By Jon Paul Fiorentino
Stripmalling is both a semi-autobiographical first novel from Winnipeg-born author Jon Paul Fiorentino and something more complex and self-referential than that. The hero, Jonny, is a thirty-one year-old aspiring writer and instructor at a “mildly respectable university” in Montreal (Fiorentino teaches at Concordia) who is going through a “pre-emptive mid-life crisis” that involves him writing a novel, titled Stripmalling, about the time he spent working – pumping gas, stocking shelves, dealing drugs out of the back of his Chevette – at a suburban Winnipeg mall.
In addition to chasing its own tail like this, the book also takes itself apart – for example recasting the main characters in a graphic novel (illustrated by Evan Munday), the script and preliminary sketches for which are included in an appendix of “bonus materials.” We are constantly made aware of the provisional, unsettled nature of the narrative, its retail and underground economy. As Jonny tells his mall story he flashes forward with inter-chapter “mid-life crisis reports.” These are then corrected and reinterpreted by his ex in a series of “Dora reports” that undercut Jonny’s authorial authority (“That obviously never happened,” one begins). Dora, in turn, has an eye on Jonny’s partner, an artist named Evan Munday . . .
This is all very knowing and postmodern, but handled with a light comic touch set in deliberate opposition to “dead ‘serious’ prose fiction.” Fiorentino’s sensibility is pure Coupland: from the Gen Y slackers alienated from nature (a Manitoba winter is dimly evoked as passing “like a slow-moving ice-type thing”) to the Morrissey playing in the background. The personal and the political bleed into each other, with both being characterized by the same youthful apathy and indifference. The mall is bought out by a Wal-Mart clone and then shut down in the face of union organization, but everyone just moves on. Jonny is bisexual but doesn’t seem to care very much either way.
A collage-like experience, Stripmalling is a multi-hybrid book made out of angles and perspectives. Granted, the different levels it engages the reader on are horizontally integrated, without a great deal of depth. It is, however, a clever experiment in tale-telling.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2009. In the advance reader’s copy I received, Evan Munday’s self-portrait was a bit more explicit than what finally appeared in the published version.