MAIN STREET, were Sinclair Lewis alive to write it now, would be a very different book indeed. Its title would be Four Seasons Mall, taken from the name of a gigantic enclosed shopping center five miles away from the decayed central business district of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Its heroine, Carol Kennicott, would be an idealistic, ambitious young woman, unhappily employed as a clerk for Pants Corral, who is married to Dr. Will Kennicott, manager of a Pearle Vision Center. The Greek chorus would be supplied not by a gaggle of gossiping village housewives but by an odd melange of elderly pensioners and teen-aged idlers known, collectively, as "mall rats." Carol's rebellion against the stifling constraints of mall life would lead her to flee it and set up her own crafts boutique in a gentrified downtown row house; but in the end she would return, chastened and wiser, to kuche, kirche und kinder, not to mention a new position as chief salesman for VideoConcepts.
This is the new America. What Henry Luce grandiosely envisioned as "the American Century" turns out to be just that, all right, but for not quite the reasons he had in mind. This is the Age of Consumption, with the United States indulging in, and teaching the rest of the industrialized world to emulate, an orgy of private spending that as recently as two decades ago the mind simply could not have comprehended. It is an age that takes with the utmost seriousness the slogan, emblazoned on the tote bags of the upper-middle class: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." It is an age in which not a soul rises to argue -- for indeed there can be no argument -- when the president of one urban mall declares: "The fact is that shopping is the chief cultural activity in the United States."
It is, further, an age in which the emblematic structures are those great shopping centers that crowd the beltways of large and medium-sized cities, and occupy the cornfields of small ones. Inside their vast air- conditioned spaces are crowded the stores, most of them franchised by large national operations, that are in themselves and in the goods they sell so implacably standardized that a mall in California could just as well be a mall in Maine. This is the new American Main Street, but, as William Kowinski puts it, it is "a made-up Mickey Mouse kind of Main Street, under private ownership and control," that offers both the sanitized vision of American life that may be Walt Disney's most durable legacy and an escape from harder American realities:
"The mall combines urban and suburban elements in a particular way: The idea is to have the urban amenities but within an environment that, like suburbia itself, is controlled. Neither suburbia nor the suburban mall wants to repeat the conditions that drove their residents and customers out of the city in the first place. Suburbia keeps out the poor mostly through the cost of housing, although zoning can play a part. The mall can also segregate by price, and although nobody wants to brag about it, malls can also choose not to include products and styles that might appeal to non-white, non-affluent customers."
THE MALL is the new American reality, yet in important respects it has nothing to do with reality. Like the franchised fast-food palaces about which Stan Luxenberg writes, it contrives to "possess a certain Hollywood magic," to offer its customers "a special experience" that begins with expectations aroused by television commercials and is fulfilled by the "Retail Drama" that mall managers and franchise operators seek to create. It is a drama the chief inspiration for which comes not from the business schools but from Main Street U.S.A., the central thoroughfare of Disneyland and Disney World. This is, Kowinski writes, "a toy street, a fantasy, a Main Street of dreams," one in which everything is squeaky-clean, dripping with manufactured nostalgia, "quiet, prosperous and neighborly," reduced to a scale that seems more human and intimate than the real city street: "The mall courts function as public squares, the greenery as gardens and parks -- all scaled down to a quaint and comprehensible size. Just as Disney's street eventually leads to Sleeping Beauty's castle, the mall's Main Street leads to the department stories, the consumer equivalent of a citadel of wonders."
In the malls and the franchise outlets alike, the operative word is control. The malls exercise a degree of control over the "appearance, products and procedures of its businesses" that no downtown can match. If anything a mall approaches a totalitarian state into which the oppressed enter voluntarily, lured by the dream of riches; the size and location of each store, the character of its advertising and displays, the hours it does business, the specific products it sells -- all of these and more are decided, in whole or in part, by the management of the mall. The same is true of the franchises, where national headquarters exercise similarly dictatorial control, not merely over the design and operation of outlets, but also over the size and cut of french fries, the positioning of jeans racks, the crust of pizzas and the installation of mufflers.
What all of this is really designed to control, of course, is you and me. The magical experience, whether it be at McDonald's or Golden Ring Mall, is designed to put us in the mood to buy and to make it astonishingly easy for us to do so. Everything is calculated, nothing is left to chance. As Luxenberg writes about a hugely successful Burger King in New York:
"Just as the movement of the workers is carefully regimented, the behavior of customers is engineered. Television ads prepare customers for new products, such as the pita salad, and show how they are eaten. In the store people line up, studying the brightly colored menu boards that highlight the limited choices. Having been served, customers sit in seats that are deliberately hard. After eleven or twelve minutes their backsides begin to feel a little uncomfortable and patrons find themselves hurrying out. At various stations there are containers labeled THANK YOU. There are no signs instructing customers to dump their garbage, but most people do. The whole store is designed so that customers will quickly spend their money and leave."
IT IS ALSO designed to offer "no surprises." The burger you eat in New York is supposed to taste exactly the same as the one you eat in Arizona, because the operators of Burger King know that the last thing its customers have been trained to expect is a Whopper that does not taste like a Whopper. "The goal of enforcing standards is to achieve predictable mediocrity," Luxenberg writes, or, as Kowinski puts it: "So now TV advertises 'your hometown Pizza Hut,' although about the only thing hometown about it is that there is probably one on the highway near where you live, pretty much like every other one in the country. Even the idea of a pizza 'hut' is neutralizing; not only is it devoid of ethnic content (unless you're thinking Polynesian), it doesn't even make sense."
But making sense is beside the point when what is being marketed is a magical experience. It doesn't make an ounce of sense to have a clown as the mascot of a hamburger chain, but tell that to the millions of American children who have happily permitted Ronald McDonald to become a rival for Santa Claus in their fantasies and affections. What we have here isn't sense but advertising, without the sublime and subliminal effects of which the malls and the franchises would collapse. The malls and the franchises are not, for the most part, selling products that we need; the function of advertising is first to make us want them generally -- want fast-food hamburgers, that is, or blue jeans -- and then to make us want specific brands: Wendy's rather than McDonald's, Lees rather than Levis.
Whether this is good or bad for society depends on where you sit; Kowinski and Luxenberg, not surprisingly, tend to find it bad, though Kowinski does admit that the mall is not without its pleasures. They take due note of the flattening effects of standardization and the prevalence of mediocrity, not to mention the considerable violence that malls and franchise stores have done to the American landscape, both physically and esthetically. But the age of the mall and the franchise is, like the coming of the Industrial Revolution, something from which there will be no turning back. It is easy to bemoan the gradual disappearance of regional distinctions and peculiarities, rather more difficult to face up to reality and decide how to turn it to society's best interests.
This, by and large, Kowinski and Luxenberg have not done. They have written small books (though not short ones) about large subjects. The Malling of America is at once the best and the worst of the two; it is by far the more provocative and imaginative, but Kowinski's use of the first-person carries New-Journalistic self-indulgence beyond the pale. Roadside Empires for its part is dry, disorganized and dull; to make a book populated by the likes of Ray Kroc and Colonel Sanders boring is no small feat, but this Luxenberg has accomplished. Still, their very considerable shortcomings notwithstanding, these books tell us a great deal about what we are now, and leave us wondering -- or worrying -- about what we are becoming.