narrative is still played straight. "This has to be some fucked-up dream" (p. 98), insists Daniel, and it's certainly no ordinary reality, so it could have been fun for the protagonists' perceptions to diverge—if The Mall can get into their heads, why not mess a bit more with them? But when the chapter ends and Rhoda has her turn to speak, it's evident that she has experienced events exactly as Daniel has. Which, in a novel that deals again and again with perception and surface, set in a world of mirrors, shop windows, and advertising, is a bit of a shame. In this, as with the novel's overall identity crisis, there's a feeling of opportunity squandered.
Things start to look more interesting in the meatier (literally as well as metaphorically) second act. Set in the other mall, this section is an abrupt reversal of the first. The scenery is suddenly bright and glitzy and the urgent pacing of before seems to drop away, leaving us, like Dan and Rhoda, blinking and disorientated. What follows is a string of set pieces that unveil this doppelganger mall in all its crazed glory. As with the atmosphere, the tone of the horror becomes something completely different to that of the previous section. From the shop names to the fast-food joint "McColon's," where Dan's burger is so rare that "thick, warm blood spurts out in a rhythm like it has a beating heart" (p. 154), it's all rather garish and hammy. Instead of ghastly abominations looming randomly out of the darkness, though, every grisly detail in this section seems to form part of some grander mechanism. Even if the nature of the beast isn't all that surprising (think "wage slave" and "shop 'til you drop" taken to their literal extremes), the vision of a demented shopping centre dividing its occupants into workers and shoppers and proceeding to play with, wear down, and "recycle" them is quite wonderfully horrifying.
But while what the authors show us of their warped vision is disturbing, what they don't show us even is more so. They play on the innate strangeness, insularity, and unreality of the mall environment: not being able to see outside, the ease of getting lost, the fact that you're constantly in view not only of people you can see but also those that you can't. "The Management" are kept out of sight, obscure puppetmasters all the creepier for their unknown nature, and getting caught in their game is as inescapable as getting sucked in by the glitter of a special offer. Unsurprisingly, the protagonists are caught, but what was surprising was that I cared. After taking all that trouble to establish them as thoroughly unpleasant individuals, the novel threatens to erase their individuality—something we still value, for all that we fixate on surfaces. Maybe there's some hope for us after all.
The third section shows Dan and Rhoda, having won back their freedom and identities, back in a world that, if anything, feels even more futile than it did before their tumble down the rabbit hole. Life is empty, dull, and difficult, to the point where the words of another mall inmate—"You'll be back. We'll see you soon" (p. 168)—start to sound more enticing than ominous. The earn-spend-consume cycle is a nightmare, the authors seem to be saying, but at least it gives us some drive. Which makes this a pretty bleak-hearted book, for all its cartoonish ribbing of consumerism. But even here the novel's argument is made fuzzy by its uneven pacing and uncertain direction. There's a lot of tying up of loose ends, which causes the ending to drag, and without the bizarro mall-land, the narration feels much flatter.
Ultimately The Mall is a frustrating read. It has the makings of something really quite different, but so much of its potential gets lost in the execution. It sets itself up for monstrous money shots that never come, then takes a lurching turn into satire which in turn wobbles from creepy to wry to gross-out, and it's hard to tell whether it comes from a place of anger, apathy, amusement, or some mixture thereof. And yet, there’s something about The Mall's particular brand (as it were) of consumer culture uncanny that sticks in the brain. Here's hoping that future efforts from this collaboration, or either of its parts, build on The Mall's snarky, subversive inventiveness while ironing out its wrinkles.
Tori Truslow grew up in Bangkok and is currently pursuing an MA in Writing in Coventry, UK, where she also runs writing workshops for young people and adults. Her fiction has sold to Polluto, Clockwork Phoenix 3, and the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, and she has reviewed for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Sabotage Reviews, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.