Notes on megamalls
Big Mall: Shopping for Meaning
by Kate Black
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2024
$23.95 / 9781552454725
Reviewed by Logan Macnair
Did you know that there are more submarines in West Edmonton Mall than in the entire Canadian navy?
Actually, this hasn’t been true for well over ten years now, but it is a factoid that I will still occasionally hear people in BC repeat as if it were. That’s just one example of the many statistical ‘facts’ and urban legends that add to the allure and mystique of West Edmonton Mall–the largest shopping centre in the world (another ‘fact’ that hasn’t been true for twenty years now, but is still erroneously stated on occasion).
With Big Mall: Shopping for Meaning author Kate Black attempts to demystify the history of Canada’s most famous consumerist landmark by taking a magnifying glass to West Edmonton Mall specifically, but also to the concept of shopping malls more generally.
As a historical account, Big Mall traces the relatively young concept of ‘the mall’ from its origins during the post-World War II years to the more recent ‘one-stop, bigger than ever, world-class entertainment’ ambitions of places like West Edmonton Mall. We learn about the origins of the mall as a concept, the post-War economic prosperity that allowed them to happen, and the aspiring families that made them a reality.
While interesting enough on its own, the draw here is not just in Black’s well-researched history of the shopping mall, but in the cultural critiques and anecdotal experiences she provides.
Alberta-raised Vancouver resident Black grew up within the figurative shadow of West Edmonton Mall and has a personal history with it that she interweaves with her larger study of the shopping mall as a modern cultural phenomenon.
Black’s memories as an impressionable teenager hanging out in the mall’s stores, water park, amusement park, and other attractions provide some personal context and allow us to experience the mall through her eyes, and while these memories are specific to her, I suspect they are somewhat universal in how malls were and perhaps still are experienced by people of a certain age or generation.
The mall, as Black remembers it, is a place of endless adolescent and teenage possibilities–of reinvention, of social acceptance, of consumerist fulfillment, of experiencing a world closed off and isolated from the dangers beyond its walls.
With the benefit of hindsight and adult reflection, however, Black peels off this glossy veneer to reveal the less attractive qualities of the mall as a cultural institution.
Topics here range from the specific, including accidental fatalities and several examples of the harsh treatment of exotic ‘mall animals,’ to the more abstract, including moral panic around youth deviance and ‘mallrats,’ the inherent colonialism of malls, and the shallow consumerism of late capitalism.
It helps here that Black’s writing style is highly personable, informal, conversational, self-reflexive, and occasionally confessional, as if she is addressing the reader as she might a close friend. The approach allows Big Mall to shift rather seamlessly from memoir to modern history of the mall, to cultural critique, to self-effacing love letter to her hometown’s most famous institution without the book ever becoming wholly defined by just one of these formats.
The book is also, crucially, a meditation on the nature of change, memory, and nostalgia and the examination of shopping malls acts as an inconspicuous avenue with which to explore these larger themes.
Black depicts malls as spaces that permeate our memories and subconsciousness, both individually (as frequent settings of her dreams and as spaces tied to very specific memories, some of which she shares) but also collectively, as Black considers the recent popularity of the ‘dead mall aesthetic’ among online, predominantly younger demographics.
Discourse around and attraction to vaporwave music (which repurposes the ‘Muzak’ once pumped throughout shopping centers), ‘backroom posting,’ and the fetishization of the imagery of eighties and nineties malls amongst Gen Z and Millennials are used as evidence of some collective imagining of what the mall was ‘supposed’ to be, an image that no longer exists and can only now be experienced through the second-hand memories of others.
This is a phenomenon that cultural theorists Jaques Derrida and Mark Fisher (the latter of which Black name drops as being integral to her own ideological outlook and development) referred to as ‘hauntology.’ Put simply, the imagery and promises of the past continue to ‘haunt’ and influence the future, and there is perhaps no physical space that exemplifies this concept better than the shopping mall–spaces that once represented the height, majesty, and potential of consumer capitalism, now undercut by collapse and decay and semi-ironically venerated by young people who never experienced them firsthand.
“My first reaction to any change is an immediate longing for things to stay the same,” Black confesses, expressing a sentiment likely shared by many. The mall Black experienced as a teenager and nostalgically recalls today may have the same name and be in the same location, but it is not the same place that she remembers and it never can be.
Black comes to terms, as much as she’s able, with the idea of change and especially of collapse, whether in the literal sense of the word (as when she details a time when West Edmonton Mall’s parkade ceiling collapsed) or of a metaphorical collapse of the very system that sustains these malls in the first place. “A bigger collapse is surely coming,” Black augurs toward the end of the book, and it is clear that she isn’t just talking about another roof.
Despite the foreboding, she ends the book on a note of hope—with a lasting gratitude for the mall and what it could still represent, and with the acknowledgement that it helped shape the person she has become.
[Editor’s note: Kate Black will launch Big Mall in Vancouver on Saturday Feb 24, 7-10pm @ The Ellis Building (1024 Main Street)]
Logan Macnair is a novelist and college instructor based out of Burnaby. His academic research is primarily focused on the online narrative, recruitment, and propaganda campaigns of various political extremist movements. His second novel Troll (Now Or Never Publishing, 2023) is a fictionalized account based on his many years of studying online extremist groups. [Editor’s note: Jessica Poon reviewed Troll in BRC. Logan Macnair reviewed Kawika Guillermo and James Hoggan with Grania Litwin for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster