I planned to meet up with author Matthew Newton outside – but sheets of rain made me wish we had decided to meet at Monroeville Mall, “a pleasure dome immune to seasonal change” (28). We quickly found a nook inside.
Monroeville Mall – both as an iconic building and as a personal touchstone – is featured throughout Matthew’s new book Shopping Mall, part of the Object Lessons series published by Bloomsbury. Shopping Mall consists of interlocking vignettes covering the history and cultural importance of shopping malls alongside Matthew’s memories of his childhood growing up near the Monroeville Mall – from waiting for his mother to finish the closing shift at Gimbels to exploring the secret passageways behind the stores as a teen. Above all – and Matthew emphasizes this theme in our conversation as well – the book demonstrates the way shopping malls are monuments to aspirations held by many Americans who attempted to achieve (for better or for worse) some portion of the “suburban dream.”
“Nostalgia and a sense of longing are baked into the DNA of all shopping malls,” (59) Matthew writes, and I feel my own nostalgia reading his rich descriptions of the public art and architecture found within them. Matthew describes Monroeville’s Clock of Nations, “a two-story clock tower featuring animatronic puppets that emerged on the hour, each representing the different ethnicities of Pittsburgh” (28) and the “Garden Court of Perpetual Spring” at Southdale in Edina, Minnesota where “brightly colored birds fluttered and sang in the court’s two-story decorative cage, illuminated by a cluster of pendant lights” (7). During our conversation, Matthew said that it was his decision to describe these images rather than include photography. The reason? He wanted to ensure the book stayed firmly within the realm of personal narrative, of memory – he didn’t want it to feel like a textbook (and it doesn’t.)
Of course, Monroeville Mall was a location for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Matthew remembers the experience of going to the mall after seeing the flim – identifying specific doors, recognizing hidden hallways only a local would know. Matthew also described latching on to some of the film’s Pittsburgh-specific details, like a jacket worn by a character in a crowd, that grounded the mall in his home community.
There is a contrast between that sense of specificity of place and the more fuzzy, universal quality of shopping malls – Matthew describes the mall experience like “looking at a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy” (9). That contrast is what is most fascinating – to me – about reading Shopping Mall. The book illuminates all the ways we share public spaces with each other while we simultaneously experience those spaces as layered with our own memories and personal significance.
Matthew Newton lectures this Thursday, 10/12/17, from 6:30 PM–7:30 PM at the Main Library.
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