When we asked a few of our favorite writers and artists for their take on beauty in this town, we expected sunsets and showgirls. Turns out, in Las Vegas, beauty is more complicated than that.
THE BEST BEAUTY IS THE STRANGEST
BY KRIS SAKNUSSEMM
Call me perverse (and if you’ve read any of my books, you’ll understand why that’s happened a few times), what strikes me as truly beautiful always has an element of the bizarre and surprising. The more obviously “beautiful” anything is (a jetset model or a photograph of some clichéd crystal lake), the less fully it holds my attention, because I understand too quickly and completely how I’m supposed to feel. There’s no room for my imaginative engagement. I need the trip-out factor of contrast, juxtaposition and the unexpected. That’s what I love about Vegas.
In the original Planet of the Apes movie, when the spacecraft is crash-landing on what we believe is another planet, they plummet down over images of Lake Mead! Of course, we’ve got this mobster Sinatra Liberace lobster banquet luminous dollhouse faux Statue of Liberty cranked-up casino royale carnival of lost American Dreams thing happening — complete with pawn shops, titty bars, bail-bondsmen, wedding chapels and 97-cent souvenirs, all on the same wild-feathers-and-sequins roulette-wheel ride. We know that. But let’s put this clockwork cowgirl party pit spectacle into context.
The burlesque-and-shrimp-buffet mayhem takes place 24-7 on the floor of an ancient sea filled with dinosaur bones and later burial grounds, where the most powerful weapon conceived in human history was tested, and an entire cultural mythology has grown up like some peculiar tentacled plant around secret military projects and the rumors of alien bodies in storage … experiments with technology from another galaxy. Heck, we could be in another galaxy, or at least on some asteroid.
It’s possible to break down the hyperreality of the Strip … into a jigsaw of Atlantic City, Times Square, Disneyland, Macau and Branson, Mo., (with maybe a dash of Bourbon Street and Gatlinburg, Tenn.). But if you up the ante (and we’re good at that) and put it Offworld, then you really have something.
Can you think of an American city with such a brutally majestic lunar landscape so close? Seattle has big, hulking volcanoes nearby (as does Portland) and Seattle has the “photogenic loveliness” of the Sound (providing it’s not raining so hard you can’t see it). L.A., Phoenix? Eh. Look what else you have to deal with. Denver? Often can’t see the Rockies for the smog — and you still know you’re on Earth. Salt Lake City? Well, perhaps there are some planets you don’t want to visit.
In any case … will any city look so cool when the apocalypse really has come and zombies are running crazed through their cobwebbed hotels? I don’t think so. I’ve never once met an extraterrestrial abductee who returned to Milwaukee. I’ve met a whole family of them here. They live in the Blue Bird Trailer Park out near Nellis Air Force Base and make a fine guacamole.
Think of Red Rock or the Valley of Fire, which are but minutes away from the fantasyland city center. You can do anything in those weirdly haunted places — from a romantic picnic to a personal vision quest to a feature film (set back in time or on another world).
Years ago when I moved to Australia, I wanted to experience a parallel-universe version of America. When I returned to the USA and Vegas, I wanted to go to another planet or travel to another dimension. Now, from my balcony, I could be in Miami in 1970. From my parking lot, looking the other direction, I could be on Mars 2,000 years in the future — or at least dream of what it would be like to be there. In Toledo, it’s hard to dream of anything except not being in Toledo. Which is why so many people from there come to Vegas. That’s the strangest part of all. What are all these pasty people from the Midwest doing in my dream of lost Martian empires and giant amphibians?
Not five minutes after arriving on the Strip I saw my first midget — in a fluorescent pink leotard, on glow-in-the-dark roller skates. It instantly convinced me that I’d made the right decision. That’s what this place is all about — wild decisions. Improbable collisions of dreams, despair, stage magic and maybe the most authentic magic there can be.
There’s a guy around the corner from me who strolls around smiling, with a cilantro green carpet python around his neck, like a live, trained fashion accessory. I’m constantly thinking I’m seeing things here. So it’s possible to imagine anything. The ghost of Elvis appearing out of an old mine shaft … a limousine filled with people who all have the same face … or an anxious brunette in a black convertible 1969 Mustang broken down by the side of the road to Searchlight, who just happens to have an attaché case filled with unmarked bills.
When I look at a Peter Lik photograph of a waterfall, I almost don’t need to look. Yep, that’s beauty, all right. Step right up. When I walk past the waterfall of the Mirage, I have to stop to think what it is I really do think. I wonder, and wonder is a harder thing to put a price on than a prime rib dinner. This is a city of very real illusions that keeps you guessing and wondering all the time. To me, that’s what’s beautiful. For true beauty is never inherent in an object or totally in the eyes of the beholder — but in that very curious space of mind where the boundaries blur and imagination becomes experience — your own experience and puzzlement … that beautifully important question all time travelers and hypnonauts ask. Where am I now? Where am I really?
Kris Saknussemm’s ninth book, Sea Monkeys, has recently come out from Soft Skull Press. Last year he was the Gallagher Fellow at UNLV. www.krissaknussemm.com
QUEEN OF THE NILE
BY STACY J. WILLIS
In a junk shop on East Charleston years ago, I found a small plastic bust of the ancient queen of Egypt, Nefertiti. She was tucked behind stacks of iconic casino ashtrays. Although she’s considered the epitome of female beauty, with her delicate, aloof facial features atop a long, thin neck, in this particular instance, she looked like she’d had a rough couple of nights. Or centuries. Plus, she was spray-painted glittery gold, which had worn off on the tip of her elegant nose, revealing drab, gray plastic.
I loved her immediately and knew I would buy her at any price — such is the power of beauty. I picked her up and turned her upside down, and to my great delight, I found an on-off switch: She was an AM radio.
She cost $4.
At home, I unscrewed the plate to insert batteries, but found that she was terribly rusted inside, and the wires were yanked out, and it seemed that Nefertiti would never squawk a Rebels game or sing Fleetwood Mac or vomit Rush Limbaugh screeds, but still, she was beautiful.
Just about every time I drive south on the 15, I giggle, privately, about this juxtaposition: There’s a vasectomy billboard right next to the Hustler strip club. On the one hand, it’s like I never left seventh grade. But on the other, which may be my less dominant hand, I’m just so charmed by the ridiculousness of this city. We bathe in the absurd, which, in a life sometimes cruel and cryptic, is a beautiful thing.
I have the same reaction a couple miles north at the Little Darlings video billboard, where “beauty” — in the form of 18- to 21-year-old totally nude girls dancing for money in strategic shadows, working on whatever dreams start, or end, there — is broadcast over monotonous hours spent in traffic. Beautifully complicated questions of pleasure and money and exploitation and media and dreams and escape and graphic artistry versus driver safety just hang there over millions and millions of drivers in a rush to be somewhere else, a situation I find rich with our vulgar truths, and thus somehow uniquely beautiful.
Nefertiti again. After years of sitting on my bookshelf reminding me of all of the cliches about Vegas — glittery surface, fucked-up insides that may have been reparable given some effort I never put in, a monument to the inexplicable allure of a world filled with AM music, a couple of dings on the nose — the thing I thought most about her was this: Had she been a smooth, solid, perfect marble reproduction of the classic beauty Nefertiti, the kind of statue you’d find in a well-appointed but yawner of a house, I wouldn’t have wanted her.
Who puts AM radio inside Nefertiti? A freaking genius.
Who steals a spray-painted plastic bust of an Egyptian queen with a broken transistor radio? I don’t know.
I suppose I don’t really believe she was stolen from me. And that makes it all the worse — it’s so much easier to feel ripped off than accept that you just lost something. That you were careless, or had bad luck.
She disappeared on the move from one side of town to another. I had boxed her up with other important things: books I’ve read, books I will never read, books I’ve used to prop my feet on, flatten flowers, hold down Pergo flooring strips while the glue dried, books I keep around me for their promise, their means of escape, for the safe feeling of there being something more. I put my little copy of Vegas’ beauty in a box with all this heavy shit I carry around that reminds me where I’ve been and where I ought to go.
Gritty and ethereal, beautifully, she wouldn’t have it.
BY ROBIN JACKSON
Your hot pants are beautiful. Your high heels and hopes, your low laugh and expectations — all beautiful. Your dizzy drunk drive-through order, half down your shirt now and churning: beautiful, beautiful, beautiful barf rainbow sliding down the driver side door. This car you valet-parked for nothing! Everybody valet parks here! Everybody texts and drives! Vanity plates! Rims! Squint-tint windows! No apologies! Beautiful!
Your stucco siding is beautiful. Your neighbor’s stucco siding is beautiful. Your neighborhood’s stucco siding is beautiful. Your crumbling consistency is beautiful. Is unapologetic. Is perimeter-sprayed monthly for roaches and scorpions. Is one of seven permitted shades — a decision made for you. Predictable! Beautiful!
Your emptiness is beautiful. You drive, drive, drive to the final fringe of a neighborhood and — wham! — hot waves of nothing. Dirt and dirt and dirt and dry nothing. The edge exists! There is a beginning and an end. There is place and placelessness. A thumping concrete machine and then absolute zero. This is zen! This is tao! This is impermanence embodied! This is a reminder: Nasty, brutish and short! Empty yourself to be full! Beautiful!
Your army is beautiful. The almost-invisible ranks: maid, busboy, dealer, dancer, groundskeeper, sweeper, buffer, polisher, greeter, gladhander, yes man, security! An entire empire, balanced on the backs of a blank-smiles battalion; a corps you almost cannot see, sweeping up crumbs, passing out drinks, pumping in and out of casinos like an artery! Like a tidal wave! Like a magic trick — an entire world, hidden in plain sight! Beautiful!
Your scrappy rage is beautiful. Your teeth always sunk deep into some issue — guns, cops, taxes, the precious peril of downtown. Your swing-state waltz; that wacky pivot from Tea Party to Teamster; that heel-ball-change between busboy and banker. It’s a dance that doesn’t end! It’s music that endlessly repeats, a chorus of cliques, singing the same songs, so fast and frequent that we’re all foaming and furious! United by divisiveness! Beautiful!
Your monsoon is beautiful. That drowning downpour, that presto switch from rain to weaponized water, that quick dirt riptide running through a neighborhood, sweeping someone away. And then the smell of atmosphere, curling up from concrete. Like it never happened! Like we could be washed away tomorrow! Like we are barely here! Beautiful! Clinging to the ground and beautiful! Fleeting and beautiful! Beautiful! Endlessly beautiful!