It’s been a bad few decades for reality. In the early 1990s, shows like Cops and Rescue 911 began conflating truth and scripted life. Then, around the turn of the millennium, the explosion of reality TV made the word “reality” mean exactly its opposite. From there, it’s only gotten worse: the unknown knowns, Fox News, the simulation hypothesis, the birth and engorgement of social media, influencers, virtual assistants, alternative facts, deepfakes, fake news, QAnon, the Big Lie, and a pandemic that wrenched the world into a state of surreal, suspended anxiety. It’s not surprising, then, that we are so hungry for distractions and activities that make us feel good, that evoke fond memories, and that, ostensibly, lay out the world in understandable terms, be they transactional or moral.
No two icons of late twentieth-century culture fit this bill better than the shopping mall and the superhero. Anxious? Why not buy a new shirt? All the better if it’s emblazoned with one of Marvel’s ubiquitous gods. Rooted in a peculiarly American nostalgia, these two phenomena have managed to become both signifiers of a better time and the media through which reality continues to dissolve. With Amazon in your pocket, the whole world is now a mall. And the rise of the superhero powers more than entertainment: it turns even our political process into a highly produced endgame.
Two recent books take vastly different journeys to explore how the blurred lines between myth, commerce, and identity have destabilized the idea of the real. Whereas Peter Nowak’s The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes is more or less what it says it is — a non-fiction book about people who like to dress up and play good guy — Pasha Malla’s novel Kill the Mall is an indescribable hybrid creature, an absurdist comic nightmare rendered in early ’90s splatter paint, styling mousse, and equine tresses. These two books cross streams at the confluence of who we are, where we belong, and why we’re alive at this point in history.
Nowak, a veteran journalist and former CBC Radio columnist, writes of a youthful fascination with X‑Men comics and about the dawning realization that “this wasn’t just fantasy, where colorful, costume-clad super people fought off alien and other-dimensional threats — there were direct links to the real world.” While he acknowledges the notion that “superheroes are escapist fantasy at the best of times,” he sets out to thoroughly disprove that idea, by taking us through a rogues’ gallery of would‑be champions who perform various acts of civic good in cities around the world.
While the book can feel a bit like a catalogue of characters (specifically, to my latent eight-year-old self, the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Book of the Dead, Deluxe Edition), Nowak keeps things interesting by threading in detailed cultural history and analysis of the smouldering social issues from which modern superhero movements arise. He has a lot of good stories that take us to some strange places, including Lower Wacker Drive, “a subterranean warren of roads, alleys, sewers and pillars” in Chicago, where Christopher Nolan shot parts of The Dark Knight and where homeless people stay hidden from denizens of the Magnificent Mile. In Toronto, we meet T. O. Ronín, Canadian Justice, Nameless Crusader, and Urban Knight — all members of the Trillium Guard, who patrol the streets and hand out socks and supplies around underserved communities. We even travel to Africa, where, in a stretch worthy of Mister Fantastic, Nowak makes connections between post-colonial vigilantism and the American superhero ethos: “Now, it was the would-be robbers and rapists who were afraid.”
In the end, Nowak is a qualified fan of his subjects and their monomyths. He quotes the comics writer Grant Morrison, who argued in his own book, Supergods, that superhero stories are “a bright flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be.” One of the pleasant revelations in The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes is how much real-life superhero work has pivoted to guerrilla compassion. If that means the rules of reality itself are changing, Nowak is content to hope for the best.
The nameless protagonist of Kill the Mall is not a traditional superhero by any means, but he is most certainly on a hero’s journey. Beginning as he takes up a temporary residency at a failing mall, the novel follows him as he explores the place, which is haunted by all manner of hilarious oddities: chicken teens, ladies in funny hats, sentient vehicles, a pony named Gary, and, in the role of arch-villain, an artistically gifted but possibly murderous rat king with finely styled hair. The book is structured around a series of reports that our hero files to fulfill his mandate of “making work” and “engaging with the public,” with subjects that include milk, restrooms, walking, swimming, and cows.
If that sounds weird, it is. Pasha Malla’s fiction has always insisted on its own peculiar logic, and Kill the Mall makes no apologies about wringing notions of “realism” through its unique literary mangle. It may be one of the few Canadian novels to be set entirely indoors: the mall is the totality of its world. It is among the funniest books our country has produced, far too funny to be embraced by Canadian readers who crave sadness as the pallid crave vitamin D. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between Zadie Smith and Mikhail Bulgakov, with a sprinkling of Douglas Adams. Perhaps the best comparables are visual: at times, the novel evokes both Matthew Barney’s bizarre Cremaster Cycle films from the 1990s and the 2020 Québécois horror film Slaxx, about killer jeans.
Indeed, neatly zipping together form and content, Kill the Mall ’s prose is itself a medium in which reality becomes permeable, with signifier stacked upon signifier until we straddle the line between simulacra and simulation. Our narrator is fond of using “scare quotes” around various clichéd phrases; his reality is semi-hedged from the outset. Toward the end of the book, he is literally jabbering synonyms, caught in a Holden Caulfieldesque loop of descriptors for his nemesis, always one iteration away from the real thing: “A big phony! Also a crook, a liar, a hustler, a swindler, a grifter, a fleecer, a scammer, a con, a fake, a sneak, a wretch, a charlatan, a rustler, a scallywag, a bandit, a rogue, a scamp and a rapscallion.” Moments later, the villain is “a real pill, a pillager, a philistine, a pig in lipstick, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a whale in a dress, a marmot in galoshes, a kook, a goof, a gimp, an imp and a simpleton.” And so on.
Which is to say Malla takes as given what Nowak struggles with over the course of The Rise of Real-Life Superheroes : that reality has been turned inside out. If anything, Nowak’s book retains an implicit hesitation about its characters, who are framed as mostly nice and good but still on the margins of polite society — admirable weirdos. In a section on vigilantes, Nowak recognizes the edges where these men and women work as a new version of the American frontier, a place where laws become blurry: “Rather than the definable geographical location it was in the Wild West, the frontier is now a more amorphous concept found within cities that is being exacerbated by rising inequality, poverty, racial discord and declining faith in institutions, including law enforcement.” The frontier remains rooted in social issues, rather than metaphysical ones.
About a third of the way through Kill the Mall, the hero wholly embraces the tangible existence of a conspicuously polysyllabic fiancée he has invented in a moment of awkward social interaction. If that seems a bit off, consider how many of your friends (or those of your kids) are avatars you’ve never met in person. The novel’s narrator is emphatically not a model physical specimen; rather, he is content, or doomed, to render his activities in concept alone, always chasing action through continuous expression, without ever arriving at the concrete. “What made me myself should remain mysterious. Not a fabrication of contrived recollections,” he says. “I would proceed as an ephemeral wisp through existence, never any closer to becoming who I might actually be.”
Here in “reality”— as we ponder why more tortured billionaires haven’t picked up the gauntlets thrown down by Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark — actual but not at all tortured billionaires construct big rockets to hurl themselves into space, at the expense of almost everyone else. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is effectively Lex Luthor with a bigger server — but, lost in our endless scrolling, we don’t have a Superman to temper his evil impulses.
If I were a superhero — Scribulor, perhaps, or the Quill — my superpower might be to access a time before the internet came to dominate social and political life. That’s my nostalgia talking, of course — nostalgia for hanging out with friends at the food court, untethered to any device; for buying that Marvel Universe issue with my allowance money at the local Kresge’s. But it’s also a present concern for how concepts and stories that define our lives are increasingly dictated by the brutal logic of corporate interests and subdivided too neatly into zero-sum games that ignore the collective good.
When everywhere is a mall, brick-and-mortar malls die. When every story is a superhero story, there are only good guys and bad guys. The extremes of commerce and mythmaking into which we continue to reach leave less room for the vast grey area where most human activity actually occurs. When I was a kid, the mall was a place where my parents went to walk, where I went to meet people — never a public space, but a gathering place nonetheless. And when I went to the mall to see movies, they were about all kinds of things, not just superheroes.
As the pandemic ebbs and flows, the fates of the mall and the superhero hang in the balance. We are now fully adapted to life online, where we can order clothes, groceries, hardware, wine — along with endless super-entertainments — without ever having to be within shouting distance of another person. There’s been a partial return to the streets (and the shops) as consumers quell the cravings that built up during lockdowns. But, as any good nerd knows, winter is coming, and the forecast is bad. We are trending toward a climate that will keep us at home more of the time. The burden of poverty and want will become far too widespread for any lone urban crusader to tackle. In the near future, we all may be reluctant superheroes, dressed in gas masks and dealing with the fallout from extreme weather.
And so we find ourselves confronting a transformed reality, where we sit on our couches, purchase PPE through an app, and watch Disney’s MCU spin out hundreds of properties to saturate our dominant narrative (recall the Trump campaign ad that framed the former president as Thanos, genocidal scourge of the Avengers franchise). All the while, we hold on to the idea that there is some baseline “normal” that we will one day “return to.” What we lose in this ideologized mass delusion is the animation and complexity of human presence, the delight of the random, the chance encounter that makes life more than a series of algorithms.
At the Galleria Mall, near where I used to live in Toronto’s west end, they ran a costume contest every Halloween. Old Portuguese men would sit on the benches in the central courtyard and watch kids parade on a makeshift stage in cobbled-together Spider-Man and Wonder Woman getups. There was always a small but enthusiastic crowd — people who stopped for a while to be among other people, to sit and bask in the simple joy of watching children who’d used imagination and masking tape to bring their heroes to life. Most, like me, had happened by on the way to the Food Basics or the liquor store.
On the surface, there wasn’t much more to the Galleria than staple goods. Home to a tux shop, a store for religious trinketry, a sports jersey spot, and several real estate kiosks, the place was infamous for being an artifact — down at the heels, outdated, tired, redundant. It was a relic, out of time, haunted by the unfashionable brown tiling and phantom salamis of its past. But it also had a bakery with decent pizza, gymnastics and music schools, coin-operated rides for kids, and that annual costume contest. Some days at the Galleria, you really did believe what Pasha Malla’s unnamed narrator writes in his residency application: “In a mall you can be anyone.” I loved it there.
In 2019, developers began tearing the place down to make way for a planned community that aims to “Reimagine Galleria.” When it’s complete, it will probably look like a lot of Toronto’s condo-based developments, with several glassy towers, a few mid-rises, and some wedged‑in green space. People will sit in the shadows, tapping at their phones and creating millions of engagements, millions of transactions. The old men will be gone, along with the trick-or-treaters. From his outpost in space, where he lives with his robot dog, Darwin, Jeff Bezos will look down on the Reimagined Galleria and the countless other reimagined realms under his dominion and smile at all of the products moving across the globe by branded drone, all the lines of trade with which he retains control of this broiling orb he no longer calls home, because his wealth means he doesn’t have to. As per custom, he will give a loud, maniacal laugh.
Who, then, will answer the call? The real world needs a hero.