Gruen transfer is the phenomenon of entering a shopping mall with a specific purchase in mind, only to be confused into buying something else. Ewan Morrison's brief description of how Gruen – designer of the first modern mall and a committed socialist – came to be known for such capitalist sleight-of-hand is clear-eyed and crisp. Yet it also acts as a suitable metaphor for this ambitious yet awkwardly executed mash-up of fiction, history and biography.
Looking at its kitschy jacket, Tales from the Mall seems to present itself as a Gen-X style romp through the oddness of modern capitalism. A flick through the photo-dotted pages, however, suggests a kind of urban Sebald; a poetic rumination on the cultural and social implications of out-of-town shopping centres. What Morrison has created is neither one nor the other: not quite a collection of short stories; not as fluid and resonant as psychogeography.
Tales strives towards a new way to express modern culture, but too often its literary architecture does not do justice to its aspirations. The poorly reproduced look of the illustrations and mall-style symbols are often a Gruen-esque distraction from the text. This is a shame, as stories such as "Recycling" and the oddly compelling history of the shopping mall deserve the reader's full attention. Morrison glides us through people's lives, picking up tips for creating havoc at malls, digesting facts and stats, dipping into the loneliness at the heart of consumerism. The effect is, like a mall, mostly dazzling.
Morrison is always ready to find disquiet and unease in the most banal of places. His book is populated by small lives in the shadow of the multi-national, delivered in a sympathetic manner. There is the odd stilted moment but, even with the problems in structure, His writing remains fresh and inventive. Imperfect it may be, but Morrison's keen eye and verve make this book an enjoyable, fascinating and frustrating attempt at redefining story in these consumer-driven times.