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Shiloh

Bobbie Ann Mason

Shopping-Mall Realism

Leroy’s Point of View

Historical Context

Mason writes in a straightforward, populist fashion that some critics have dubbed “shopping-mall realism,” a style that both roots her story in reality and reflects and dignifies the lives of her Kentuckian characters. Mason’s sentences are unadorned and rely on the vivid but plain words that her characters might use. The text is filled with references to icons of pop culture, including Star Trek, Dr. Strangelove, Donohue, and songs from the 1960s. Mason also makes mention of parking lots, shopping centers, Yodels, Coca-Cola, Diet Pepsi, casseroles, marijuana, orange sneakers, and Rexall drugstores. Many writers would avoid mentioning these sorts of pop culture items, brand names, and places in their fiction for fear of seeming too prosaic or unsophisticated. But Mason prizes accuracy over elevated prose style. She is interested primarily in creating a true portrait of the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class southerners. By faithfully reporting what her characters eat, watch, listen to, and think about, she makes their lives real to us. Her shopping-mall realism also grants dignity to people who have often been overlooked in fiction. Leroy and Norma Jean are not the sort of eloquent and highly educated people familiar from the fiction of, for example, John Updike, but Mason shows that they are as intelligent, sensitive, and complicated as their higher-class fictional counterparts.

Mason’s style also allows occasional moments of transcendence to occur amid the detritus of everyday life. Leroy and Norma Jean may be products of a charmless town and relentless consumer culture, but they gravitate toward whatever beauty they can find. Leroy observes the goldfinches that come to the feeder and wonders whether they keep their eyes shut when they fall toward the ground before spreading their wings and flying upward again. Norma Jean aspires to make her body strong and beautiful, possibly from a desire to transcend the ugliness that surrounds her. At Shiloh, she leaves the trees by the parking lot and walks toward the Tennessee River, where she waves her arms in an ambiguous gesture. In a world comprising subdivisions, stores, and vast stretches of cement, these glimpses of melancholy beauty shine all the brighter for their rarity.

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