Kit Dobson, an associate professor of English at Mount Royal University, is ambitious. In Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada, he wants to approach malls and shopping spaces from a cultural perspective—through the presence of malls in art—while also seeking to understand malls through architecture, geography and their role as a private, pseudo-public space. A self-professed “inveterate mall hater,” he hopes the book will be an act of “humility and, hopefully, compassion” on his part.
That there are so many goals for a book of just 200 pages is perhaps one of the reasons it can seem muddled. Each chapter is structured as a descriptive, first-person account of walking through malls like Calgary’s Chinook Centre, Toronto’s Eaton Centre and a Walmart in Whitehorse. This provides context, but the descriptions can be over-long or feel unnecessary. Intriguing questions are peppered throughout, but—frustratingly—Dobson offers few answers. In a chapter in Montreal, for example, he searches for “what it means to consume” there, only to conclude “I learned not only of my own inadequacy in understanding what it means to consume in Montreal: I learned equally that the stories of shopping and consumerism are manifold.”
Though prone to vagueness, Dobson clearly has an axe to grind. His assertion that we are in late-stage capitalism is taken as axiomatically true, for instance, as with his comments on Dongguan’s South China Mall, known as a “ghost mall” due to a high vacancy rate from 2005 to 2015. “Built according to the excessive norms that are one hallmark of contemporary capitalism, it is already failing. It is a future ruin, and we can already see the process at work.” In an endnote, he says “the mall was ‘relaunched’ in 2015 and seems to be busier now,” with a link to a CNN article. That he acknowledges a contradictory point is laudable, but to not include it in his main text raises eyebrows.
The best parts of Malled are when the author uses poetry, film, paintings and books that incorporate the places he visits to reflect on them from a cultural perspective. One chapter sees Dobson weave poet Heather Spears’s West Edmonton Mall-inspired work throughout his writing, a sounding board for musings such as: “Whether we exist inside the mall or outside of it—whether we embrace it or shun it—we nevertheless exist in some relationship to West Ed and the other malls around us.” Other chapters quote storytellers such as Ivan Coyote and Todd Babiak, opening a more complex narrative than might first be apparent. “Though we seem to be consuming our planet to the grave,” writes Dobson, “community is forming at the mall, and the mall is and will remain a site of complex contestation.”
—Andrew Guilbert is assistant editor at Calgary’s Avenue magazine.