FLIP ON THE TV and, as often as not, you'll chance upon some atrocity, hostage situation, police standoff, freeway chase, or episode of Cops. It's

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Pilgrim's Progress

Setting fire to the temple of suburbia.

FLIP ON THE TV and, as often as not, you'll chance upon some atrocity, hostage situation, police standoff, freeway chase, or episode of Cops. It's part of the media landscape; we're inured and addicted to it. What's reassuring or, at least, entertaining about such spectacles is that we can simply switch the channels without incident or injury. We come away unscathed, wondering what gives rise to such instances of violence, stupidity, and gawking. Eric Bogosian apparently wonders, too. The writer/performer of monologues including Wake Up and Smell the Coffee and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the actor in films such as Under Siege 2 and Deconstructing Harry, the playwright of subUrbia and Griller, he's evidently done some channel-surfing and thinking on the subject. MALL

by Eric Bogosian (Simon & Schuster, $23) The result is a short, terse first novel that contains all the vitriol and various damaged suburban types we recognize from Bogosian's earlier works. With 56 slim chapters, Mall could be mistaken for a screenplay, its characters sketched acidly and efficiently. One can imagine the author mentally casting Crispin Glover as Mal, the skinny loner and gunman who goes on a crank-fueled rampage. As Michel, the Haitian immigrant security guard who pursues him, Forest Whitaker would be perfect. For Danny, a sexually frustrated yuppie caught peeping in dressing rooms: Peter Gallagher. As Donna, the exhibitionistic, indulgent, adulterous housewife: Melanie Griffith. The teenage dreadlocked wanna-be existentialist Jeff would've been great for River Phoenix. As Adelle, the inscrutable object of his affections: Christina Ricci. All these characters' lives intersect at the mall during one fateful night, in which no less than eight people die. Why do they go there? They have no choice. "Everything around here belongs to the mall," says a cop, and Bogosian uses it to symbolize everything that's despicable and deadening about suburban culture (admittedly an easy target). It's the convenience store of subUrbia on a larger, more frightening scale—dehumanizing all classes of people, not just aimless teens. We're the grist, it's the mill. FLOURESCENT LIGHT destroyed the will in people," Bogosian writes, but it still attracts them like flies—no matter what their putative motivations. His characters have differing degrees of self-awareness. Danny laments that, "I have to shop at the mall like the rest of these cretins." Idealistic Jeff yearns to transcend the same soul-crushing milieu, while Mal actually attains a kind of horrific epiphany and self-definition through carnage. "Like a giant steel wheel, everything was turning and Mal was the axle," Bogosian puts it, as the killer finally draws the attention of cops, onlookers, and TV cameras. Bullets, fire, and blood are acts of volition for this nihilist, and the media coverage confirms his apotheosis. It's all terribly familiar, the author knows. There are no surprises to Mall; we've seen it all before on CNN. What Bogosian does is to flesh out those grainy video figures we see running for cover, or pulling the trigger, in such unreal broadcasts. "Danny could not believe he was in reality," he writes. Conversely, Mal's knowledge that his shooting spree is being televised creates a positive feedback loop. Similar themes have been explored in Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone was also the director of Bogosian's Talk Radio), lending to Mall's torn-from-the-headlines inevitability. Despite the doom and cynicism, Mall doesn't quite live up to Bogosian's popular image of sneering condescension. Thankfully, he sees other things housed beneath the mall's high vaulted roof. Innocent, dim, striving Jeff stands in contrast to the carnality manifested all around him, wandering almost Zenlike through the smoke and sirens. He's a seeker whose quest Bogosian won't reward in spiritual terms nor punish too harshly with disillusionment. Mall ends as it begins, with no profound insights or flights of prose. Yet Bogosian renders the commonplace so concretely and unsparingly that you read every page first with growing alarm, then with something like amazement that a venue for shopping can also be a place of deliverance.

 
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