Sunday Morning! J.G. Ballard’s Shopping Maul

Does the shopping mall dream of its former glory?

Once the dominant temple structure looming over the suburban landscape, malls are today atrophied by age, diminished by e-commerce, subject to constant security threats, mourning the loss of their flagship stores, and growing sadly vestigial, like semi-abandoned colonial outposts from an obsolete culture of consumption. “Dead malls” dot the landscape along with etiolated, half-dead ones that cling malevolently to life. I can’t recall the last time I saw a new mall being constructed. The key architectural form of our age seems to be the condominium; fitting as the computer has replaced the automobile as primary instrument of the individual will.

Sunday Morning! J.G. Ballard's Shopping MaulAnd yet! I recently took a weekend job at the devolved mall downtown, a project in which all of the hopes of the late sixties were invested, but which is today semi-abandoned, half-feral, populated by shambling hordes of street kids, drug dealers, and homeless men cheek-to-jowl with suburban shoppers and booshie newcomers who might be lost.

I did it to save an extra thousand a month, and, as a writer, it’s perfect. The juxtapositions are surreal; I’ve seen office hallways lined with drifters asleep on the carpets, junkies exercising on the roof, horrific acts of violence, and teenaged cell phone shoppers filming someone’s relative lying motionless in front of the cinema with blood leaking from his mouth. It feels like the external expression of the social subconscious.

Naturally, I was reminded of J.G. Ballard, who went to these sorts of places before the rest of us. In a recent issue of Granta, Will Self made two strong claims: 1. Ballard’s fiction is entirely a post-traumatic response to his boyhood in occupied wartime Shanghai, 2. Ballard is the key British novelist of the second half of the twentieth century. He certainly is the one that most rewards rereading. His books come off first as pranks or bizarre satire and then, within a few years, as troubling prophecy. When I first read Kingdom Come upon its 2006 release, the notion of a bemused neo-fascism arising from sporting hooliganism in a mega shopping mall struck me as the joke of an elderly man stuck in a crowded retail queue. Now, it’s not so funny.

Or it’s both joking and serious, a vein that seems especially British. Maybe this is why Ballard’s work never quite translated to North American readers. Another difficulty is that we’ve believed since at least the time of Virginia Woolf that a skilled novelist makes their characters “come alive”.  Ballard’s characters read more like archetypes, like comparing the stereotyped figures in pop art with the fleshy beings in Rembrandt painting. But Ballard never claimed much affinity for novels, which struck him as a hidebound nineteenth century form, while commissioning surrealist paintings for his home. He tends to depict his bizarre characters like an indulgent therapist taking notes. They all speak in the same arch intellectualized style, which takes some getting used to- unless you’ve already read Don DeLillo..

In Kingdom Come, a recently-fired advertising executive named Richard Pearson returns to the outer suburbs of London after his father is fatally shot by a rampaging mental patient in the Metro-Centre, a huge shopping mall and sporting complex. This is, we are told, a place where “the suburbs dream of violence”, along with the bored and cultureless locals it seems. Mob rampages are common, particularly directed at immigrants, sporting events resemble political rallies, and the only common “culture” comes from the Metro-Centre and its in-house cable television. As Pearson observes: ‘This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity. In short, the town was an end state of consumerism. I liked it…’

Before long, it’s unclear who killed his father, especially when the shooter is released by the sympathetic testimony of prominent community figures. Everyone seems to have secret motives, including Pearson who eventually finds his calling acting as the Albert Speer to a crock-pot demagogue, a cable chat show host and bad actor without a thought in his head who Pearson hopes to make the Führer of a burgeoning revolution of St. George’s flag waving thugs: ‘you can say what everyone feels about immigrants and asylum seekers. You’re the star in every housewife’s dreams…’

The fact that the narcissistic television personality hardly wants to lead anyone is not a problem- the mob just needs an excuse to indulge in their own psychopathology, which the former ad man wants to whip up. Everyone is looking for an excuse to do away with the last vestiges of civic virtue and indulge in some “willed madness” together.

The book received some negative reviews upon its release in 2006 that seemed to focus on its “critique of consumerism” but that seems a bit off. The casual reading is that Ballard is making the hackneyed point that consumerism is the guiding force in the lives of suburbanites. And there is something to this; I have coworkers, for instance, who can talk about very little beyond what they’ve bought recently. But I think Ballard is saying it only seems like a guiding force because, at root, most people are bored witless and yearning for something to free them from that boredom.

If there’s a thesis here, I think it’s something like: There’s no longer a common culture or binding institutions that command any respect, so consumption is now our only collective endeavor. Consumerism satisfies certain semi-conscious desires, but is ultimately unsatisfying. Yet democracy is even less satisfying, requiring us to accept that our desires will be frustrated by the will of others. Ultimately, what is soon to be born is a “light fascism” devoid of creeds or ideology, but facilitating emotional outbursts and acts of racist violence. Ballard believes we need the catharsis of occasional bouts of madness and the demagogues of the future will be more like indulgent but somewhat unhinged parents (or cable talk show hosts) rather than Svengalis. Again, he was writing this in 2005.

Sunday Morning! J.G. Ballard's Shopping MaulWhen I imagined Ballard’s Metro-Centre, I thought of El Helicoide in Caracas, Venezuela. Construction began in 1956 with plans for a ziggurat-style mall that cars could drive through. Money ran out and it became government property. By the 1980s, it was an enormous state prison and torture chamber.

When I work at the dying mall in the tumultuous city where I live, I see many young transient men approaching middle age wandering the aisles, befuddled by booze and drugs, lugging backpacks, muttering to themselves with surly expressions, looking to fight someone. Could they one day be the paramilitary of affluent advertising men?

Stranger things have happened.

So, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, or pondering today?


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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23 thoughts on “Sunday Morning! J.G. Ballard’s Shopping Maul

  1. 1990, I *LOVED* going to Chapel Hills Mall. It had an arcade, it had computer game stores, it had a food court, it had toy stores, it was *AWESOME*.

    I had to go to there for something or other last October. No more arcade. No computer game stores. No toy stores. It had a food court, but it’s not very good anymore. Sbarro is gone and the greek place uses tzatziki that comes from a can that could easily be mistaken for mayo.

    Soap stores. Hip Clothing stores. Jewelry stores. Sporting Goods stores.

    I thought that they might have a Gamestop there but it was gone, so I had to get what I needed at wallyworld (I never shop there, unless I have to).

    The mall used to have something for everybody. Now it doesn’t.

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    • Chapel Hill in northeast Ohio? Brother, that was my home mall. Though my family had moved away by 1990, and I had left for college in ’87.

      But that was where we went for movies – where I saw the 70s incarnation of Pete’s Dragon, and later, with a school friend, “The Goonies.” It was where “school shoes” were purchased at Miller’s Stride-Rite. It was where I promised my mother to do the dishes every night for a month, PROMISE, if she advanced me the money for a stuffed animal I wanted at the toy store….

      I admit it: I kind of miss malls. The one nearest me is moribund, having been largely replaced by one of those weird reincarnations of the “strip malls” (which, when I was a kid, were definitely seen as a poor second to a “real” mall). I get that enclosed malls are hard to heat and cool, and they have the “loiterer” problem, but….in a hot climate like where I live now, it sucks to try to walk between megastores on the too-small and not shaded outdoor sidewalks, and it feels wasteful to get BACK in your car after going to Target and drive the equivalent of a few blocks (and have to find parking again) if you want to go to the Books-A-Million.

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        • Oh, okay. I was thinking maybe I’d encountered another “expatriate” NE Ohioan…

          I miss malls and I don’t. I miss being able to easily try on shoes and clothes, and the “destination” where there was a lot of shopping. I don’t miss the crowds, and I don’t miss the rude kids who were unpleasant to be around….

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  2. I suspect that the reason that shopping malls are dying in the US and the UK* is that you guys never really figured out the trick of getting traffic.

    If you can get a supermarket, a cineplex, a department store, a stationery and book store, a few fast food places and food courts into the same building you will get traffic.The key is to locate these in such a way that people have to pass by the other shops in the mall in order to get to these places. The problem for you guys is that you already tend to have all these housed in other buildings. So, unless you are specifically doing some clothes shopping (some of which is migrating online) shopping malls which don’t have these amenities will not attract traffic.

    *In Singapore, there is a constant process where malls get built, become obsolete and then get renovated/replaced by other malls.

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    • Lots of American malls have anchor stores that are big department stores. The big mall in San Francisco (the Westfield, right on market street) contains a Nordstrom and a Bloomingdales. There is also a cinema and a great food court (because this is San Francisco, duh).

      There used to be a super market there too called Bristol Farms but it shut down. You are right that we don’t do Supermarkets in shopping malls as much.

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    • The process in Colorado is much as you describe in Singapore except since we’re not all that crowded (especially down here in the Springs), the “replacement malls” have turned into mini-shopping villages that have all those things you list, I’d call them strip malls but they’re really far too vast to be called that. They’re tiny cities worth of very large shops, cheekbyjowl, with restaurants mingled in and a giant multiplex to anchor.

      Since we are not that crowded, the actual old school malls also die a slow lingering death rather than getting ripped down and destroyed at crowded-urban-island rates. I can think of one of them that’s being turned into a tiny-city-of-megastore-shopping village, actually, and several of those have also sprung up in the *vicinity* of the mall Jaybird is mourning.

      tl;dr it’s not that the thing is missing, or we don’t know how; it’s just wearing slightly different clothes.

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  3. As far as Will Self on this; his first point has been obvious for a long time, the only issue being that Ballard was never taken as seriously as he should have been. The second point, this is now obvious and I can’t stop thinking “of course.”

    I grew up in a small college town, about 30k people when I was a kid. The downtown was, if not famous, considered quite an asset. There was a small mall out on the edge of town, but it was never a thing that people when to hang out in/at. So the mall culture thing kinda passed me by. But, as my son went to college there, I would find myself back as an adult but with the memory patterns of the kid who grew up in that place. It had simply morphed into an outdoor mall. The shops, formerly small indies and local businesses, now became imports of corporate commercial culture. There were still holdouts, the record store, a locals bar, etc. But the number of used bookstores had dropped to one, no local clothing stores, the art supply and hobby shop was replaced by Michaels. And you know the rest. Commercialism had replaced localism.

    I now live college town adjacent, but in another state, and see that little town fight to keep those forces at bay. I am not sure that they can without severely bending the ideas of freedom. I am not sure I want them to.

    Nice thoughtful piece Rufus

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  4. There is incidentally a very good history of consumerism that came out in 2016 called Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First. The thesis is that humans have had consumerist tendencies since we evolved, anti-consumerist critiques existed just as long, and consumerism isn’t going away.

    Democracies have been debating whether consumerism hurts democracy ever since Ancient Athens. The nature of consumerism varies. The Ancient Athenians were very worried about people loosing virtue because they could eat tuna rather than the traditionally austere ancient Greek diet. The belief that some amount of self-denial, especially when it comes to material goods, might be as old as material goods themselves.

    I’m off two minds about it. On the one hand, I can see their point. Many people really do loose themselves in consumerism and suffer problems, sometimes quite serious ones, as a result. They possibly aren’t as happy as they belief they are.

    In a more pro-consumerist direction, we have seen the types of societies that very austere people create when they have a chance. They aren’t necessarily conducive to human happiness either. Many of them, say the Taliban’s Afghanistan, were actively against happiness. Other austere regimes, let us use the Communists as an example, were in favor of human happiness but not quite as good as providing. Joy seems to require a certain amount of frippery and frivolousness; which might explain why very serious people have not been that big on joy as an emotion. Consumerism provides the frippery and frivolousness.

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  5. Incidentally, the Shopping Mall as we know it was created by a refugee Jew from Austria trying to provide what he saw as a bit of glamorous downtown Vienna into what he saw as dreariness of American shopping/living. It did not quite work out how he expected.

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  6. Ballard really did contain multitudes. I’m most familiar with his SF from the 60s. He was one one of the leading figures of the New Wave, a group of writers who introduced mainstream literary techniques and tropes into the genre. This was highly controversial at the time (the traditionalists’ anger is very similar to the Sad Puppies’), though looking back it’s hard to see what the fuss was about; good SF writers had always gone beyond the supposed boundaries of the field. But Ballard’s stuff, the Vermillion Sands stories being a good example, remain as fresh and strange as the day they were written,

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  7. Our local mall is struggling badly. Not quite the problems you depict but still half-abandoned. They are now talking about putting a mini-casino in there (it’s been on hold for years because the local govt will neither approve nor reject the application).

    One thing they’re doing though, which more malls should do, is putting in things you can’t get online. My daughter’s dance studio is there. They just put a bounce house place in. A gym has moved in. If they converted one of the abandoned megastores into a hotel/conference center, they’d be sitting pretty.

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  8. I reread Sydney Taylor’s All of A Kind Family this week and while I mostly was struck by the juxtaposition of real problems and idyllic family life, I also spent a fair amount of time thinking about her description of the shops, their market-like character, and how much they reminded me of the market streets I’ve been to in Paris. Now thinking about that in this context as well. So many thoughts.

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