It’s an odd, frustrating, thought-inducing book, this new novel by Nigerian author Chris Abani, The Secret History of Las Vegas (Penguin, $16). Odd in its shifting mix of genre tropes and high literary intent — it may have aspects of a mystery, but this narrative of amok science, racism, hatred, memory and depravity is not escapism. Indeed, you may want to escape it, depending on your tolerance for gruesome behavior and bizarrely frequent public urination. It’s frustrating in its too-restrained, sometimes flat prose and cliché-o-matic insights into Vegas — this is “America’s, and increasingly the world’s, darkest and brightest subconscious”? You don’t say. But you still have to give it up for a book you don’t particularly enjoy but can’t stop thinking about, thanks to its thematic depth, moral rigor and global sensibility.
The main storyline, enmeshed in a nest of secondary plots, concerns Sunil, a dark-skinned South African of Indian descent, a psychiatrist who once worked at the notorious (and real-life) Vlakplaas death camp in South Africa during apartheid, and who now works at a U.S. government-funded think tank in Las Vegas. In Abani’s telling, practically everything about Sunil signifies: the in-between-ness of his mixed heritage in racially conflicted South Africa; his terrifying childhood of innocence and betrayal, told in extended flashbacks; the blotting of conscience required to participate in such Vlakplaas “research” as putting a woman and her infant in a room with a steadily heated floor to see how long until she stands on her baby to escape the pain. By the time we meet him in Las Vegas — where he is again secretly pursuing highly illegal, utterly immoral experiments — any humanity he possesses is entirely vestigial.
Into his life like a screamingly obvious metaphor come the conjoined twins Fire and Water, who perform in the Carnival of Lost Souls, a sideshow based in a nearby ghost town. They are suspects in a series of body dumps at Lake Mead, and Sunil is brought in to assess their state of mind. But their true function is to provide a baseline reading for one of the novel’s major themes: deformity. Their abnormality is physical, blatant, on view for the world — and thus honest — whereas the moral deformities of Sunil, his bosses (both in South Africa and here) and several other characters are far more devastating and completely interior, as hidden from view as the atrocities Sunil and his colleagues commit at the blandly named Desert Palms Institute.
Unlike Fire and Water, Sunil wasn't born disfigured; he was corrupted by the bureaucratized depravity of life under apartheid's systemic brutality and the moral gymnastics it required of survivors: “I think that they are honorable people," one of Sunil's white South African bosses says of the black masses during a chilling flashback, "but in the hierarchy of food, they are the wildebeests and we are the lions. The lion doesn’t hate the wildebeest; he just knows he is the better. I’m not a racist, ja? Just a pragmatist.” The man has, by the way, just had a black prisoner executed and burned as his soldiers cheerily roast meat at a second fire.
Because this is a novel of fractured reflections, we are offered glimpses of this government-level debasement in the U.S. government's disregard for victims exposed to above-ground nuclear tests — the cause, we learn, of Fire and Water's mutations — and in the military's sponsorship of Sunil's inhumane new research (he's looking for a drug that will trigger and control psychopathic behavior).
Complicating the narrative are subplots involving an abrasive detective haunted by an unsolved murder; Eskia, a black South African who's come to Vegas to kill Sunil for his past sins; and the backstory of Sunil's onetime girlfriend in Johannesburg, a white girl whose torture and death Sunil is complicit in. In Abani's view, no one escapes their history, not even in this city of second chances.
Much of this is conveyed in prose so measured it often seems distant from the actions it describes, almost as numbed to their horror as Sunil has willed himself to be. That imparts a certain literary quality — you know it's Art when the author doesn't use quotation marks — but it also robs some scenes of a potentially enriching emotional nuance.
A few words about Las Vegas: For locals, easily the weakest parts of the book are the attempts by various characters to express something original about this city. "The tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked here" is a typically wan insight, perhaps better suited to a Vanity Fair travel piece. When Abani metaphorically conjoins South Africa's cruel history to Nevada's by way of atomic testing, he engages in what appears to be a little historical fudging — two historians I consulted say it's unlikely that, as Abani has it, the government let families with children drive to within two miles of ground zero to watch the nuclear fun.
At best, the narrative sideswipes Vegas profundity, as in this passage: "Vegas is really an African city, Sunil thought. What other imagination would build such a grandiose tomb to itself?" Okay, you think; here's a globalized view I haven't heard before. Next sentence: "And just like in every major city across Africa ... the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screened the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see." Well. You had me at palatial exteriors of the city architecture; you lost me at the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see. Despite what you may have heard about Henderson, it's not a shantytown. There's some poverty and homelessness in Las Vegas, yes, but not on the scale Abani implies, the air leaking out of his comparison.
If there's a money quote in this novel, it belongs to Fire, who tells Sunil, "A circus is an escape, a sideshow is a confrontation." He means that when viewers face the unashamedly grotesque, it upends their notions of what's normal and, perhaps, opens them to expanded definitions of humanity. But that line takes on a greater resonance later, in a flashback depicting Sunil's arrival at the horror camp Vlakplaas. Because he hasn't yet wholly disfigured his conscience, Sunil is able to tell throw down some hard truth to his commander — "If you brutalize an entire people to have your way then you must always live with the fear of retaliation" — even as the soldiers cock their guns at him.
That willingness to confront is a pathway to moral clarity, and it's precisely what Sunil and Abani's other compromised characters, and by extension the complacent societies that enable them, have finally surrendered in order to just keep going. Only a few people — the twins, a prostitute who loves Sunil — defy that grim algorithm. In this carnival of lost souls, only those who embrace their brokenness are capable of the hard truth.