Professional provocateur Eric Bogosian has made an occupation of plucking at the ugliness that sprouts across the body of American culture like unwanted hair. In plays like subUrbia, one-man character sketches like Drinking In America, and now his first novel Mall, Bogosian invents obnoxiously depressed, self-absorbed characters and deposits them in a paved wilderness where the horizon is obscured by boxy office parks and shopping centers. There's a place for his brand of unrelenting crankiness, but with Mall especially, Bogosian runs smack into the downside of habitual pessimism: After a while, his audience can't separate legitimate gripes from pet peeves. The author loses control in the second sentence of his new book, when he describes a suburban home by first mentioning a decorative "framed needlepoint-by-numbers"—the sort of cheap shot at bourgeois taste that's as likely to come from a snob as a social critic. The banal ranch house Bogosian mocks is then rocked by gunfire, as a middle-aged crystal-meth addict named Mal (as in "mall," and as in the French word for "bad") shoots his fishstick-bearing mother for kicks. Meanwhile, a pretentious, lovesick teenager loiters by the Herman Hesse section of the mall bookstore, near where a wealthy sex addict peeks into the dressing room of the lingerie store, where an exhibitionist housewife puts on a show. When Mall's thrill-killing culminates in a bloodbath at the mall's tuxedo shop, Bogosian's charges scurry about and collide in a succession of sexual trysts and random acts of torture. At times, Bogosian's venom toward middle-class decadence provides a necessary corrosion, as when he notes that a shoplifting teen can escape getting caught because no one cares enough to watch him, or when he refers to ridiculous, pointlessly proliferating scented-candle shops as "inhuman" (an observation he quickly soils by adding the words "crap for the masses"). At other times, Bogosian's pathological impulse to run down his own creations disappears for a few refreshing passages as his characters interact. Then the violence resumes, or the sex play continues, or somebody responds to a reference to Vienna by saying, "Wow, Vienna. Like the coffee?" At that point, Mall returns to the track to which Bogosian is hopelessly bound: the sort of wise-ass pornography of scorn that appeals to compassionless intellectuals.
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