TECHNICOLOR ULTRA MALL by Ryan Oakley

I don’t want to call Ryan Oakley’s 2012 Aurora nominee A Clockwork Orange 2.0. There are so many other ways to describe it: it’s raw and bloody; beautiful and horrific; staccato like a machine-gun; and as fresh as it is familiar. His homage to Burgess’s 1962 classic could hardly be more faithful, yet it stands alone, quintessentially a product of now, though with a degree of the timelessness which cemented that earlier novel as a classic.

I don’t want to call Ryan Oakley’s 2012 Aurora nominee A Clockwork Orange 2.0. There are so many other ways to describe it: it’s raw and bloody; beautiful and horrific; staccato like a machine-gun; and as fresh as it is familiar. His homage to Burgess’s 1962 classic could hardly be more faithful, yet it stands alone, quintessentially a product of now, though with a degree of the timelessness which cemented that earlier novel as a classic.

Where do I begin? Like Burgess’s protagonist Alex, Oakley’s Budgie is fifteen years old, a gang-banger, and possesses few redeeming qualities, at least initially. The view from inside his head reveals at least as much about the world of Technicolor Ultra Mall as his actual experiences. After all, it’s through his reactions to them as much as his life events that we determine what constitutes normal in this society. And normal for Budgie, along with virtually everyone else he’s every met, is casual brutality and utter nihilism.

In his famous novella, Burgess’s painstaking attention to detail implied whole aspects of his world that were never directly discussed. The English author’s use of bastardized Russian for his invented youth slang suggested that the Cold War ended in some sort of melded European superstate, wherein one city is much like any other. Likewise, we find out only late in Canadian Oakley’s novel that the colossal mall in which the entire story is set exists in the former Toronto, and this matters not one whit.

The supermalls, we are led to believe, all follow the same basic set-up: one section for the rich, one section for the superrich, and one section for the human sludge of the lowest class, a mix of brain-chipped criminals and the unfortunate souls born into the lawless lower levels. Of course, lowest to highest, all the mall’s denizens are equally imprisoned, the massive mall serving as an island of semi-civilization surrounded by unbreathable air and garbage as far as the eye can see.

Oakley’s immersive style owes as much to his facility with language as his tachycardiac pacing. Everything from “loving” rival gang-members with knives to lines like “my dispo is taking a hard turn for murder” drop us right into the headspace of the fittest survivors of a horrific world. As with Burgess’s careful use of slang, many of the turns of phrase in Technicolor Ultra Mall suggest the author has worked out details of his future history that the reader can only guess at. (“Santa save us”, as just one example, implies religious conviction is more or less forgotten, surviving in language only as a confused anachronism.)

Unlike the tight first-person perspective of A Clockwork Orange, Mall highlights several other viewpoints besides our protagonist’s. Between the stories of Budgie and several other bit players he may or may not directly interact with, Oakley paints a picture of a corporation-run society in which the only rights are the rights one can buy, and the only thing approaching societal ethics are what advertisements tell one to do. As a result, one gets a much clearer sense in this story of how all the pieces of this dystopian nightmare fit together, and at least a suggestion of how all that is good and decent disappeared from the world.

Before the events of this novel, it seems a slow fraying of the moral fabric was facilitated by consumption and greed, mass media took over parental responsibilities, the rich got richer and the poor allowed their civil rights to be broken up and sold off piece by piece. There’s a sense of history lost in the society depicted here, less due to Orwellian censorship than Huxleyan lack of attention span. Individuals in this world “go TV,” losing their minds in brainless media consumption. Orgasms are no longer a physical reaction but something from a pill bottle. Even the most basic emotional experiences are chemically induced.

This isn’t a feel-good type of story. But it is feel-something, and feel-it-viscerally. Gut-wrenching, bowel-clenching, heart-racing and brain-sparking — expect to be sucked into this one deeply, and still thinking about it after you’re done. But it may not be for the faint of heart.


J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

Voting for the Prix Aurora is underway from now until July 23. See our previous reviews of this year’s nominees: Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy, Eutopia by David Nickle and Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer. A voter package featuring many of the nominees is also available.

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