The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani
Penguin Books, 2014; 336 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Chris Abani's latest novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, is a thriller about a detective and a psychiatrist that work toward uncovering who has been murdering homeless men and leaving their bodies at Lake Mead. Abani's novel is also about outsiders, coping-mechanisms, memory and geography, the relationship between humans and animals, the ways in which we separate ourselves, and as Abani puts it in an interview in The Rumpus, “The Secret History of Las Vegas is about self-love, about finding the place of forgiveness for oneself, about the complex friendships that men share.”
Briskly paced, and a page-turner working within the conventions of the thriller/crime novel while also fusing in a fresh attention to detail, Abani pulls us in immediately when we're introduced to Water and Fire, conjoined twins suspected of these mass murders who, to make a living, perform in The Carnival of Lost Souls on the fringes of Las Vegas. After the twins are arrested and detained at the experimental psychiatry lab which employs Dr. Sunil Singh, he is tasked to interview them, hoping to assist Detective Salazar in solving the case. But, the twins give up very little to Singh aside from facts like: “Iguanas have two penises” or “Charlie Chaplin once won third place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest” (65). Meanwhile, Singh's violent past connections to apartheid catch up with him in the form of an assassin, and as he works with Salazar to solve the case, something sinister brews between Singh's boss and the twins being held in the testing lab.
As Singh seeks comfort in his relationship with Asia, a prostitute, we may begin to understand one of the many hearts of this novel: how Abani works at blurring and complicating the ways in which we separate ourselves in society and from each other. In discussing his heritage, Singh says: “As black as I am, I am also Indian. Not half, not part, but in equal whole measures. In the new South Africa, there is no room for complications like me. I know there's no real room in the U.S. for the kind of complication I present either, but at least it's big enough to give the illusion that there is” (44). In that, this multi-hearted novel furthers that complication when it inquiries into how we separate ourselves from animals when Singh's boss, Brewster, authorizes the use of bonobos in a test, which are “99 percent genetically similar to humans” and this “seemed like a significant line, not one Sunil [Singh] would have crossed lightly,” (22) but Singh recalls his time working in Vlakplaas, a South African apartheid death camp:
To test the limits of endurance, they would put a female baboon and her baby in a cage. Then they would start a fire under the metal floor, slowly turning up the heat, calculating how long the mother would endure the pain before putting the baby down and standing on it. It never took that long, usually less than thirty minutes. [. . .] The problem with primate tests was that sooner or later, apes weren't enough. The first human trial at Vlakplaas of the heat test was a woman called Beatrice. No last name. Her baby didn't even get a name in the file. Just Baby. (22)
In another instance, Abani digs again into the this separation when we learn about the massive extent to which the U.S. Government tested nuclear weapons in the regions around Las Vegas, infecting aquifers, and, in turn, leading to human mutation, and revealing the origin of Fire and Water as well as many of the performers in The Carnival of Lost Souls (205-207). From this, Abani tangles with many other artificial divides we construct to create identity, foster technological progress, protect ourselves, and so on, weaving together an international story of violence that draws on our individual perceptions of time and memory in such a way that these separations are sometimes the death of us while the triangulation between separation, fear, and love become clearer as Singh, Salazar, and the mass murders come to a head. The Secret History of Las Vegas is a propelling thriller in itself with all the strong and fresh writing Abani is known for while also a complex, and global, novel asking us to recalibrate how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us so that we might tear down the walls and allow ourselves to love, be loved, and express compassion.