Any tourist can describe Burmese jungles or the snows of Kilimanjaro. It takes talent to write a travel book about shopping malls. “I am writing a book on boredom, on repetition, on déjà vu, on replication, on the dysphasia of constructed landscapes, on the tackiness of the world and how it is shrinking,” writes Swiss author Rinny Gremaud.
All The World’s A Mall pops and snaps. It is outstanding. “It never ceases to amaze me how fatalistic people are about the ugly environments they live in,” she writes. Yes, the food courts in Edmonton and Casablanca look much alike. Yet Gremaud’s book is no tiresome rant against commercialism. She captures the contrasts of life on Earth through the lens of shopping centres.
It’s easy to sneer at malls as “sinister places, cultural and aesthetic deserts where the dead souls of a population that has converted to the religion of consumerism mill around,” writes Gremaud. They are much more.
Our correspondent visits Alberta, “almost rectangular,” she tells European readers. “If it were a country it would be somewhere between Qatar and Norway in terms of petrodollars per inhabitant.”
At the airport Gremaud encounters labourers bound for Fort McMurray, an industrial city “in the middle of the boreal forest,” she explains. Here “you can earn a six-figure salary without having finished high school,” adding: “Alcohol and sex are reputed to be rampant.”
In Edmonton in January, Gremaud correctly notes the predominant feature of local life is the climate. It was minus 23 degrees Celsius with night winds that could freeze batteries, but in the windowless West Edmonton Mall “the sun never sets,” she writes: “The lighting has turned white. The effect is daytime busy-ness in this long two-storey tunnel with its glass dome. The night and the freezing cold outside are mere abstractions, long-gone memories of an animal condition.”
Outside is hypothermia. Inside, “there is a strange background noise, fizzing fountains, footsteps slapping or squealing as the acoustics change with the height of the ceiling.”
Gremaud spent two days inside West Edmonton Mall in January. The profundity of the experience dawns later. “The indoor corridors that were lined with shop windows let me indulge in a kind of mental streetwalking,” she writes. “I could think about everything and nothing, why commerce exists, the value of things, the nature of exoticism.”
All The World’s A Mall tours the shopping centres of Kuala Lumpur, a city “yellow with pollution, red with congested traffic.” In Casablanca, Morocco Mall corridors run like “intestines of a whale lit up with neon tubes” and security guards enforce a dress code to keep out local slum dwellers. “Casablanca feels hostile,” writes Gremaud.
Beijing’s Golden Resources New Yansha Mall attempts to mimic West Edmonton Mall but fails, she notes. It is cockroach infested, has an “illogical arrangement of the elevators and escalators” and retail tenants selling a “diverse and wacky assortment of stuff” like harmonicas and chicken feet. “I haven’t bought a thing,” writes Gremaud. “At a certain cynical point there are no souvenirs for anyone.”
The Dubai Mall by contrast is spotless. Doorways are 15 metres high. There is a pond filled with tiger sharks. A cellphone store sells diamond iPhone cases for $1,300. Outside are sidewalks where nobody walks and greenspaces irrigated with drinking water that “are a nonsense that nobody notices,” says All The World’s A Mall. “Who in this era of touchscreen pleasures will look out the tinted windows at the landscape flowing by while ensconced in the back of a chauffeur-driven car?”
All The World’s A Mall is fresh and funny and sad. It is the best thing since free parking.
By Holly Doan
All The World’s A Mall by Rinny Gremaud; University of Alberta Press; 152 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-7126; $24.99