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The Operating Theatre: Contemporary Fiction & Las Vegas

By Sean Hooks.

 Las Vegas is known for a multiplicity of things. Gambling. Transience. Heat. Solitude and isolation. Freakery. Global tourism. Indulgence. The triumph of spectacle, celebrating the celebratory. Somewhat recently, in the last five to ten years, prior to the November 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the October 2017 tragedy of the Mandalay Bay mass shooting, in the realm of literature the Nevadan metropolis of Las Vegas has become an examination room and a battleground, a kenoma in which writers have elucidated an elegiac donnée, one that refracts the soul (or soullessness) of an America enamored with the effervescence of the eternal present.

The city’s literary history is rarely insular, often regionally inscribed by its proximity to Los Angeles, an hour by plane or four hours by car, calling to mind Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970). It is the consummate desert city, defined by long, scorching summers and unremitting drought, essentially adjacent to the Southern Californian high desert, Death Valley, the Hoover Dam, and the Colorado River. It is a one-of-a-kind oasis, but it is also part of the American southwest. Book-wise, it is most readily associated with Hunter S. Thompson’s much-loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), novel-ish in structure, avant-garde in execution, a cult-classic exercise in self-invention. The genesis of gonzo journalism, a freakier version of the non-fiction novel in the aftermath of Capote and Mailer, but drug-doused, thus kin to Kesey, Thompson’s opus can also be categorized as Social Criticism. The nineties saw the success of John O’Brien’s 1990 novel Leaving Las Vegas, followed by a film adaptation five years later that brought the author’s distinctively bleak semi-autobiographical stylings to the screen. In recent years, three major works employ Las Vegas as a setting for literary fiction: Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas (2014), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013), and the tentpole of the New Vegas novel, Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children (2008).

Abani’s slender noir volume has gotten less attention than Tartt’s lengthy bestselling Pulitzer-winner. It hasn’t been adapted into a motion picture as with O’Brien’s, Thompson’s, and Didion’s works, nor was it a big debut splash like Bock’s book—the subject of no less than three separate reviews in the New York Times upon its release. The Secret History of Las Vegas opens with an important but often overlooked aspect of the region, the atom bomb. The National Atomic Testing Museum is located in Las Vegas for good reason, and Abani details the early and all but unsupervised nuclear era including the viewing parties where people were bussed out to the desert to watch the government detonate bombs, an act of schadenfreudian tourism as proto-Vegas cashed in on mushroom cloud skirts and atomic puns. Two of Abani’s main characters, conjoined twins named Fire and Water, are the result of exposure to atomic fallout in utero. Their mother Selah watched a detonation less than two miles from the epicenter and dies of leukemia when Fire and Water are seven years old. Freakishness is a recurrent subject and a deep-rooted love for the Nigerian émigré poet and fiction writer, and not just the surface-level freakery of Las Vegas, the stuff of Taxicab Confessions, but the aspects of the city that reflect what Philip Roth famously called the “indigenous American berserk” in American Pastoral.  Las Vegas, then, is a sort of American Unpastoral, a finely polished Tower of Babel with cactus-like arms in the shape of a pyramid, a replica Statue of Liberty, a third-scale Eiffel Tower, a giant slot machine.

War is savagery, and savagery is what Las Vegas draws out of us a little at a time, lest we become pent up and volatile. It is hard to divest the city of its intertwinement with military personnel. Nellis Air Force Base has more squadrons than any other U.S. base, and if you spend any amount of time on or near the Strip it is hard to go far without seeing service members enjoying some R&R in full regalia as tipsy and effusive strangers come up and shake their hands, thanking them profusely for their service, though perhaps comedian Doug Stanhope comes closer to nailing the primary reason they’re gussied up in their dress uniforms and fanned out in groups along Las Vegas Boulevard: they’re hunting “hero pussy.”

Uniforms of all types, not just military ones, proliferate more in Las Vegas than in most cities. Remembering Thoreau’s dictum, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” Abani takes pleasure in blurring, puncturing, and deconstructing clearly identified roles. The casino/hotel/resort employees are decked out in the trimmings of their trade as bellhop or desk clerk, pit boss or baccarat dealer, maid or gift shop employee. The female self-objectification-for-money hierarchy runs from cocktail waitress to stripper to hooker, each with her own particular costume. The tourists also love to play dress-up in the Southern Nevadan citadel, women donning a mini-skirt or a cleavagy black dress, men sporting a blazer and jeans at the steakhouse with the fellas, or visor and fanny pack at the pool with a little age hampering their gait but never dimming their glad-to-be-there grins. As one can imagine, Halloween on the Strip is a singular and revelatory forum for revelry. And of course, the other type of raiment that is every bit as prevalent as that of the scantily clad over-the-top get-ups or the soldier boys in their finery, is that of the brides and grooms, wedding parties trailing behind, whether lavish and quasi-celebrity at a ballroom inside The Wynn, or cheap and fast—like the subjects of Didion’s Saturday Evening Post essay “Marrying Absurd” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)—at one of the old downtown chapels all wicker and white paint, kitschy and pseudo-quaint.

The Secret History of Las Vegas has its poetic indulgences too; it is a collection of freaks and monstrosities, people quite literally shaped by their environs, and an environment shaped by the ever-shifting mores of its populace, warped by the whims of various generations and incarnations. When and where in Vegas’s shifting amoeba-in-the-petri-dish we are situated is always a question to ask of the city and of its fictive or filmic representations. The Bugsy Siegel beginnings? The Rat Pack peak? The attempted family-friendly era of the short-lived MGM Adventures Theme Park? The simulacra-building of the Luxor pyramid and the miniature Paris and the bric-a-brac New York and the indoor Venice? The chic and chi-chi contemporary scene of vague one-word resort names and theme-less high-end escapism typified by City Center’s towers—Vdara, Aria, and Veer—and augmented by cultural artifacts like that Cîroc vodka commercial where Diddy is surrounded by an entourage including Jesse from Breaking Bad and Omar from The Wire and Phil Leotardo from The Sopranos and some girls in spangly dresses who look like members of the Pussycat Dolls?

What, or who, or when, is Las Vegas to you? Mike McDermott’s destination in Rounders and Chris Moneymaker winning the World Series of Poker? The Killers, Panic! at the Disco and Imagine Dragons? Robert Urich? Sarah Jessica Parker? Sheryl Crow? MTV’s The Real World, CSI on CBS, or Pawn Stars on History Channel? Rain Man? The Hangover and Bridesmaids? The Sinatra-Sammy-Angie Dickinson Ocean’s 11 or the Pitt-Clooney-Julia Roberts remake? Elvis Presley or Paris Hilton? Do you remember Bob Stupak’s Vegas World or do you only know its successor The Stratosphere? And do you recognize The Stratosphere as a souped-up Space Needle, must-see milestone, tallest building west of the Mississippi with rides on the roof? Or do you know it as a low-rent leftover of hubristic vulgarity situated a stone’s throw from heroin alley (or, to look at the positive side of the ledger, a short walk from Luv-It Frozen Custard, a local’s fave mom & pop dessert stand). And don’t forget that the city is also the subject of Robert Venturi’s groundbreaking 1972 architectural study Learning From Las Vegas, where it is cast as the ground zero locus of the instantiation of postmodernism, the effacement of old modernist divisions and the razing of the barriers between high and low culture.

Las Vegas is a place for people-watching, for observation, for listening in, for mockery and snark. If you’re an inveterate eavesdropper or if you have a knack for withering comments about the foibles of others, it’s got everything you’ll ever need. So it is fitting that Abani’s dialogue in The Secret History of Las Vegas is unpunctuated, with no quotation marks or dashes explicitly letting the reader know when someone is speaking. What better way for a poet to convey, capture, and co-opt the tired slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” than to make all dialogue technically and grammatically unattributed? Early in the novel, Abani writes about the history-less never-time that exists in Las Vegas. His protagonist, Sunil Singh, a South African immigrant contracted to work for the fictitious, but plausible, Desert Palms Institute, surreptitiously financed by the U.S. Defense Department, is unknowingly contributing to a search for a drug that cures psychopaths, in order for the institute to market it as a weapon against enemy soldiers. He thinks it through as follows:

Fuck, Sunil muttered, I have become more American than I thought.

He too, it seemed, had come to believe that he could somehow escape history. That it was possible, and even desirable, to live in a perpetual present. When had that happened? He hasn’t been here long enough, it seemed, a mere seven years, and yet like the almost imperceptible, if inevitable, creep of sand and desert, it had happened.

It is telling that Abani uses the phrase “it seemed” twice in such close proximity. Las Vegas is a sunny place, hardly ever even cloudy or overcast, but its landscape and its paradigms are rarely clear. It is hard to find reality. The superficial is as rampant as the heat, and the constant commerce is as much of a glut as the slow-moving pedestrians and the always waiting lines of cabs and limos, and even the Strip itself, the literal sidewalk, is often buried beneath discarded handouts, fliers, and baseball card–sized advertisements for escorts. Las Vegas as a setting for the literature of social comment has only been lightly studied; it remains under-utilized, far from exhausted.

In an August 2014 issue of LA Weekly, Henry Rollins writes, “In many ways, Las Vegas is the ultimate statement of Homo sapiens. Not Coltrane, not NASA or literacy. This assault on nature is one of the most obscene attempts to tame the wild. It is a massive concrete, steel and pavement tantrum.” It is as if everybody knows that Washington D.C. isn’t really the capital anymore. Sure, there’s still a plentitude of power suits, the agglomeration of mid-Atlantic wealth, the Machiavellian allure of politics typified by Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but it’s not the most American of cities, it’s not the most popular or the best-known. It’s a relic, a studio lot for CNN, talking heads with landmarks hovering in the background like something out of a much-reused sixth-grade textbook. The modern-day United States is condensed into instantly recognizable symbols, as portrayed through the media, social or traditional, old or new, in all their hyper-linked and instantly gratifying versions. And though the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building and the White House are well-known edifices, they don’t quite encapsulate or semiotically signify, not in the way that the Manhattan skyline or the Hollywood sign serve as American archetypes.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, those two port cities, N period Y period and L period A period, were America’s benchmarks and bookends, but the twenty-first century may more appropriately be compared to Las Vegas, Nevada and all its cartoonish glory. Where the booms and busts hit first and hardest (chronicled in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (2010) and its 2015 film adaptation). Where the American empire sends you on vacation or to a conference. William Chalmers’s book America’s Vacation Deficit Disorder (2013) stipulates, via a citation of the MMGY Global/Harrison Group’s 2012 Portrait of American Travelers, that only 9 percent of U.S. residents are even interested in international destinations, so Las Vegas provides a Cliff’s Notes version of the world, a more comfortable brand of tourism, without the massive time shifts, language barriers, and xenophobic fears inherent to international travel. “L.V.” says you don’t have to go to Paris and put up with those snooty French people to see the Eiffel Tower or to order a baguette from an ersatz boulangerie. You can experience the thrill of a tropical isle without the interference of child beggars and that depressing drive through the dilapidated slums on the way from the airport. The photogenic amenities of Venice are available without the stink of the canals, and the gondoliers backgrounded in selfies kick back for a Krispy Kreme donut or a Coors Light after work.

Las Vegas has acknowledged America’s fame obsession and is vending it. The illusion of being a somebody. You get to be whatever you want and, better yet, you get to leave it there. Hide from your job and your boss and your kids, shed your skin and let out that inner slouching beast. Yeats got the city wrong, but he was right about the desert. Las Vegas is a place where the temporal and the ephemeral are morphed into insta-culture, a palace of assimilation that’s open twenty-four/seven. There is no past or future, no need for perspective or long-range thought, there is only the unending now, the new promised land, a most codified place, a domain of myth and ritual.

Abani’s caffeinated prose renders Vegas as an amphigoric land of rejects, not unlike Alaska, where one can live “off the grid,” as Fire and Water do. By contrast, Donna Tartt’s prose in The Goldfinch is as leisurely and luxuriant as Abani’s is rapid and racing. If Abani’s approach is an electronica-soaked rooftop ultra-lounge, Tartt’s is the equivalent of a fully stocked private pool cabana. But her protagonist Theo and his best friend Boris first meet in Las Vegas as teenagers because both their fathers have been drawn there to be as off-the-grid as possible. It is a starting over for Theo’s dad, a hitting of the reset button, and an international version of gridlessness in the case of Boris’s Ukrainian father. Many of Abani’s characters—which include, apart from the South African Sunil, an assassin called Eskia, a Detective Salazar, and a call girl literally named Asia—come from outside America. Both Tartt and Albani capture the global quality of a Vegas where economic depression is hidden behind the façade of a city that appears to be bursting with activity and tourists from home and abroad.

Looking back at John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, both the novel and the adaptation, one sees a flatter and emptier city. O’Brien’s novel is visceral and not easily forgotten, a punishing portrait of loneliness, abuse, and self-destruction, an unrelenting flagellation of near Dantean proportions that somehow wears its Vegas-as-hell themes lightly. Published in 1990 but eschewing the clichés and tropes of eighties and nineties decadence, O’Brien’s book is redolent of Bukowski (at his best) and set in a Las Vegas with a population of well under half-a-million people. Back then it was mostly just another mid-sized American city, albeit it one with esoteric legalities. Ben moves there because, unlike Los Angeles, Las Vegas has twenty-four-hour alcohol. Mike Figgis’s 1995 film is a character study focused chiefly on Nicolas Cage’s fully realized and three-dimensional alcoholic—and deserving Oscar-winner—a man named Ben committed to drinking himself to death. Indelible line-readings highlight a gargantuan and inimitably American portrait of excess. The film also features one of the few truly erotic sex scenes in American cinema as a pre-cosmetic surgery Cage and a pre-cosmetic surgery Elisabeth Shue create an artful interpretation of sincere and desperately earnest love.

Leaving Las Vegas, the novel, begins with images of 7-Eleven coffee cups and skeletal cranes, construction sites devoted to what we now think of as Las Vegas then still in its fledgling stages. The concentration on the detritus of industry, on the utilitarian, on a simple cup, on objects, in a city that objectifies people more than any other, the focus on a sex worker, Sera, as a main character, the section titles —Cherries, Lemons, Bars—that symbolize the slot machine, the national convenience store chain, the cranes and tractors uprooting the desert, and the vertical skyline-building that has continued non-stop in the twenty-five years since the book’s publication, all point to a mechanistic universe, one that David Foster Wallace warned us of in his own take on the city. Wallace famously transcribed his experiences attending the Adult Video News Awards, an essay called “Neither Adult nor Entertainment,” first published in the September 1998 issue of Premiere and later collected in Consider the Lobster (2005) under the title “Big Red Son.” The AVN is essentially a porn conference. And what is pornography? Well, Susan Sontag wrote that “pornography is a theatre of types, never of individuals.” A good novel, one might say, must always be a theatre of individuals, never of types. Abani, Tartt, and Bock satisfy that rubric as they scour American materialism—acquisition addiction, consumption compulsion, suburban sprawl—interrogating it via profound characterizations and a shunning of didacticism.

Early in O’Brien’s novel, Sera sees the chip as the ultimate avatar of Las Vegas. That old maxim comes to mind about how the guy who invented gambling was smart but the guy who invented the chip was a genius. Sera talks about how a chip is a symbol of a symbol, of money itself (especially in a post-gold standard age) as the primary level of symbology, and the iconography and imagery of the green piece of paper that is the bill, currency, then refracted and distilled one step further into a slim disc made of plastic and clay. It is much easier to victimize someone who is not betting something of tangible value, but something that approximates a token from a board game.

A bill, of whatever denomination, is something you hold in your hand, something made out of paper, like a book (Las Vegas hasn’t much purity but O’Brien’s novel seems like particularly egregious content for ingestion via Kindle or Nook), but a film is something you hold in your mind’s eye. In the celluloid Leaving Las Vegas, Figgis’s sordid two hours depict a transitional time, in between the Baudrillardish mega-spectacle present and the overly lionized nostalgia of the Rat Pack past (“back when men wore suits and women wore dresses,” drones the unabashed Frank & Dino worshipper who longs for the good ol’ wife-beating and mafia days). It’s a vista that is post-Mirage but pre-Bellagio, a specific sliver of history, the history of a city that actively and eternally endeavors to obliterate history. At one point there is a scene at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road, now dominated by the Bellagio fountains and a much more vast and hulking multi-towered version of Caesars, but in the early ninteies the same place plays as just an eccentric street corner, a muted locale, unbusy, a creek of pedestrians instead of a river. Sera and Ben hold a conversation as the latter sits on a bus bench and sips a martini, with Bally’s neon obelisks and the cheesy pink Flamingo marquee in the background. The scene concludes with Ben inviting Sera out for a $2.99 prime rib.

The new literary Las Vegas is no longer so minimalist, it is instead a chiaroscuro. O’Brien’s signature tic in the Sera sections is the parenthetical. These are impressionistic flashbacks to her pre-Vegas life that sometimes go on for multiple sentences or even multiple paragraphs. It is Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children that fully ushers in the more expansive modes and motifs of the twenty-first-century fictions that will be further elaborated by Abani and Tartt. Abani’s unattributed consciousnesses float through the city, vapor-like, ghosts of larger conspiracies. Tartt’s palette tends towards philosophical editorializing and Dickensian plot moves, inlaid and curlicued with lapidary prose, truly gem-like in the Vegas sections, where even the novel’s detractors, like The New Yorker’s James Wood, praise the quality of the sentence-level writing. If both Abani’s and Tartt’s visions of the city are clearly cinematic, unravelling visually, sensually, the first chapter of Beautiful Children, “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” announces its cinematic intention directly, beginning: “The lens zooms in, then draws back.” Bock’s relentless desire is to survey and sketch the unseen Vegas, the citizenry, the underrepresented parts of town the Strip tourists don’t see (the casinos that do appear in the novel are locals’ joints like Sam’s Town and Palace Station) and the miseries some residents endure, suggestive of Bret Easton Ellis relating the lives of vagabond adolescent annihilation in his own debut, Less Than Zero (1985), which is heavily influenced by the Didion of Play It As It Lays where Las Vegas is both respite and regression (“She did not decide to stay in Vegas: she only failed to leave.”). For Joan’s protagonist Maria Wyeth, an odds-knower, risk-taker, and boundary-pusher whose hometown of Silver Wells, Nevada became a missile range,Vegas is a place to hide behind dark glasses and embrace negation. It held a similarly cynical appeal for Didion’s real-life husband John Gregory Dunne in his 1974 autobiographical experiment Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season.

For Hunter S. Thompson, Las Vegas is an acid-drenched version of the Wild West, paranoid and loose, a narcotic carousel (for carousing with narcotics), while O’Brien’s Vegas is a traumatic place—addictive, battersome, masochistic. The Las Vegas of Charles Bock and the works that have come after him posit a post-9/11, post-traumatic Las Vegas, rehabilitative (if often in an illusory way), and sadistic. It portrays people as products, outright commodities. In one of the most memorable scenes in Beautiful Children, street kids are engaged in a game of faux-worldly old-before-our-time one-upsmanship as they chronicle the legacies of abuse they’ve endured. It is a narrative about narrative:

A game of My Past Sucked the Worst was erupting, with tempers flaring over the hierarchy of incest abuses, whether you got more points for parents or grandparents, activity or grotesqueness.

“And just how do you top being jackhammered up the ass by your dad?”

“Try having grampa’s eighty-year nuts slamming against your chin, BITCH.”

Street kids, including one who will ultimately end up murdered, also make an appearance in Abani’s novel in a chapter that reads like an homage to Bock. “They were disturbing but beautiful” is Sunil Singh’s synopsis of these homeless youths. His own past is littered with dead bodies back at the infamous South African death camp Vlakplaas. In The Goldfinch, Theo and Boris are essentially street kids, gorging on wanderlust in the abandoned, empty, or foreclosed housing developments at the edge of town. They too would have a sizeable stake in a “My Past Sucked the Worst”-type game—Theo because of his incessant guilt, a feeling of responsibility for his mother’s death during a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan; Boris because he is regularly and viciously beaten by his father and is well on his way to a life of abject criminality. In Tartt’s tome, Las Vegas is both a redoubt and a land of unsupervised teenage anarchy that nonetheless retains some of the innocence of youth. Bret Easton Ellis is a long-acknowledged influence on Tartt as well, dating back to their days together at Bennington; her first novel is dedicated to Ellis. The scenes between Theo and Boris as adolescents are downright touching, no matter how laced with drugs and violence, misogyny and skewed identity formation, threats and loneliness and a strip-mall culture of shoplifting and ennui where vacant houses serve as evidence of a nationwide boom ‘n bust cycle. Theo’s father, a gambler with a pill-popping girlfriend named Xandra (a wonderful bit of satire herself), vacillate between treating the boys to Christmas dinner at a pricy Strip eatery (“a fancy, oak-panelled Italian restaurant—the outpost of its more famous sister restaurant in New York”) and trying to clean out Theo’s college fund to subsidize their own habits.

Abani’s vision has even less innocence, along with a horde of ironies and Foucauldian power structures. His Las Vegas is the center of an explicit, corporate, multi-national surveillance state where homeless people serve as lab rats, their corpses disposed of in Lake Mead (for a non-fiction take on the perils faced by the Las Vegas homeless population, seek out Matt O’Brien’s Beneath the Neon (2007)). Vegas has always been surveilled, from the old catwalks above the casino pits where guys in suits with binoculars eagle-eyed potential cheats, to the backroom tortures and dead bodies dumped in holes in the desert during the mob era depicted in Scorsese’s Casino (1995), on to the current incarnations—dark blue globes of hidden cameras recording everything you do, employing facial recognition technology and other nouveau methods documented on one of the Travel Channel’s many Vegas-centric programs. International corporations are as powerful as government agencies in Abani’s world. The Strip casinos basically have their own police apparatus. Metro will occasionally prowl the streets and superhighways that wind around the Strip and the hotels downtown in Old Vegas, but when you watch an episode of Cops, the lights most people associate with the city tend to twinkle far in the background. Off-Strip drug dens and arms stockades populate Bock’s Las Vegas in Beautiful Children as well, nothing as sanctioned and centralized as even a pawn shop exchange or a nightclub bathroom drug deal taking place. Long before Snowden’s NSA revelations or the tentacular reach of Amazon.com, Vegas was tracking you and marketing you and scanning you and offering you a fake I.D. if you were on the lam, or a player’s card if you were on vacation, or putting your name in a black book if you treated one of the big stables’ prostitutes poorly or won too often at the tables.

Las Vegas is, in Abani’s novel, as in Bock’s and Tartt’s, a blatantly segmented place. Fire and Water, due to their freak status and normality-abjuring existence, have few allies, so they can be leaned on; much as the Occupy protesters were purged from public spaces by increasingly militarized police departments, as journalists and whistle-blowers are forced to seek refuge in foreign countries, and as cyber-punks and hacktivists are routinely arrested and intimidated by the F.B.I. “Endless prosecution and enforcement,” to quote Thomas Pynchon, whose Inherent Vice (2009) is set in the post-sixties milieu of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. By employing the castes of South African Apartheid as allegory, Abani exposes what Gore Vidal broke down as the three classes of Americans: a tiny fraction that has all the money and all the power, twenty percent that are “doing well,” and everybody else subject to a more or less exploited Social Darwinist reality, living paycheck to paycheck. These are the huddled masses, the lost and helpless, other people’s meat, “the doomed,” to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson’s apocryphal bathroom interaction with Richard Nixon, side by side at the urinals, Thompson asking: What is America’s responsibility to the underclass, what should be done about the doomed? And Nixon replying: Fuck the doomed.

According to the Vidal doctrine and the undergirding of Abani’s realpolitik, it is the casino conglomerates and the millionaire entrepreneurs and magnates, the local celebrities and their children, the professional athletes and Fortune 500 executives, the high rollers who can afford the fiftieth-floor suites with the special elevator passkeys and the deluxe double doors, who obviously compose the top tier, now regularly referred to as “The One Percent.” And if you can afford a four-day/three-night stay at any of the big-name resorts, taking in the sights and the food and the drink and the sex and the shows and the gambling and the other “sins” in Sin City, count yourself amongst the twenty percent. Everybody else? Well, you know where you stand. If you had to scrimp and save for a couple of midweek nights at the Excalibur or the Four Queens or Circus Circus or if you’re any type of low-level employee in the “service economy” then you’re just a tarnished see-saw or a creaky swing set in the playground of the rich. The poor are disposable and the middle class are replaceable, so you better work your ass to the bone to stay middle class lest you become the poor. Whether you’re Theo and Boris in The Goldfinch or Pony, Cheri Blossom, Newell Ewing and the street kids in Beautiful Children, Sunil the cog in the complex or Salazar the Cuban-American cop in The Secret History of Las Vegas, you’re fodder, scenery, marginalia.

Cheri, in Bock’s novel, is a stripper who morphs from nymphet to amazon with the help of breast implants, amped up “cleavage you could land planes on.” Though her back hurts, it’s worth it because it allows her to “upgrade,” to become a product. Cheri is Naomi Wolf’s new iron maiden from The Beauty Myth (1990) crossbred with Donna Haraway’s theories on the commodification of the self, the cyborg woman:

Cheri powdered her underarm scars with talcum (also giving a quick poof to her bull’s-eye of pubic hair, just for luck). But meanwhile, just like her boyfriend had promised, not only had her investment been returned, it had doubled. New stereo equipment. High-definition plasma flat screen.

Abani’s women are subjugated and traduced as well, but they are granted a saints-in-the-slums quality reminiscent of the religious faction of ghetto nuns in Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). That massive masterwork separated the desert and the city, but The Secret History of Las Vegas conflates them. Abani’s female characters are not entirely tragic, however. They are consistently more Emilia than Desdemona. There is Jan, a doctor who was equally loved by Eskia and Sunil back in South Africa; the prostitute, Asia, who is also Sunil’s paramour; and his research assistant, Dr. Sheila Jackson. Together they compose a frieze of femininity, a trio of women who are survivors more than victims. Perhaps his most potent female character is a fascinating woman named Fred, who helms the Carnival of Lost Souls ghost town a few hours’ drive from Las Vegas. The more predictable move for Abani would have been a bordello or brothel, but this caravan of uprooted freaks, a gallimaufry of the fringe folk, is partially a cover for Fred’s real work (C.I.A. operative) and also a great opportunity for Abani to flex his chops and present an intentionally queered set of reality, an outpost of outliers, a trans-friendly place run by a woman with a man’s name and a masculine physique.

Las Vegas as a locus for socio-literary exploration can be seen in other works as well. Ghost towns in the deep desert feature in an L.A. novel of note, Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel (2011), an indication that the west coast megalopolis has begun to amalgamate Las Vegas and Southern California into an increasingly interconnected reality, more and more city and sprawl spreading out towards each other, less and less desert and undeveloped mountain in between. This mixture is also prevalent in Claire Vaye Watkins’s pugnacious yet empathic 2012 short story collection Battleborn, set in and around Las Vegas and the state of Nevada as a whole. Iconoclast art critic and linguist Dave Hickey’s Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste (2014) exalts in a Las Vegas that is haunted and operatic, governed by three simple rules: no sissies, no dummies, full accountability. And for a gritty pulp take on the numbing negativism of Las Vegas, there is The Delivery Man, the 2008 debut novel by Joe McGinniss Jr. Both Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt were mentored by his father, Joe McGinniss Sr, whose own blend of noir and true crime  primes the canvas that Abani fills.

The post-9/11, post-police state novels of Bock, Tartt, and Abani use Las Vegas to paint a piquant picture of the present as a sociological mash-up of the worst nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, who correctly posited that we would become stimulation-junkies, besieged by distractions and doped with consumerism and shortattentionspan entertainments, as later exemplified by David Foster Wallace’s neo-classics Infinite Jest (1996) and Oblivion (2004), and now under the microscope of philosophers like Byung-Chul Han, coiner of the term “Fatigue Society.” But you can get rich there! Such was the topic of yet another central Las Vegas text, the wildly popular page-turner/beach-read Bringing Down the House (2003), Ben Mezrich’s Hollywood-ready (later adapted as 21 (2008)) gloss of number-crunching MIT students, math-freak outliers portrayed in a populist context, root-for-able “It really happened! It’s based on a true story!” protagonists aligned against the evil casinos with their rigged games, the Get Smart music cued up as the heroes don disguises to haul out their loot, thereby buying into the very lottery ticket longshot hope that Vegas (and the U.S.A. at large) uses to promote itself.

For good or bad, the New Vegas is frenetic, kinetic, and chaotic to the extreme. Hailing as it does from 1990, John O’Brien’s novel retains more than just semblances of Old Vegas, and a just plain “old” Vegas as well. Sera is not yet thirty but already weary. In the late sixties, Didion’s Maria Wyeth is a liminal creature just trying to disappear for a while but she cannot avoid being ogled and appraised. “Thirty-six…But a good thirty-six” is how her age is assessed by overheard strangers at the Sands. In the early seventies, Hunter Thompson presents Las Vegas as age-flattener. His protagonists want to welcome everyone to the ride, and it doesn’t matter if you’re underage jailbait or a middle-aged thrill-seeker, as long as you aren’t a cop or a narc or a Nazi. The child characters in Bock’s Beautiful Children could be seen as prematurely old but they seek an extended adolescence, as typified by the video gamer and comic booker Bing Beiderbixxe, an overweight pop culture–saturated “proud dork” slamming Red Bull and Mountain Dew, bemoaning a universe ruled by the sorority girls and lax bros he deplores and excoriates yet nonetheless envies. By the two-thousands, many millennials felt that adulthood didn’t begin until sometime in your mid-to-late twenties, and many Americans now live with their parents even into their thirties. Compare that sensibility to the “savage journey to the heart of the American dream” in Fear and Loathing, or to Maria in Play It As It Lays, a mother separated from her only child and already put through the grist mill of a film industry that viewed women as disposable eye candy, or to this slice of introduction and exposition from Leaving Las Vegas:

Sera is a circle, twenty-nine years around. Once a small girl in the east, she now lives here. There was time spent in Los Angeles, but the story that she knows is working well here, working at its best here, and she wishes to stay here in Las Vegas, where she arrived long enough ago that she now calls it home when speaking with herself. Her perspicacity intact—indeed, augmented by the rough spots—she came here deliberately and hewed out a life on her own terms which happens to fit quite nicely with local hustle-bustle policies. The tough, desperate life of the fictional prostitute, if she ever really knew it, is now long behind her; the tough is in fact manageable; the desperate turned out to be a not-very exclusive club. In any case, she can handle it, all of it. There will always be dark characters, but her life is good; it is as she wishes it to be.

The tone is one of resignation and weariness. There were literally no exclusive clubs in Las Vegas at the time of O’Brien’s novel, not in our modern sense of “da’ club.” There may have been the residue of an era where you slipped the usher a fiver to get you and your mistress a seat close to the lounge singer or the pianist, the showgirls or the hypnotist on stage, but there was no velvet rope, no bottle service, and the clubs didn’t have transparently innuendoed monosyllabic names and “daylife” pool parties, celebrity DJs and $10K bottles of champagne.

Note that Sera is in Las Vegas by choice. Bock’s beautiful children were born into it. The characters placed in Las Vegas by Donna Tartt and Chris Abani are mostly there against their will, though they too are certainly desperate. Their desperation is in some ways even more pressing and immediate than Sera’s. The extent of the teenage nihilism in The Goldfinch probably would have killed or seriously damaged Theo and Boris had they not found a way out. The murderous stakes in The Secret History of Las Vegas are no less unyielding and extreme than Sera’s volatile pimps and johns or Ben’s long slow suicide. At least Maria has her wits, her agent Freddy Chaikin and her father’s former business partner Benny Austin who’s known her since she was a child to rely on. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo have their efficacy and their autonomy. They arrive, roaring out of Barstow with purpose, headed for Vegas like a psychedelic spear. Even Thompson’s choice epigraph by Samuel Johnson—“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”—implies that this reckless road trip is one of independence, an assertion of free will, vestiges of the Easy Rider sixties coming to town hopped up and seeing hallucinatory bats. The older Vegas narratives are about selection, opting for a temporary escape or embracing a libertarian wildness (or a tackier and more American version of Wilde-ness, an Anglophile might say), making a beast of oneself, choosing to plunge into the abyss instead of being forcibly shoved into it, shaping oneself into something a bit subhuman or superhuman, willingly placing a bet with one’s life and entering a bizarre and frenzied funhouse. The latter works detailed here, by contrast, depict a Las Vegas that will inherently dehumanize you, with or without your consent—a town that prostheticizes the human, making automatons of people. Such features may also call to mind David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), a brand new but almost certainly canonical addition to the narrative arts set partially in Las Vegas.

The Old Vegas/New Vegas dichotomy can best be showcased by comparing John O’Brien’s opening salvo and the aesthetics of the mid-twentieth-century narratives of Thompson and Didion with the descriptions in Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, where the city becomes the backdrop for a panoply of urban nomads, where the sensationalized has trumped the organic, and where the world is presented as already deadened and fake. To stand out from the other girls at the Slinky Fox strip club where she dances, Cheri has, at her boyfriend’s encouragement, reshaped not just her breasts but her nipples:

The thing that basically devastated her at four in the morning in a casino coffee shop was her nipples.

Because her nipples had been beautiful. Truly they had.

Thin. Long. The same chestnut shade as her natural hair. A thousand little goose-pimply protuberances appearing on her areolas when she got aroused. Her nipples used to turn thick and full, becoming a shade richer around the fifth of every month, staying that way through the tenth. They used to wrinkle in hot weather. Her nipples used to have personality. And now this personality had been infiltrated. Dissected. It had been taken apart and put back together, stretched and spread and all but turned to plastic. Pink antiseptic saucers with ugly little nubs. They hardly got excited or did any damn thing.

As part of her stage show she has “dyed stubs of red wax and tiny red wicks that she had packed into her surgically hollowed-out nipple casings.” Her performance, her star turn, scored by the conclusion of Patti Smith’s “Free Money,” culminates when she ignites her nipples for a birthday-boy patron in the front row. With hooting and hollering from his cohorts, she is showered with bills larger than singles, and she waits for the guy to blow her flaming nipples out, only to have the chapter end with him sitting and watching, waiting to see what happens if he doesn’t. A desensitized world indeed, the one we live in, as passive spectators conquered and colonized by a soporific consumerism we can’t seem to rouse ourselves from, not to mention a political cosmos that continues to prove to be a credibility-draining and stability-sapping farce. Bock’s book is thus a dirge, the beginning of a much-needed period of lament, of elegy.

Donna Tartt, with her retro nineteenth-century plot-driven novel and a devotion to mesmeric storytelling, and Chris Abani, with his throwback noir manipulations and a tummler’s terse prose, both continue this tone, that of the swan song, with hopelessness as a given and America as a place that is past its prime, unable to return to anything resembling its former greatness in any of our lifetimes. We find books, all art really, unable to have an impact, incapable of changing a thing, and apathy victorious by dint of its merit. Whether you dread Las Vegas or love it, are repulsed by what it represents or eagerly imbibe its intoxicating aperitif, it is our world city, our new American capital, and it is attracting the conscious or subconscious attentions of our writers, our novelists, our artists and our heralds—the entities that Kurt Vonnegut eminently alluded to in a June 22, 1969 Chicago Tribune Magazine article called “Physicist, Purge Thyself”:

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

That was Vonnegut’s lot, his role as an author. Kurt’s great topic was World War II. Now the atrocities are subtler, more widespread, closer to home, so commonplace that we click from one to another online, not even bothering to shake our heads. It is our own citizens who are the bombarded ones, the huddled PTSD masses no longer hiding in a slaughterhouse in Dresden but pressing buttons in search of a jackpot beneath the blue-painted sky of a time-blanketing casino, gazing into a smartphone underneath the meager protections of the canvas overhang of a poolside umbrella, basking in the artificial coziness of a heat lamp in winter or a water spritzer in summer. The operating theatre’s carnage continues, the examination room is open to the public, the authors are writing their eulogies for the American soul.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Hooks was born and raised in New Jersey. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. He currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of California, Riverside. Recent non-fiction publications include The Scofield, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Bright Lights Film Journal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 19th, 2018.