Don't Tell Me What to Do

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A West Edmonton Mall Reading List

To live in the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta is to live in the shadow of West Edmonton Mall—sometimes literally. Until 2004 the biggest mall in the world, WEM is still a top-10 heavyweight, and its 5.3 million square feet contains not just 800 stores but also an indoor waterpark, amusement park (complete with rollercoasters), hotel, ice rink, mini-golf course, underwater caverns, and full-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, all of which combines to draw more than 30 million visitors per year. A lot has changed in Edmonton since it first opened in the 1980s, but WEM, which The New York Times once called a “behemoth on the prairie,” remains the defining symbol of the city. Love it or hate it, all Edmontonians must reckon with The Mall. Writers are no exception. Over the decades WEM has served as unlikely muse for poets, children’s authors, essayists, international comic-book conglomerates, and the occasional stunt journalist who tries to see how long they can stay inside without leaving. Even visiting Nobel Laureates are inexorably drawn to it, knowing that the mall needs to be seen to be believed. Sing, O muse, of Apollo Originals, and OPA! of Greece. Sing of the Mindbender and sad flamingoes and that fire-breathing dragon that used to sit at the entrance to the movie theatre. Sing of Two Guys With Pipes and Chan International Model & Talent. Sing. 1. Alpha Flight #26, 27, 28#67–70 (Marvel) Once named the most frequently destroyed Canadian city in Marvel Comics history, Edmonton has never taken it on the chin harder than whenever Canadian supergroup Alpha Flight drops by the local super-mall. The first time was in 1985, during Alberta native John Byrne’s run as writer-artist, when the team took on its rivals Omega Flight in the world’s largest parking lot (not to brag). But that was nothing compared to their return visit a few years later, when writer James D. Hudnall had the villainous Dream Queen set up shop in the city and then brainwash Edmontonians into brutally murdering one another. Alpha Flight arrives on the scene, only to be tricked themselves into crashing their jet directly into WEM’s World Waterpark, giving new meaning to the term “wave pool.” 2. Eric Wilson, Code Red at the Supermall (HarperCollins) In this 1988 entry from a beloved series of ultra-Canadian middle-grade mystery novels, a series of bombs are left anonymously all around the mall. Enter: Tom and Liz Austen, a pair of teenage sibling detectives who are determined, along with their actual-detective father, to get to the bottom of things. The ensuing caper includes a ton of local color, including a map of the entire mall for easy reference, and features surprisingly progressive lessons about multiculturalism, consent, and the dangers of dating ice-skaters named Chad. 3. Archie Giant Series Magazine #620 (Archie) When noted millionaire Hiram Lodge decides he wants to renovate the local mall, there’s only one place to send Betty and Veronica on a fact-finding mission. But what begins as a dream for Veronica (“It’s Xanadu, Camelot, and Rodeo Drive all rolled into one!” she says at one point) quickly turns into a case of mistaken identity, as some would-be jewel thieves chase the pair through West Edmonton Mall’s amusement park and eventually down a waterslide. This three-part bit of corporate synergy from 1991 was encouraged by another of Edmonton’s odd distinctions: for a long time more Archie comics were sold here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. 4. Anne Swannell, Mall (Rowan) In 1993, Canadian poet Anne Swannell turned her eye to WEM for this book-length poetry cycle about our civic monument to late capitalism. Swannell, who lived in Edmonton briefly in the 1960s, takes in the highlights and spends much of her time alternately marvelling at and pitying her surreal surroundings: “It seems to her some days / the place is definitely sliding downhill.” Today, Mall has added value as a snapshot of WEM as it stood several renovations ago, with careful descriptions of decorations and food-court shops long since dismantled. Ultimately, however, even the building itself rejects any whiff of artistry on the premises. Here’s what happens when the poet character drops a coin into a fortune-telling machine: “Get a Real Job!” she tells her and clicks off. [millions_ad] 5. José Saramago, The Cave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) This 2002 novel from the late Portuguese Nobel Laureate would seem to be an ocean away from the frozen Canadian prairie. But in an interview with Le Devoir, Saramago specifically cited West Edmonton Mall—whose artificial beaches he saw in person when he came to town to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta—as an inspiration for the gargantuan shopping complex known simply as “The Center.” In the book, which takes place in a nameless city, Saramago presents his Center as a capitalist juggernaut with a mysterious secret cave underneath it, which nicely dovetails with longstanding urban legends about the subterranean nuclear reactor that supposedly powers WEM. 6. Vivek Shraya (editor), The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton (Self-Published) West Edmonton Mall might get the lion’s share of the attention, but there’s obviously more than one mall in this city of nearly a million people. And they all get their due in this gorgeously produced limited-edition anthology edited by author and musician Vivek Shraya. Still, WEM is the undisputed champ, and accordingly gets the most attention, from memories of first dates gone wrong to little kids who grew up in the Maritimes but dreamt about this magical place on the other side of the country. The smartest, most powerful piece of mall lore yet committed to paper—and, alas, the hardest one to find. 7. Dina Del Bucchia, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” (Arsenal Pulp Press) When you get right down to it, West Edmonton Mall is more than just a place to buy socks and watch a sea-lion routine while eating a cinnamon bun as big as a manhole cover. It’s also a place of pilgrimage. Like the protagonist in the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s 2017 collection, I first encountered WEM as a kid who came specifically there on vacation, when my brother and I tried to see how long we could go without breathing outside air (three days, easy). But for Alex, a spontaneous return trip is in order, complete with a suitcase stuffed full of coins, after her relationship with an older man in British Columbia goes south. Del Bucchia’s story is about what happens when your expectations don’t meet reality, and how no mall can solve your problems for you. Not even one as gloriously weird as this one. Image Credit: Flickr/IQRemix.
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