Juan Martinez on Las Vegas as inspiration for his new novel literalizing the horror of capitalism, trauma, and xenophobia
Yes, Juan Martinez’s Extended Stay is a horror novel — frightening, uncanny things occur. But not for a single page is it only a horror novel. By centering it on the character Alvaro and his sister, Carmen, undocumented refugees from horrific political violence in Colombia, Martinez artfully packs his story with higher orders of meaning: about the imperiled lives of those invisible to us; the unyielding weight of trauma — the opening scene in which soulless rebels slaughter Alvaro’s family is as horror-filled as any occult goings-on; and the almost supernatural powers of capitalism. And then he sets Extended Stay in Downtown Las Vegas, at a decrepit hotel-casino called the Alicia, where Alvaro fumbles through a kitchen job and learns that this Vegas joint, as the title suggests, is not exactly what it seems. Now an associate professor at Northwestern University, Martinez spent six years here as an instructor at UNLV and contributor to local publications. (Disclosure: As editor of Las Vegas CityLife, I edited the walking story he mentions below.) His previous book is the story collection Best Worst American.
Was there, as they say, an “inciting incident” or idea that put you on the path to this novel?
There were two! When I was living in Las Vegas, as a way of picking up extra money, I spent a summer interviewing and talking with people who worked kitchens, mostly just those who did back of house. The researcher who hired me wanted someone who spoke Spanish … It was an amazing experience, and I was impressed with the array of skills and pride that people took in their labor, and in the fundamental opportunities and contradictions of the work. It was like, super democratic and also very much not at all. And also: like this huge opportunity and also this occupation that consumed so much of your psyche.
The other inciting incident was a writing assignment for a wonderful but now defunct free weekly: The whole deal was me walking the length of the city, from one edge to another, and to see what it felt like to walk an environment that wasn’t really all that friendly to walking. Extended Stay is about so much: terror, undocumented life, capitalism, memory, the supernatural.
How hard was it to balance all those concepts while still telling a story?
It was both … hard because the novel insisted on covering all that ground, but easy because (of) the balance-out of the form and the genre — because horror, or at least the brand of horror I’m drawn to, asks for or insists on certain tropes, certain moves, and if you are willing to let the form do what it wants, you can try and stuff it with as much as you can, and you can smuggle in all your felt experience when it comes to trauma and disposability and labor.
There are seedy hotels everywhere; what made Las Vegas the ideal setting for the Alicia?
A couple of things, but maybe the most immediate and primal is that it was the setting I lived with (and lived in) for six-plus years, and then couldn’t shake after I left. I wrote the novel to sort out what I loved about Las Vegas and what troubled me about loving Las Vegas. I’ve grown suspicious of people who want to make big, broad claims about the city, like it’s this metaphor for America or Our Current Situation or whatever. I mean, sure it is, but what isn’t? I wanted to really capture a dark corner of a city I knew well, and one that people skip over, which is both a great place to find work and also where work can consume you.
But there are also the block-by-block quirks of Fremont, where you could have these incredibly nice casino-hotels that have been doing fine for years, and you cross the street and you are (or at least were; I know things have changed) in an unlit block with buildings that were either abandoned or about to be abandoned. Those blocks were their own universe, always on the verge of either getting turned to rubble or refurbished and made anew. It was how proximate everything was to everything else … how one hotel was fine and the next was not, and how they existed a two-minute walk from each other. ✦
by Juan Martinez
320 pages, $19.95
University of Arizona Press