Sometimes I’m not sure what to make of the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Look at its processes, and you might conclude it’s not worth paying attention to – often it seems to come down more than anything to which books have the most vociferous supporters. And the make-up of this year’s shortlist suggests there are structural issues with the Prize’s processes, which I believe are now being looked at.
But – fair’s fair – for all its flaws, the Not the Booker has a track record of highlighting interesting books. I’ve read all bar one of the previous winners, and all were very much worth my time. So I’m not about to dismiss a title associated with the Not the Booker Prize lightly, not even when – like Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall – it attracted a deluge of nominations at a stage where the guidelines clearly stated only one per book was necessary. That alone almost put me off Tales from the Mall; but a book deserves to be judged on its own merits, and this one sounded genuinely interesting – so I decided to read it. I’m glad I did.
In his introduction, Morrison describes Tales from the Mall as an attempt to ‘document the folk culture of the mall’ (p. 8). The book is built from short stories, retold anecdotes, and factual sections; loosely structured as a journey around a mall. This is a structure which neatly mirrors the subject: a shopping mall is a place where people gather together but have very separate, individual experiences; Morrison presents a set of individual pieces which collectively tell a broader ‘story’ about the mall.
The different types of text in Tales from the Mall serve different functions. Broadly speaking, the factual material shows the intentions behind the mall: it’s a controlled and controlling space (one designed to encourage people to stay and shop; given names meant to evoke certain reassuring qualities), but also one where that can be subverted (one of the chapters is a list of pranks taken from a social networking site). The fiction and anecdotes, however, are more about the actuality, suggesting the different roles that malls might play in people’s lives.
It’s striking how few of Morrison’s characters are at the mall primarily to shop. In this book, the mall may be a neutral space where a separated father goes to meet his children. It may be a place to arrange a meeting with a blind date – somewhere to create a new persona. It may be the place to escape from life’s woes. Morrison paints a nuanced picture of an institution (institutions, really) being put to many more uses than the one for which it was designed.
The characterisation within individual stories can sometimes veer towards the stereotypical (the separated mother in ‘Food Court’, with her extensive assortment of modern-day worries about her children’s health, springs to mind). But I think it’s fair to observe that everything in Tales from the Mall – characterisation included – has been shaped to serve the book’s wider project. The real protagonist of this book is ‘the mall’ itself, less as a specific place than as a concept. It’s an idea that remains in flux, as malls themselves face competition from online shopping, and are re-emerging with apartments attached as a means of trying retain their usefulness.
There’s been some questioning over whether Tales from the Mall should have been eligible for the Not the Booker Prize – is it actually a novel, or a collection of short stories? For the purposes of this review, that doesn’t really matter, though I have (deliberately) been calling it a ‘book’ rather than anything more specific. I do find myself thinking about Morrison’s book as a complete unit, though. It feels like a composite portrait of its subject, and a different way of approaching fiction. If the Not the Booker brings to light more works with the distinctiveness of Tales of the Mall, then it’s worth following.
Ewan Morrison’s website
Interview with Morrison at Scots Whay Hae!
Some other reviews of Tales from the Mall: Savidge Reads; Subtle Melodrama Book Reviews; Paul Reviews Books; Stuart Kelly for the Guardian.