Saturday, December 26, 2015
How about something cheerful for a change
Color me completely unsurprised that John O'Brien committed suicide shortly after he found out that Leaving Las Vegas was going to be made into a movie - and color me a little sickened that the copy I have has the words "now a major motion picture" superimposed over a still from the film as the cover. We can talk about the death of the author to distance creators from their works all we want but that still seems pretty literal and incredibly insensitive in this case.
I found myself enjoying a lot about this novel that was unexpected - there's a respect for sex workers and the difficulties they face that's refreshing, and O'Brien gives Sera a lot of agency that's a pleasant surprise for much of the first half of the novel. She spends the middle of the novel as a victim on someone else's terms but ends with autonomy and I appreciated that. Sera knows who and what she is and doesn't have a problem with it; Ben doesn't have a problem with it either, which is unexpected and pleasant.
Ben himself IS a problem but knows it and accepts it and does what he can to minimize the damage he does to others, which is shockingly touching from a character who so clearly should be despised.
But I think that's what I liked about this novel, and what I like about O'Brien. The back of this book is covered with blurbs that use words like "squalid" and "brutal" and "dire" and that marvel over how well O'Brien did with his unflinching examination of a filthy, sordid world. But that's a fucking joke. Sera's apartment is austere, Ben's choices are his own. There is brutality in the story but it's temporary, even for the characters. O'Brien didn't write "a novel so absolutely devoid of hope" as one of the cover-blurbers called it, O'Brien wrote a novel in which people abide by the choices they make for reasons that are their own. We're never really told why Sera became a sex worker but we are shown that she finds the work satisfying and that it allows her to live on her own terms; we're never told why Ben is suicidal but we are shown that he wants to limit the damage he does and his groping for death isn't devoid of kindness or recognition of the value of other people. In fact there's only one truly reprehensible, hopeless, disgusting character in this novel and part of the hope in the story comes from leaving him behind. Gamal is the only character here who ends up leaving Las Vegas and he leaves because Sera has defeated him and taken literal ownership of herself away from him.
I've been told by lots of people (including my good friend, Wes, who gave me this book) that Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing novel, and it certainly has its depressing points but overall I think there's a message of hope that people skip over in order to chide alcoholics and sex workers and lower-class people with lower-class lives in general. This is a book that ends with a kiss, and its heroine walking away into her own personal sunset, and no book that has this kind of respect for a main character who is a gambling-addicted sex worker can be all that depressing to me.
O'Brien, John. Leaving Las Vegas. Grove Press. New York: New York. 1995. (1990).