Book Review: Still Life Las Vegas
by James Sie
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
Walter Stahl, the hapless yet likable teenage hero of James Sie’s debut novel Still Life Las Vegas, lives in a grubby, run-down neighborhood outside of town with his father and works at an almost equally grubby, run-down little tourist flytrap of a “museum” called Viva Las Vegas!, where he conducts tours of the paltry dioramas for paying customers. His father is largely dependent on him, so mired in depression and medication over the flight of his wife fifteen years earlier that he still can’t face the world. Walter’s passion is his artwork, but even now, freshly graduated from high school, he can feel the possibilities of his life closing in and shutting down.
As pathetic as they are, his tours at Viva Las Vegas!, offer him a moment of daydreaming, every time he comes to the diorama of modern-day Vegas with its shows and casinos and famous hotels like the Bellagio or the Venetian. Here he can imagine the sad past that gave rise to his present:
This is my favorite room, because it’s the Las Vegas of my parents. I can replay their doomed history here in three dimensions. It’s like a giant, unfolding pop-up book, spread out to tell my father’s story of the time my mother was lost, and found, and lost again. In miniature, I can watch her enter the back door of the Venetian with the harlequin man; I can see my father chase the blue Volvo down Buccaneer Boulevard, feather flying out of the window; I can pick the both of them up like tiny dolls and place them together, gently, in the little plastic gondola of their final meeting …
Sie breaks up his narrative into chapters from several different viewpoints at several different times in the story. We get events as experienced by Walter, his father, Owen, and his Vietnamese mother Emily, who’s abandoned by her family in America and encounters a succession of quasi-surrogate families as she wanders in search of a playfully warped version of the American Dream (it’s both a warning and an enticement to readers to tell them that Liberace plays a surprisingly pivotal role in the book), and Emily’s process of naturalization is anything but smooth:
In those early days, when language was still liquid to Emily (English not yet formed and her memory of Vietnamese receding daily, its few remaining syllables and intonations remembered more for comfort than meaning), she would sometimes cry out Ma! Ma! In the middle of the night, terrified, and Vee would stride in immediately, as if on cue, ready to pat Emily’s back, shush away the fears, and murmur in her growl of a whisper, “I’m not Ma. I’m Vee. Call me Vee.” This continued until the word Ma, in English or Vietnamese, no longer had any meaning to Emily at all.
But the most heartfelt (probably because least absurd) of the book’s plot-lines involves Walter and his encounter with a charismatic young pair of Greeks, Acacia and her brother Chrysto. It’s Chrysto’s playfully erotic friendship that slowly brings Walter to a series of highly charged erotic realizations about himself, after what feels like an entire lifetime in chrysalis, and Sie’s prose in these sections is sweetly simple:
There’s a certain tang his body gives off: salt and citrus. Sitting next to him, I try to breathe slowly, to keep my eyes open and not look like I’m inhaling big greedy gulps of him. His head is bent over the book but I get the feeling that he’s still somehow watching me, or watching me watch him.
In what had to be its boardroom selling point, Still Life Las Vegas has occasional short chapters that are illustrated graphic novel-style by Sungyoon Choi, but the real attraction here is the warm and successful realization of Sie’s various characters; the graphic novel flourishes don’t exactly distract from the emotional impact of the story (particularly the climax; a bomb going off couldn’t distract the reader from the off-kilter resolution of Walter’s yearning for his long-lost mother), but they only scratch the surface of how well pictures can subvert and strengthen text – they’re a curiosity rather than a highlight. Sie tells a moving and involving story in this debut, with comic and dramatic set-pieces readers will remember long after they’ve forgotten that some of those set-pieces were storyboarded.