The novel stars an unlikely pairing of unlikeable protagonists. Dan is a pimply, faux goth, middle class emo whiner. He's working at a mall bookstore and his favourite pastime is feeling smugly superior to his customers. This is overshadowed by his co-workers' scorn for him (they're equally distasteful, but at least socially functional). Dan's saturated in adolescent ennui, but he's nowhere near as bad off as his co-star, Rhoda. Rhoda has a drug problem, a messy past, a chip on her shoulder, some sort of dodgy immigration record and - at the start of The Mall - a missing kid.
The kid (Rhoda can't remember his name) isn't actually hers. He's a babysitting chore for the day. Rhoda hauled him along to the mall so she could meet her dealer. Except instead of staying in the bookstore like he was supposed to, the little boy pegged it. In the old days, kids had more respect for their elders, and would stay put while Auntie Rhoda completed her drug deals.
At this point, Dan's poor customer service record catches up to him. When the Mall Cops ask him if he saw the kid, Dan can't remember a thing. This isn't racism (like Rhoda suspects), it is because Dan swims through life in a pea-souper of self-indulgent angst. While the kid was running amok in the bookstore, Dan was too busy wondering why girls don't go for good guys like him.
Rhoda flips out. She's got enough problems already and losing a child is the bit that pushes her over the edge. Blaming Dan, she kidnaps the weaselly bookshop clerk and forces him to help her find the kid (name still unremembered, much to Dan's puzzlement). Fueled by drugs (Rhoda), fear (Dan) and anger (both), the two begin to muck around the labyrinthine tunnels of the shopping center, in search of the boy.
Sub-basement after sub-basement, things get weirder and weirder. Skittering noises, glowing white rooms, musical elevators, sludge-filled tunnels and mannequin abattoirs all start becoming part of the journey. When a panting, slobbery-breathed entity becomes involved, it really clicks that Dan and Rhoda have gone far from home (also, the best elevator-related deathtraps of all time). And this is the journey... what they find at the destination is almost indescribably weird: an uber-consumerist dystopia filled with celebrity shoppers, zombie clerks and perpetual, cut-throat (literally) sales.
Going further risks spoiling the plot of the book, but the real shopping center is like the bastard cross between Richard Morgan's Market Forces and Joe Lansdale's The Drive-In. S.L. Grey's splatterpunk plutocracy is equal parts unsettling and hilarious; vicious, gory terror punctuated with tongue-in-cheek references to modern retailers.
If that were all, The Mall would be a good book - cheeky, goofy and a bit scary. But The Mall isn't merely about surviving the drooling monsters and the nightmare kingdom, it is about what happens afterwards. The storybook journey of Dan and Rhoda is supposed to include redemption. And, to a small degree, it does.
Rhoda begins as the more vicious of the two characters, her drug-addled venom makes her both dangerous and stupid. But, as her point of view continues through the book, she becomes (surprisingly) the more empathetic of the two. She unveils her tragic past and a lifelong tendency to get stuck in awful situations. But, Rhoda is ballsy, brave and resourceful. Of the two characters, she's the one with a clear upwards curve - clearing her head and becoming more responsible. Even at her worst, she's fueled by a bizarre sort of concern for That Kid. But her growing sense of responsibility is both fragile and misplaced. When the adventure is over, will Rhoda be able to walk away? And, more importantly, should she?
Dan, on the other hand, is supposed to be the hero. We've all read this story before - in both fantasy and horror. He's the angsty loner, working in the bookshop. Girls ignore him, men despise him. But given a challenge like this, Dan can tap his inner resources and become the hero he was already meant to be. His skin will clear. His muscles will bulge. Chicks will suddenly and spontaneously dig him. And this happens. Kinda. Like Rhoda, Dan also has a certain amount of spark that comes to him in dangerous times. His quick thinking (often inspired by video games) saves them repeatedly. Nerd does good.
Except, unlike Rhoda, Dan has no excuse for his initial behavior. He's self-indulgent and whiny because, well, that's who he is. In a crisis, he becomes a better person, but when that crisis withdraws, what's left?
This is why The Mall is brilliant. It isn't just about a pair of loners dodging monsters for fear of their lives, it is about the very seductive possibility that they start to like it. The altered reality setting is a nightmarish place but it gives Dan and Rhoda the chance to be heroes (or, at the very least, to be the center of attention). Like the Morgan and Lansdale books mentioned above, The Mall transcends being an ordinary dystopian tale: it isn't about the horror of the setting, it is about its temptation. For all The Mall's blackly comedic trappings and the play of the "gross-out", it is a deadly serious novel about what human beings can (and will) do when they're truly desperate. What if we're not all heroes at the core? What if we're just people?