In the future, people will live in shopping malls. I am convinced of this. Shopping malls will grow to accommodate our appetites, and they will evolve into villages, townships and cities. There will be more fountains and more plants, there will be grassy areas for play, there will be gardens, there will be frolicking. Shopping malls will replace suburbs as the encapsulated solution to all of our modern needs, and eventually they will be closed to all but their residents. Visitation passes will be required for admission, available immediately to residents of other malls, coveted dearly by those who remain outside. Factories and farms will provide for those needs unmet by internal production, and when these strike, there will be shopping malls built for the less fortunate, significantly dimmer and lacking in frills but enough to appease the working men and women of the future. Finally, the shopping malls will be fortified and armed, and the new frontier will lie between those within and those without.
If IKEA were fortified today, it could survive the zombie apocalypse. It would not take much. A few trenches, reinforced outer walls, gun turrets and guard towers. The only thing truly lacking at IKEA is a good food supply, but a rooftop garden would solve that nicely. The fact that IKEA itself looks like a post-Rapture upper middle class home is one of the things that made me decide this. I was strolling around the Klagenfurt IKEA, fear in my heart and trepidation in every step as I explored this New Pompeii, this living testament to and unwitting time-capsule of the present era of humanity. I needed a pillow and a comforter. The rolled up towel was starting to hurt my neck, and the weather had grown too cold for the blanket I had been generously lent. There was nothing for it, then, than to journey to IKEA, the place where furnishing dreams are made, and until I set foot in the place I had almost convinced myself that I wouldn’t freak out like the last time I was in one, a couple of years ago in California. I was wrong. It’s still a scary place. Below is a chronicle of my adventures. The pillow and comforter are great, though.
I stand in a boy’s room, lovingly decorated in a style that says, ‘You’re too old for a race car bed, but not too old for fuzzy slippers.’ Only an attentive mother could possibly navigate the distinction, and even they get it wrong sometimes. Thank goodness mine never did. The carpet is thick, probably feels nice on those feet if they miss the slippers, and my footsteps are silent as they move about the room, taking a look at the objects on the dresser, peering into the adjoining bathroom, smiling at the book face down on the nicely made bed. And then it hits me: no one actually lives here.
Let’s put aside the fact that no boy of that age would make his bed that neatly and address the more troubling thought that I am standing in a room that was meticulously furnished and arranged for a person who does not exist. The antsy feeling I get every time I come to an IKEA was present from the moment I took the escalator up and saw baskets of toys and towels hanging from racks. It’s all a sham. It’s a showroom, made to look as if the actual inhabitants of this disjointed home have ‘just stepped out for a bit’, to take in a show or enjoy a quick stroll to the riverbank to watch the sunset and listen to the toads croak before returning to finish their homework or fix a nice supper.
And worst of all, I am by myself. In previous trips to IKEAs, of which there have been precisely three, I had at least one other person with me. Confronting this house of horrors all on my own was bold indeed, or perhaps just stupid. The end result is heart palpitations and the overwhelming feeling that whatever non-existents the decorators had in mind will enter to fill the void sooner or later and make this place their home.
These are the thoughts occupying my mind as I stand in the room looking down at the object on the bed. ‘When will the boy return to finish reading this?’ I wonder. I pick it up, gently so as not to lose the place. The hair on my neck stands at attention, and I almost feel someone mumbling the written words over my shoulder as I examine the book. The phantom child had stopped reading somewhere between pages 218 and 219. A Swedish child, one expects, or one who knows Swedish. The title is: Till en konstnärssjäl: en vänbok till Stig Ramel.
I would later discover, curious as to just what sort of book this was, that it is a text on Swedish history, cited in academic works on historical topics relating to Scandinavia. It is, then, something that requires a fair amount of expertise to consume. What kind of boy would consider this to be bedtime reading? Having been a precocious lad myself, I would hardly contend that a child could never find such a thing to be of interest, but if these rooms and kitchens and breakfast nooks are supposed to represent the lives of your average family, just what is one to assume? Are the good folks at IKEA doing all they can to better the average, elevate us to a level of intellectual inquiry consistent with the books on display in children’s bedrooms? Or are the Swedes simply that much more sophisticated than the rest of us and therefore prone to imagine that a historical treatise would gladden the heart of any young squire who might inhabit such a room? Either way, point for Sweden.
And yet, the vibe is the same, no matter what the content: this half-read book bespeaks an entity, real or imagined, that lives in this room, considers it part of a home that, although punctuated mercilessly with winding footpaths that lead to the sprawling arrangement of the other rooms, must surely have other occupants. This block house has been ruptured, it has exploded, rooms falling to collect where they may, somehow perfectly intact, and litter the surrounds in this haphazard configuration. The spaces between, rather than being allowed to remain empty, were then filled in with countless reproductions of the stylish furnishings that each room contains. What price would such people be paid to live this way, in a disassembled home, with parades of curious onlookers coming to gaze at their possessions and mirror their tastes while the family is away? Again, I remember that there is no family. No warmth resides here. We take that with us when we leave.
The effect is deeply unsettling, and yet I remain entranced and wander on. Arrows seek to define my path and inform me of my destiny, and I walk against them, violating their decree and rejecting their vision of my future. From bedrooms I walk through kitchens and living rooms, and the museum-like nature of the place has become inescapable. I shudder at the emptiness and try to imagine whether it would be creepier with animatronic people doing chores and enjoying the comforts of modern living, or whether it is in fact the absence of the user—plates set for non-existent families, beds turned down for never-born children, immaculate desk and chair sets waiting in vain for bodies to fill them—that makes this all so strange and even terrifying.
And these model rooms and their myriad furnishings that are ‘for display only’, do they know that they function for our eyes alone? Do they suspect that they will never know the warmth of a couple snuggling between their sheets or the weight of a hot meal on the empty plates they bear? There is a soullessness to this place that is haunting, and if the piped-in music were ever turned off, I am certain that we would hear the groans of virgin frying pans who long to know grease, of bookshelves that—having been assembled, and therefore brought to life, in Austria—are filled with Swedish literature and yet ignorant of that Nordic tongue. Their wailing would join that of bamboo cutting boards and empty coat racks, of chairs hung cruelly on walls where only the specters of shoppers past could possibly complete them, of pillows fluffed daily but never caressed.
But underneath the music, below the throbbing cadences of electro-funk and techno-soul, I hear them, these voices. I hear them all. They call to me in the resounding lament of lives wasted, begging for meaning and purpose. Their cries have become pleas, and not knowing what else to do I try to comfort them. I tell them that I will return, pour some water into the parched glass on the breakfast table, bring a match to light the candles on the mantle, set one of the two dozen alarm clocks so that its terrible song might finally be heard.
And the tide of voices subsides to a mumbling, but they are not convinced. Others have promised the same, and my words are nothing more than the hollow refrain of another vow that will remain unfulfilled. None of my assurances to the contrary put colour on the faces of those clocks or bring smiles to the eyes of the spotless stoves. And why should they, after all? As sincere as I may be in my intentions, will I truly set mortar to these lofty words and transform them into actions? Will I place an old T-shirt in that barren chest of drawers? Will I slice fresh bread and spread warm butter with flashy knives that weep from loneliness? Or will I turn away, my purchases made, and try to put this prison of innocents out of my mind?
My footsteps quicken as I search for the way out, arrows now turning against me of their own accord and leading me back from where I have come. A cry of my own catches in my throat. I have been trapped. I am to remain. But finally, a path to freedom emerges, freedom that they grant me but cannot provide for themselves. It is selfless and kind, an act not made in desperation, hoping that they will cull favour with me and ensure my return, but instead an act of forgiveness and of mercy.
I will return, I decide. I will bring some small bit of life to this place one day. But as I hasten back toward the exit, down to the warehouse that holds the only truly hopeful creatures in this wretched place, I spy a pair of shoes set neatly on a rack, and I stoop down to tie the scattered laces. For now I can do no more than this and hope that one day I will fulfill my promise of return, but even this small act has made me feel that I have done something memorable, something that the rest will see as a sign of good faith. Looking down at those shoes, laces tied for the first time, I feel satisfaction, and I sense a lift in my spirit as I walk away. And I may be crazy, having already spent too much time in this curious land, but I believe I caught the hint of a smile on those shoes after all.