Erin Langner's new collection of essays on escape have much for local readers to enjoy, if they can lower their Las Vegas defenses
I advise you to enter Erin Langner’s book of essays set in Las Vegas, Souvenirs from Paradise, through the eyes of its ideal reader, who isn’t you. You live here. Langner doesn’t, and neither do these essays. They’re just visiting. So Souvenir’s ideal reader won’t be continuously auditing every aspect of its portrayal of the city, the way locals have come to after decades of iffy writing about their home.
Here’s an example: In the essay “The Art Experience,” it quickly becomes clear Langner isn’t going to venture much beyond James Turrell’s AKHOB installation on the Strip. I had to manually override my Vegas Autocorrect — What about all the other artwork in CityCenter? Do you even know we have an Arts District? — to enjoy the piece for what it is: an account of her obsession with Turrell (and Georgia O’Keeffe), through which she explores her disjointed family relations, circling back, as many of these essays do, to her mother, who died when Langner was young. Likewise, in “The Fallen Star,” a Britney Spears show at Planet Hollywood allows Langner to parse her ambivalent relationship with her Britney-loving, developmentally disabled sister.
So, these are personal essays in the key of Vegas — the city is the setting, rarely the overt subject, and she mostly vends her Sin City hot takes (“... a subtle reminder of how Vegas is made real by its scars”) in asides. For many tourists, escape simply means a temporary flight from their day-to-day — but for others, escape offers the distance they need to see their lives more clearly. Langner finds the city rich with signifiers and memory prompts around which her essays jell. Those are the souvenirs she takes home.
The book has its shortcomings. By centering “The Museum Attraction” on the long-forgotten, now-irrelevant Mob Attraction at the Tropicana, Langner effectively grounds its observations in sand. And her meditations on violence in “The Massacre,” coagulating around the October 1, 2017, shooting, never achieve the gravity the reader is waiting for. On the other hand, “The Menagerie,” which is about, no kidding, Wayne Newton’s penguins and her incipient motherhood, is delightful.
I shouldn’t have used the word signifiers earlier; it reeks of the brainy jargon with which so many writers have tried to explain this place. By largely avoiding that, Langner has written a Vegas(ish) book we can read with our defenses on low alert.
Souvenirs from Paradise
by Erin Langner
Zone 3 Press, $17