Solo performer and writer Eric Bogosian has made a name for himself as the raging voice of suburban alienation and violence in evening-length monologues like Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead, the recent Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, and most famously Talk Radio. He has also expanded his gruff New York attitude into the minds of the disgruntled, nihilistic teens of the play and film subUrbia. Now, with Mall, he makes his first foray into the novel format. Naturally, he comes out swinging, with an aggressive, hard-edged narrative, unfolding in 56 bulletlike chapters, some only a page or so long. Like an amateur boxer, he has some dumb luck, an admirably high degree of energy, and simple, streamlined ambitions, but not all of the punches connect.
Bogosian splits the point of view among a herd of characters who find themselves in the same shopping center on the unlucky night when a spree killer strikes. Formerly unassertive nebbish and crystal meth addict Mal (appropriately named with a pun) murders his mother and then heads over to the tuxedo shop where he used to work, heavily armed and hell-bent on vengeance. The other, more random characters include Michel, a Haitian security guard; Danny, a married guy caught surreptitiously masturbating in a lingerie shop; and some aimless teens ripped out of subUrbia, like lovelorn acid-tripper Jeff and food-addict-in-a-bad-marriage Donna. Except for Michel, the characters seem somewhat mixed-and-matched, written with a shorthand for complexity pioneered by Bogosian’s theater and later co-opted by filmmakers like Neil LaBute. In a play, where the viewer has a limited time to grasp all the information about the characters, this technique does not feel quite so one-dimensional. Yet it lends the first half of the novel a splendid momentum, like a B movie in which the real protagonist is the capsized boat, the hurricane, or Godzilla, and the humans only fodder designed to feed our bloodlust.
The banality of most of the characters’ internal monologues ratchets up the tension every time we return to Mal’s point of view and see him loading up weapons and pumping himself full of drugs. Hausfrau Donna seethes with hatred for her unseen husband, Roy, chugs Coffee Coolatas, and does a changing-room striptease for Danny, who gets arrested for peeping at her. Meanwhile, Jeff, a disenfranchised white dreadhead, muses over his puppy love, Adelle, while on acid. The only truly satisfying payoff, it begins to seem, would be for people leading such empty lives to die the gory deaths we assume are in store. Not until Chapter 12, when Michel appears, do we encounter a character with a past and some real connection to his own life. He emigrated from Port-au-Prince with his wife, who, despite the efforts of voudon priests, died of a mysterious illness shortly thereafter. Unlike the others, he is not a slave to addiction, nor does his numb existence cry out for sensation. Surely this deep guy, a security guard to boot, is our hero.
But when the violence comes, the consequences for the other characters are practically nil. Though the mall is crawling with sharpshooters and the tuxedo shop is on fire, they go on as if nothing happened. Danny’s let off by the cops, who are under more pressure to snag the spree killer. He winds up getting tortured by mean adolescents. Jeff and Donna wander off the mall grounds to have a pornographic encounter in a hotel room. Even Michel’s brush with the killer fails miserably. What starts out as a thriller peters out into nihilism.
The real meat for an author dealing with this subject is in the aftermath, once the event has altered people’s lives and the past demands excavation. True enough, random sex and violence abhor analysis; they erupt for impulsive, senseless reasons. But you begin to wish that Bogosian would offer more insight about his tragic plot than Jeff’s confused, LSD-inspired existentialist pouting. “What difference did it make?” he muses when it’s all over. “All that thinking and passion and desire to see the big picture was a thing only book people cared about . . . trying to understand was old-fashioned. . . . The mall was here and now and that was all that counted.” Perhaps “life sucks and then you die” is Bogosian’s message, but surely there are easier ways to make this point than writing a novel.
Nevertheless, Mall is a crisp, snappy read, reminiscent of a fleshed-out screenplay. You can easily imagine it winding up on Stone’s or Tarantino’s silver screen. Bogosian writes economically, with little fuss and great urgency. He has always had a sharp eye for detail, especially the squalid minutiae of suburban decay, and this book is no exception. From time to time metaphor gets the best of him: “Danny was numbly suspended in a viscous jelly of excitement.” Other times he nails it: “The pain danced like lightning in a black summer sky.” In a longer, more contemplative story, Bogosian might have whittled the multiple POVs and shifted the narrative focus, but even in his solo work, his strong suit has not been subtle, sensitive commentary. If art is the mirror of a culture, Bogosian is the type of artist who smashes you over the head with it.