Title: The Mall
Author: SL Grey
Publisher: Corvus Books
Review by Janet van Eeden
SL Grey’s first novel, The Mall, makes a bold and dramatic debut on the South African fiction stage. This fresh and sassy horror/thriller moves into a class of its own, yet it shares the territory with works by Lauren Beukes, who has made her mark as the queen of the street-smart, punk-grunge South African novel.
When Dan, a shop assistant for Only Books in an upmarket Johannesburg mall with a penchant for Emo style, meets Rhoda, a black South African girl with a British accent who looks like she’s been living on the streets for some time, their worlds shift off their axes. Every familiar aspect of their lives is tweaked just enough to make them realise that something is very wrong with the environment they find themselves in after they meet.
Dan survives his dead-end job in Only Books as best he can. He’s one of life’s outsiders, even though he tries to be cool with his blackened Emo hair and idiosyncratic way of dressing. He survives the daily grind by nursing the mother of all crushes on Josie, the pretty blonde shop assistant working alongside him. But she has eyes only for Bradley, their supervisor, who puts the “super” in “superficial”.
Rhoda is at the mall ostensibly to entertain a young boy, Carlos, who is in her care for a few hours. She also makes the most of her time to score a small stash of cocaine and, in a moment of inattention, loses sight of the boy. In her panic, she offends the security guards on duty and dashes into Only Books, the last place she remembers seeing her charge, to ask Dan to help her find the boy. Dan is annoyed by Rhoda and her scruffiness. She also has an unsightly scar down her face and body and dresses in a way that he finds just a bit too grungy for his taste.
Reluctantly he agrees to help her and they go out into one of the many corridors off the main aisles of the mall, where someone remembers seeing Carlos.
Suddenly they find themselves in a world where everything is just not right. Rooms are full of dead bodies. At second glance they discover that the bodies are dismembered mannequins, which is only slightly less horrifying. Lifts don’t have buttons to press and don’t stop in designated areas. Rooms are either full of mirrors or have no windows at all. There are other people on their journey too, but they are not quite like anyone these two have ever met before. And they certainly wouldn’t want to meet them again. Everyone and everything is just too threatening. Even the messages they receive on their cell phones are cause for alarm.
Once they finally penetrate the shadowy underworld of the mall, they reach a nerve centre where they are given a choice: they can live the rest of their lives in contentment, fulfilling just one aspect of their personalities to the full. This way promises satisfaction and peace. What they aren’t told is that they will also lose their own volition. They decide to escape. But escape brings with it even more complications than they could ever imagine. No matter which way they turn, there is no easy way out.
The Mall is a fast-paced, compelling read, a thrill-a-minute ride into an Alice in Wonderland world which delves into the heart of consumerist culture. The novel displays aspects of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, but has a uniquely South African flavour. Read The Mall for a roller coaster ride into your worst nightmare. It’s an excellent read which left me feeling slightly exhausted by its imaginative twists and turns and strangely wary of ever going shopping again.
Photo: Pagan Wicks
Louis and Sarah, it’s very unusual to write a book together, but you have done a seamless job. It’s very hard to tell who wrote what. I did try and work out whether Sarah’s voice was Rhoda’s and Louis’s voice was Dan’s. But it was merely an intellectual exercise as there were no obvious signs of different authorship. How did you go about tackling such a difficult task? Did you decide beforehand whether Louis would write one section or did you alternate? And how did you find the co-writing process? Where there ever moments of frustration when you wished you were writing the book alone? What are the pros and cons of working on a joint project like this? Do you have to be particularly careful in your choice of writing partner, for example?
Sarah: We wrote the novel progressively – each of us writing in the voice of a different character and following on from where the other left off.
Working with Louis was a great learning experience, especially as we come from such different standpoints – he’s a professional editor and a literary novelist; I tend to err on the side of the mainstream. I think both of us were surprised at how well our seemingly different styles melded, especially as Louis is a superb stylist and is always aware of the deeper implications of what we’re doing, whereas I’m generally more concerned with pacing and making sure we have enough maggoty bits.
Having worked as a scriptwriter I’m used to collaborating – prefer it, in fact. After all, two (dark) imaginations are better than one. I think it worked so well because we’re both pretty laid-back, neither of us is precious, and it helped that we both have warped imaginations and a somewhat sick sense of humour. I don’t remember once feeling frustrated and I never wished I was writing the novel alone!
Louis: Sarah and I come from quite different writing backgrounds and in SL Grey we pool our skills. I’ve learned a fabulous amount about dialogue and pace and discipline from working with Sarah.
We work very well together. The fact that we live in different cities and communicate mainly by e-mail keeps us focussed on the job. We’re very lucky to have the same work ethic and we often develop a nice, speedy momentum. Which is not to say that we don’t have our bad days when we think we’re writing rubbish, but the pace demands that we just get on with it. Sarah’s expecting my chapter. I have to write it and I can’t agonise. That’s one of the biggest benefits of the collaboration. We keep driving each other in a way I can’t manage on solo projects. When I’m feeling down, Sarah often is in a mood to give me a pep talk, and vice versa. The collaboration also allows me to be a far stricter editor and less precious writer than on my solo work. Sarah keeps asking big-picture questions, and won’t let inconsistencies or plot holes stand.
Did you have the same idea about what your subject matter should be from the start or did it take many hours of discussion to get to the premise you decided on in the end?
Sarah: Louis and I initially planned to write a zombie/vampire satirical mash-up, but after we discovered a shared loathing of malls, we immediately saw the potential for creating something scary, relatable and (hopefully) unique. At the risk of sounding arsey, it was an organic process, we didn’t have a rigid plot structure and we had fun with exquisite-corpse-style chapter endings – leaving each other to write the characters out of impossible situations (such as being stuck in a plummeting lift or doorless room).
Louis: The plot kept evolving as we wrote. We started The Mall with Dan and Rhoda, whom we could see very clearly, and a generic mall. That was all. Then the first chapters, copious e-mails asking where to next, and those tricky cliffhangers. Writing it was sort of like a make-your-own-adventure book.
Your two main characters are very well defined and have a few familiar yet idiosyncratic character traits. How did you decide on these two main characters for your story? Did you see people like them that sparked the ideas for their characters or did you come up with the two by a process of brainstorming and “spitballing”?
Sarah: I can’t speak for Louis, but Rhoda definitely has some of my character traits (we’re both physically scarred, foul-mouthed outsiders who are slightly self-destructive), but clearly there are major differences as well. But to use the old cliché, Rhoda appeared fully formed – I don’t remember ever agonising over who she was, and she’s not directly based on anyone I know.
Louis: Dan’s character was also very clear to me from the start. I worked in a bookshop in a plush mall for four years, so writing Dan’s story was cathartic for me, and is dedicated to disgruntled retail workers everywhere.
You set your story in a standard shopping mall, the kind which is familiar to all city dwellers, but which turns on its head in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way with more sinister undertones. A normal visit to the mall becomes a nightmarish experience for the two young protagonists. What made you choose to focus on the unlikely setting of a mall for your horror story?
Sarah: Our agent describes the novel as Alice in Wonderland meets David Cronenberg, so it’s terrific you picked up on this! There’s something disquieting about shopping malls: those hidden service corridors that lurk beneath the polished facade, the replicated inanity of the chain stores, and of course mannequins are just plain disturbing (fake people, ugh). As many people view a trip to the mall as a harmless leisure activity, it was a fun challenge to twist this everyday setting into a nightmarish landscape.
Louis: Sarah came to visit while we were incubating the first novel’s plot and we poked around the back corridors of a couple of malls near me, and we thought this could be really scary. From my days working in the shop I was comfortable in the corridors, but they freaked Sarah out, because she’s such a Shopper.
The horror/thriller genre has fairly restrictive conventions. Have you written horror before, and if so, did the conventions free you in a way or did they make it more difficult to write this particular novel? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
Sarah: I’ve never found the horror genre to be restrictive – quite the opposite, in fact. I read and write a lot of horror stories, and along with crime fiction it’s where I’m most comfortable as a writer. I like the idea of taking an everyday scenario and subtly warping it to create a gut-twisting sense of wrongness. Certainly the fact that we were writing horror allowed us to indulge our twisted imaginations – we had great fun creating the language of the mirror mall world and discovering how our “real-world” characters would deal with this.
Louis: I don’t think the form is restrictive at all. I’m not aware of any strict formulaic conventions in horror. Sarah has an encyclopaedic knowledge of horror film and fiction, and while my MA topic was a psychoanalytical reading of vampire fiction. Sarah is intimate with what’s scary in contemporary fiction and what doesn’t work, and I’m trained in how horror can mess with your head. If we have any guiding principle, it’s to write real characters in totally bizarre situations. We want the book to engage the reader; we want you to be party to the choices the characters make, not for it to be complete fantasy that you can distance yourself from. We want you to think: What would I do?
Your story also satirises consumerism in all its guises, which adds a lovely spice to the narrative. I laughed out loud at some of your blatant examples of bluntly realistic advertising. (A McDonald’s-like shop is called McColon and sells burgers such as Cheeselike, and fries are called Oil and Salt Starch Sticks). Did you set out to satirise the extremely materialistic way of life which South Africans seem to be embracing in these post-apartheid days? Do you think consumerism has replaced the causes we used to fight for before 1994? What are your feelings about this?
Sarah: I think consumerism and materialism are global issues and clearly the desire to buy useless crap stems from advertising and the celebrity cult, which is ripe for satire.
Louis: I don’t think the satire is restricted to South Africa or to post-apartheid. This sort of satire was as relevant in the American Psycho ‘80s as it is now. It focuses simply on marketing’s techniques, anywhere. Our mall is an “everymall”, as much a fixture of South Africa as of Buenos Aires, Manchester, Perth or LA.
You also have a few in-jokes about fellow writers. I couldn’t help but notice a shopper called De Nooy, which rang a bell with me. Our fellow writer Richard De Nooy was obviously your target there. It seems that you had a lot of fun writing this novel and I imagine you sharing many hours over coffee planning your next sequence of events. Is this how it was and did you both write separately only after you’d had long discussions?
Sarah: (Sorry, Richard!) We used his name in the novel because we admire his writing, knew he had an awesome sense of humour and hoped he would get a kick out of it. We had a great time writing the novel, but as I live in Cape Town and Louis lives in Johannesburg, most of our discussions were done via e-mail. I have kept most of the e-mails, and some are hilarious (others are just plain disturbing). I don’t think we could ever publish them without people urging us to seek psychological help.
Louis: Richard’s a good friend of ours, so we thought he could have the first cameo for free. We’re not closed to the idea of selling cameos in future. But yes, we had a lot of fun. We came up with the idea as a lark while we were at a pub, bunking an academic seminar, and that spirit has worked well for us. It’s a good way to write a book, and I try to return to that nothing-to-lose-nothing-to-gain attitude we had in that pub.
Just like Alice in Wonderland and in all good hero’s journey stories, the two protagonists have to take what they’ve experienced back into the so-called real world. Their experiences have changed them forever. If you could leave your readers with only one message after they have read your novel, what would that be?
Sarah: You can never go home again (but if you try, it’s probably a good idea to take the stairs, not the lift).
Louis: I have no message; enjoy the story.
Would you two work together on another project? If so, what? Can we look forward to another SL Grey horror/thriller? And if not, what are you working on separately at the moment? What can we look forward to next from you?
Sarah: Louis and I have just finished our second SL Grey novel, The Wards. It’s set in a fictional state hospital and expands on the downside world we created in The Mall. I’m currently writing a YA horror series with my daughter Savannah (another collaboration under yet another pseudonym!). The first book, Deadlands, has just been published by Penguin SA. I also have a couple of other genre projects in the pipeline, and I can’t wait to get cracking on the next novel with Louis.
Louis: We’ll start on the third SL Grey book in the middle of the year. All the novels we write as SL Grey will be stand-alone novels but set in the same universe we’ve established in The Mall. Readers will gradually learn more about how that world works. Deadlands is by Lily Herne, by the way. It’s really something fresh and exciting. Everyone secretly wants to see what their own city will look like after a zombie apocalypse and now Capetonians can. If it were set in Jo’burg, I’m not sure we’d notice the difference.