Book Review: Pace and Closure in Chris Abani‘s ‘The Secret History of Las Vegas’

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Book Title: The Secret History of Las Vegas

Author: Chris Abani

Publisher: Penguin Books

No of Pages:269

Reviewer: Joseph Omotayo

Vividly grotesque and fast paced, The Secret History of Las Vegas revolves its characters around a city to tell thrilling and affective stories. At the centre of the many narratives are characters with different lives. Though this difference humanises them, it also shows their lives as a complicated mess, but interesting enough to make you want to know them. This book attempts to make a city the focal point of all things, the base of all human problems. Interestingly though, it also portrays the sheer complexity of human nature: presenting people as their very worst enemies and bondages.

Chris Abani‘s The Secret History of Las Vegas creates beautiful intersections at human points of need: the need to love, to fuck, to avenge, to seek forgiveness and the need to hide the truths that upturn the normal order of things. These intersections seek to marry themselves in a city that naturally revolts against itself. The name of this city is Las Vegas. It is the home of freaks, lovers, pretentious lovers, saints and those who badly need redemption.

Salazar is a detective who is haunted by a loss in his distant past, a loss which made him join the police –  he tries hard to solve a series of connected crimes in his search for closure. He moves in continuous circles without an end in sight to the body dumps showing up in different places in the city. Sunil, a psychologist cum scientist at Desert Palms Institute seems to be helping him, but Salazar’s closure is constantly postponed as he is pushed down the spiral of the mysteries he wants to solve.

Fire and Water are conjoined twins who bring in spicy grotesqueness to the narrative. They are at the centre of a large part of the narrative that comes together to a definitive but hackneyed resolution. Sheila and Asia would perhaps find their closure, or perhaps not. In The Secret History of Las Vegas, everybody desperately needs closure. Chris Abani’s attempt at solving this need gives the book a clichéd ending.

With sixty chapters, Chris Abani spreads the novel around some specific days of the week. This is an unusual way of segmenting a book, but it works fine nonetheless. The book begins on Friday and runs through to Tuesday. In between the days of the week are chapter numbers and before each day, a topical title. Bristlecone precedes Friday, Fairy Tale precedes Saturday, Butterflies precedes Sunday, Inferno before Monday, and Verb before Tuesday. I like what Chris Abani does with Verb. That part of the book is a gem. Chris Abani uses these chapter dividers as sub prologues within the novel. Apart from being pauses within the novel, these dividers also serve as flashbacks and authorial side commentaries. They tie the scattered parts of the narrative into a whole.

I think the book should not have been that voluminous. But this could be easily overlooked as the narrative explores different histories with an attempt to understand why things are the way they are. Interspersed between the history of pre & post-apartheid South Africa and the negligent history of Las Vegas, The Secret History of Las Vegas is not only about Las Vegas but also about life’s baggage that the city’s inhabitants have brought to the city.

The Secret History of Las Vegas uses the grotesque features of the conjoined twins (Fire and Water) to achieve depth. Fire and Water are my best characters in the novel. Water, especially – a character who mostly converses non-sequitur is a character you will yearn to meet. A perfect foil of Fire, his brother, Water combines drama with the intelligent absurdities of his responses. There are plenty things to be learned from his engaging factoids.

Despite the uncertainties that bedevill the characters in this book, Chris Abani intervenes to rescue them. The resolution is a deus ex machine that gives almost everyone a happy ending. Like an expected Nollywood flick, the good guys in this book laugh last. This is one thing I do not like about the book. Nobody is sure about what life holds, but this we know — life does not always end in sweet tones.

However, Chris Abani writes sweet prose, you should read The Secret History of Las Vegas.



Joseph Omotayo

Joseph Omotayo is a book critic, event planner and webmaster.

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