Back in the mid-1980s, while young Scott McClanahan was busy running up and down the mountainside in Rainelle, W.Va., picking blackberries and carving his name into turtles, critics in New York were becoming increasingly preoccupied with defining, and ridiculing, a “new” form of short fiction. Labeled as Shopping Mall Realism, Kmart Realism, Dirty Realism, Name Brand Realism, Diet Coke Realism or “Truth Among the Trailer Parks,” the short stories of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, and others were derided as being terse, unadorned, and shallow. In a 1986 essay in Harper’s, Madison Smartt Bell described the writing as having an “obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among the people it renders, and a studiedly deterministic, at times nihilistic, vision of the world.” Three years later Tom Wolfe chimed in by claiming that the Kmart Realists had a penchant for “real situations, but very tiny ones” and “disingenuously short, simple sentences—with the emotions anesthetized, given a shot of Novocain.”
Most critics agree that the idea of Kmart Realism as movement or cohesive style came about after the publication of Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) but the style predated her. Ernest Hemingway’s spare, muscular prose might be seen as the Grandaddy of Kmart Realism and Raymond Carver is almost undisputedly the Daddy, and though the term is no longer used very often, the family tree has continued on through writers like Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Tao Lin, Mary Miller, and Scott McClanahan. But while Mason and others chafed under Wolfe and Smartt Bell’s descriptions, there has been a new trend in this lineage, through the ‘90s and ‘00s, towards a deeper embrace of the “obsessive concern for surface detail” and Novocained nihilism—an embrace that tips towards the surreal, with Johnson’s hallucinatory drug escapades, Bender’s flammable skirts, and most recently Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, which just may be the king of Shopping Mall Surrealism.
In a 1985 interview, Bobbie Ann Mason admitted that the characters in her stories are heavily affected by pop culture but, she clarified, this “is not to be confused with a celebration of consumerism.” Scott McClanahan on the other hand is in full tilt celebration of Mountain Dew, Applebees, and Walmart; in his hands these familiar references are warped in beautiful ways, creating a transcendent meditation on modern materialism. Midway through this novel the narrator (also named Scott McClanahan) actually begins living at Walmart, or at least in the parking lot. “I highly recommend the Walmart parking lot for living in your car after a divorce,” he muses, “The cops don’t seem to bother you if you park close to the entrance.”
Kmart may have been the backdrop of Shopping Mall Realism, but Walmart, in McClanahan’s fiction, becomes a sacred entity unto itself. From his vantage point in the parking lot, McClanahan’s narrator
watched the people go inside. I watched them fill up their buggies and forget about all their pain […] I got out of my car and walked towards Walmart. It glowed in front of me like a temple. […] I went inside and saw the aisles rise like castles before me. And there was beef jerky, and almonds and chicken wings, pizza bites and cheese, all kinds of cheese, steak, porkchops, crackers and cereal. There was Fruity Pebbles and potato skins and soda. Mountain Lightning soda. And there was Red Bull, diet Red Bull, beer, light beer, dark beer, pistachios, juice boxes for kids […] I could see outside in the parking lot and the people were coming for a coronation of some sort. And so I walked among them because these were my people and this was my kingdom. They would all be bowing soon. This was the new country we had made from the skeleton of the old one. And I was their king of beef jerky. I was their emperor of soda.
McClanahan is not afraid to hold the royal and holy up alongside the mundane and banal. He cups them all together—the high and the low, simple and complex, fiction and nonfiction, present and past—and the result is a book that is as tender as it is fierce. The plot in this “semi-autobiographical portrait about falling in love, the breakdown of a marriage, and life in West Virginia,” is deceptively simple. It is intensely personal and yet also familiar. But it is not just that the sequence of falling in and out of love is relatable; there is something more than that, a genius in the level of specificity, so tight that it expands out until it contains everything. As one character puts it, “this giant meteor collided with earth and so life began. […] We are all made up of what came here and collided […] but also if you wanted to buy the things that make up our bodies it would cost about as much as a candy bar. And that’s all we are. Candy bars and stars.”
To McClanahan there is no contradiction between the astral and the pedestrian, and throughout The Sarah Book a great electric energy is created by this simultaneous coexistence, the huge emotions that his character feels versus the simple clipped sentences in which they are expressed.
In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates wrote of “the requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction.” And while McClanahan is clearly a descendant of the minimalist tradition, he does not shy away from profundity, but rather allows it to spring forth from the everyday. A lunch break at the mall results in true love and reunification, or as the narrator puts it: “this is a boring story about how I went to the mall one day and ordered a cheeseburger and my life changed because I ordered a cheeseburger. I didn’t know it then but the story of our lives is the story of ordering cheeseburgers.” Life-changing love and cheeseburgers, candy bars and stars, life is not one of these but both, McClanahan argues.
While he takes on the Hallmark of Shopping Mall Realism—pop culture and consumer goods— McClanahan is equally as successful at incorporating that other aspect which Smartt Bell described as a “tendency to ignore or eliminate distinctions among […] people.” In a conversation they have while falling in love, Sarah tells Scott that she believes that “we are only a collection of other people’s ideas about us. We are all a we.” Later, when Sarah asks Scott for a divorce, Scott finds solace in this”‘we.” After moving his belongings out of Sarah’s house, he drives to an Applebees where he is greeted by a hostess who is wearing “the same uniform that someone else was wearing somewhere else […] and make-up that someone else was wearing somewhere too. A woman named Michelle handed me a menu and she had a name like the name of a million different Michelles but she was her own Michelle.” Instead of the modern cliche of disconnection or separateness that we so often associate with box stores and chain restaurants, McClanahan uses these settings to amplify a sense of togetherness, a sort of winking “we’re all in this together.” This twist on the numbing universality of brands is uniquely refreshing, this idea that even in our aloneness (or our identicalness) we are not alone.
In the same way that he asks us to re-evaluate our preconceptions about corporate restaurants and stores, McClanahan also pushes his readers to re-inspect our ideas of what is sacred. A Bible is burned, the superiority of the Garden of Eden is brought into question—even the hierarchy of family over pornography is made unstable. The paternal concern that character-Scott is not quite able to muster for his children is perfectly offset by the caring and understanding way in which writer-Scott depicts his own failings. Though this novel chronicles the breakdown of a marriage, it is not an exercise in self-flagellation but rather a revolutionary re-envisioning of what love and family mean. This is perhaps best demonstrated through McClanahan’s treatment of time. In The Sarah Book the falling in and out of love happen simultaneously. A chapter in which Scott and Sarah sign divorce papers is snuggled up beside a chapter in which they get married, and a chapter in which Sarah announces that she is pregnant with their first child comes directly before a scene in which Scott, years later, sells his wedding ring for cash to spend at a strip club. This splicing of the end of the relationship in with its beginning is an exquisite technique that allows the reader to feel the fullness of the lives depicted here. This malleability of time is reminiscent of works like Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth in that it contains a beautiful sense that pockets of the past keep on occurring even in the midst of the present.
While McClanahan’s earlier books have, understandably, been described as “gritty” or “folksy” or “like you’re sitting in a buddy’s garage sucking down a couple of beers and he’s telling you” a story, comparing McClanahan only to Breece Pancake and Larry Brown does not do him justice. The Sarah Book especially, is larger than that. It is not regional fiction, but human fiction, and it is best read not as a zoological window into exotic Appalachia, but as a window into yourself. The very ubiquity of the shopping mall settings is what facilitates and enhances this perspective.
By the end of The Sarah Book McClanahan brings together all of these dichotomous elements—”I,” “you,” and “we;” memory and reality; the stars and the candy bars—into a quietly thunderous and immensely satisfying scene. While reading the final pages I couldn’t help but picture McClanahan as a conductor, orchestrating from on top of Sandstone Mountain with his piles of beef jerky, pistachios, DVDs, and potato chips, pulling it all together into a subtle emotional crescendo, hinging on the plastic lid to a fast-food restaurant cup.