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The Vatican to Vegas
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The Bellagio Fountain on the Strip

LAS VEGAS: LOVE AND HATE

Las Vegas used to be easy to hate. When I passed through a few times in college, I sensed what the place was exactly: cheap eats at bland buffets, Midwesterners blowing too much money in smoky casinos, and drunks everywhere. Elegant meant funky Egyptianesque costumes on cocktail waitresses at Caesars Palace where the fountains were large.

Now Las Vegas is something different, something that tricks your body and mind, something that perhaps can only be fully explained in Norman Klein’s The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects.

When my son was young, Las Vegas tried to appeal to families and the “sin” part was merely wink wink. One could play on the bumper cars at the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park (no longer), raft around a lazy river at a water park by the Stratosphere (no longer), or scramble yourself on a roller coaster on the roof of the Stratosphere Tower (still there). Yet with an Elvis on every corner and still feeling like I was being herded at the buffets, I didn’t race back.

 

 

Then last year, I started a mystery novel that begins at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the National Hardware Show. “What happens in Vegas, stays there” was my starting point, turned on its head.

I went to Las Vegas to do my research, and I met up with two friends, Tim Roberts and Caroline Smith, who took me out for an amazing meal at the Mon Ami Gabi restaurant, part of Paris Las Vegas, a hotel with a five-eighths scale Eifel Tower, a two-third-size Arc de Triomphe, and people spending money three hundred times faster than I was. As we ate outdoors on a pleasant May night, we watched the waters dance at the computerized fountain across the street at the Bellagio.

My friends had moved to Las  Vegas after Tim landed a job working to get tourists into outer space at Bigelow Aerospace, a company self-funded by hotel owner Robert Bigelow. Previously Tim had worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Caroline, a librarian, found work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and they bought a spacious home in the Spring Valley area of Las Vegas.

“There’s more to do here compared to Pasadena,” he said referring to where they had lived. Their previous house was the setting for my story “Dracula Slinks into the Night.” “Put it this way,” he said. “Major Broadway shows are playing all over town. There are great art exhibits in many of the hotels, and there are more top chefs here than anywhere else with food from the world over.”

“Believe it or not,” said Caroline, “There’s more culture per block than any other American city.” About that time, a giant billboard on the back of a truck pulled past promising “Hot Babes Direct to You.” I couldn’t resist shooting it with a fellow diner in the foreground. After we ate, people on street corners handed us calling cards that also offered young women to our rooms. I suppose it balances out the culture.

Last week, I met two more friends in the city, Michael Brown and his wife Minta. He’s not the FEMA Michael Brown related to Hurricane Katrina but the Michael Brown that made it through Hurricane Frederick with me in Alabama and whose character became “Sagebrush” in my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century. I hadn’t seen Michael in thirteen years, so it was worth driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to see him. The only way I could pull it off with other commitments was drive there and back in the same day.

Minta and Michael Brown

On Friday, I woke early as usual, wrote for about an hour, and left at 7 a.m. I arrived shortly before noon, where Michael and Minta met me at the Envy Restaurant, a setting in my novel-in-progress. I then drove them around to other settings in my book before we went to their hotel, the Venetian, which is on the site of the old Sands Hotel.

I wasn’t prepared for what I was to see. After exiting an elevator on the second floor, we came to a gondola in a canal. The boat poled past a restaurant and shopping area, and overhead was a painted blue sky.

 We continued walking and came across an entrance worthy of a king—or doge—plenty of marble, gold, towering pillars and elaborate arched ceilings. This place was unreal.

Further on, we stepped into a huge open space, a faux San Marcos Square where the tiles gleamed, cafés lined the edges, and clowns and musicians strolled among the people singing Italian. There was a sense of the sun to one side, but nothing to blind you. We were outdoors indoors, and the air was a constant seventy degrees. Forget the brutal dry desert outside. It was like being on the holodeck in Star Trek. Everything was three-dimensional and it seemed real, yet it wasn’t. It’s Disneyland up one notch.

Norman Klein calls such things “scripted spaces.” He defines it as “the scripting of illusions in architecture from 1550 to 1780, then on toward cinema and amusement parks, and finally to our era when both architecture and film coexist inside the same moment… Scripted spaces are a walk-through or click-through environment (a mall, a church, a casino, a theme park, a computer game).”

What’s important is that the viewer feels as if the environment is responding to his or her whims, yet each step along the way is planned. “It is gentle repression posing as free will,” he says. It’s not any more terrible than going for a ride through a film or a novel. The authors create an emotional journey in the same way you might walk through a pretend city street, such as Universal CityWalk, or this pretend Venice. The creators have your psychology in mind.Klein looks at Las Vegas as the ultimate in the industrialization of desire. He sees how the old neon of the fifties Vegas Strip has morphed into eye-candy facades with each hotel an independent destination. The Venetian, for example, has eighteen classy restaurants, three Broadway-size theatres (one offering Phantom of the Opera, another Jersey Boys, and the third, The Blue Man Group), a health club, a spa, and the Grand Canal Shoppes. There are also a few smaller theatres with comedians, a handful of nightclubs, and, of course, the casino where people are still driven with the notion that God wants them to win. In other words, if you spend a week in Las Vegas, you’d have no reason to leave the Venetian. There’s plenty to keep you busy.

Additionally, at the Venetian, all 4,027 rooms are suites. Michael and Minta’s had two levels, and the living room section featured an L-shaped couch and a classy desk with its own printer for a computer. Their suite had three televisions, including one in the huge marble bathroom.

We spent the afternoon in one of the six outdoor pools where lithe waitresses plied $12 drinks to people soaking. While it was 118 degrees outside, it didn’t feel it in the shady spots of the pool nor along the many places spraying water mist into the air. I felt like one the young people in The Time Machine, being fattened by the Morlocks.

And I can’t say it’s terrible. I stayed for an amazing dinner in San Marcos Square at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Postrio. I love gazpacho, and the one there even beat my favorite from a place in Spain. The cold tomato soup wasn’t completely smooth, allowing for the smallest bits of vegetables to exist as separate flavors. I was so delighted by it that I discussed it with our waitress, who seemed to treasure my pleasure. “Would you like a list of the eighteen ingredients?” she asked. I did, and she wrote them on her card. I learned the gazpacho includes not only tomatoes, which are liquified using a chinois strainer, but there is also fennel, red onion, lemon juice, pineapple juice, and a green jalapeño pepper cream drizzled on top. Also I was stunned by what was NOT in it: no garlic.

Our server’s name was Gabrielle Dunbar—which I’m mentioning because she gave exceptional service. In short, while architects and corporations are behind the Venetian, the place is staffed with people who care. 

An interesting aspect about the Venetian is that its elegance is a standard—no fast food or inexpensive cafes. Yet what this also means is that there’s a class filter going on. I noticed quickly that nearly everyone was white and seemingly rich. Klein writes, “The condensed city also represents a culture of distraction—more about what is left out—as the widening class structure finds its institutional forms…. The scripted space resembles movie sets, applies Baroque traditions, mimics urban politics, and camouflages them as well. They are an ergonomic labyrinth—a cheerful isolation.”

My own idea of heaven is not any of the hotels in Las Vegas, though. It’s the city of Laguna Beach, where one call fall asleep to the sounds of real waves and where the air is naturally cool and moist. Laguna Beach was first a mecca for artists and why to this day there are so many galleries. Of course, the place has gentrified and it’s no longer cheap.

Laguna Beach

Whether or not our economy can keep the people coming to either city is to be seen, yet maybe it’s because of wars and our economy that make people want to escape.

Klein calls Las Vegas the canary in the mine, a city that reacts to societal trends the first and the fastest.

The Vatican to Vegas was written in 2003, so I wrote Mr. Klein to find out what Las Vegas might show us now. He wrote, “The world economy and world cultures apparently will require ‘new programming.’ What a colossal series of adaptations are ahead. Some will look outwardly familiar, but the overall (special) effect will be as different as 1950 was from 1925. 

“There are other canaries to study as well, of course. And this is not the end of the mining business, simply the ‘end’ of banking, investments, industrial relations and global economic systems quite as we've known them. I wonder if that means people will read novels in a new way. Clearly (post 2008), one of the deadest canaries seems to be the entire distribution system for books, and the ad system for newspapers.”

Thus, change ahead.

I’ve gone on about Las Vegas because my distaste for the city has mostly disappeared. If you investigate Las Vegas enough, you will see us.

 

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The author (right) with Michael Brown (middle) and a trailer park friend in Alabama some years ago. The setting became part of the novel "The Brightest Moon of the Century."

Comments
5 Comment count
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Sigh, I find this

Sigh, I find this disheartening - fine dining or no.

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The expansion of Las Vegas

Dale, what's disheartening for you? Part of it might be that thirty and forty years ago, Las Vegas appealed mostly to the baser instincts--a kind of frat party for all--so it was easier to stay away (or easier to go). Now with things that appeal to the eye, stomach, and mind, too, Las Vegas has become a siren to more people. Now it's not just about cheap food and alcohol and blowing your money quickly on gambling. The Broadway show you missed, or the various Cirque du Soleils around town may be draws. Even for people who don't gamble, there are many ways to part with your greenbacks.

Disneyland does this, too. I'd read that as you leave the park, the stands offer less and less expensive items until, say, you fork over your last dollar for the Mickey Mouse pencil you didn't see until then. It wasn't that Walt was benign and Steve Wynn isn't. Entertainment has always been about giving people unique experiences, and the people happily pay. I suppose it comes down to do you feel conned when you leave Las Vegas, or did you have a good time?

As I left the last two times, I realized I had good times with friends and saw unique things. I still don't like all the crowds and all the traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard, more clogged thanks to the roaming billboards. I don't like the brutal heat outside either.

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I'm disheartened that even

I'm disheartened that even photos of these reproductions look "real". I interpret this as a flim flam, and feel a lessening of the bonds of reality when people are satisfied with what is fake.

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A good point

Yes, things in Las Vegas are "less." After all, the reproductions are brought down in scale. To go on a canal ride for 100 yards, for instance, isn't the same as what one would see, hear, smell and deeply experience in Venice. Perhaps people will get a taste of what is bigger and better elsewhere. Think of it as a trailer for the real place.

I much prefer the real Denmark versus going to Solvang in California where it's Danish-like. Still, I can get some darn good soup and pastries in Solvang.

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Well, I wouldn't sneeze at

Well, I wouldn't sneeze at Wolfgang Puck's gazpacho (even without garlic) nor let fake surroundings impede my greed. Still, the gazpacho is "real".