Does loneliness look the same in Las Vegas as it does in New York?
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: The book left me simultaneously heartbroken and somehow optimistic for a happily ever after—but as far as settings go, her subtle sense of the ticks and tocks of a place, a region providing the backdrop for a culture and for a society, is one of the best I’ve read.
New York is New York; it’s an easy place to “get” even if you haven’t spent a considerable amount of time there. Or even going there at all—that doesn’t stop people from talking about the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or donning I Heart NY t-shirts. The unfamiliar version might be a little too Sex in the City or Friends, but if you’ve read any Salinger, or better yet, any Paule Marshall, you start to get a feel for the nuances and layers of this place that 8 million call home. The New Yorker and The Observer will help you out in decoding the marvels of a city where 34 train lines run nonstop and 1,700 schools house 1.1 million pupils. Not that those New Yorks are everyone’s New Yorks—not one media outlet, let alone one person, can paint a just-so picture—but the general gist? This is a zig-zagging behemoth of a place, where the intersections between people—one after another—create a cacophonous hum. It’s certainly not bucolic, and the stereotypical New Yorker’s neuroses only mirrors a place where the only “alone time” one gets is inside one’s head. Here’s a good NYC primer or how-to:
But Las Vegas and the greater expanse of perpetually sunlit developments of stucco houses with granite countertops, octagonal-shaped bath tubs, and pristine beige carpet—all those markers of a supposed luxury—well, that’s a harder thing to capture. There are busy parts, for sure. Las Vegas hosted 39 million visitors in 2012. But it’s a quick splatter of a city in the middle of a desert; that busy-ness ends abruptly.
I flew across the country at age 18 to attend university in the Boston area. A lot of my new peers didn’t seem to comprehend this idea of isolated cities. “I’m from a small town in upstate New York,” I heard a lot—from my now-husband, for instance. Your town’s population may be 10,000, but it is surrounded by a seemingly endless amount of “small towns.” They are all connected! Which, really, means that you almost live in a miniature version of a megalopolis. If you’re 45 minutes from Boston, you’re probably four hours from New York, and well, there are lots of good shopping malls and cute and quaint villages between here and there. Do you know what is four hours from Seattle? Not-quite Spokane. And in-between the two? Some beautiful countryside, enough of a relatively empty expanse for the terrain and climate to change from mountainous and cool to flat and hot.
My large suburb may have been far more “bright lights, big city” than another’s small town, but once you’re 45 minutes outside of the city, well, you’re certainly not in Boston. And when you get further south in the US, more entrenched in the wild west of the Southwest, you’re looking at cities as tempting oases in the middle of the dry desert. These cities in Western America—isolated pin pricks on a map weighted heavily to the other side—and I have a bit of a “it’s not you, it’s me” relationship.
The relative isolation of these cities breeds a loneliness; a sad reliance on oneself to provide entertainment, sustenance, and comfort. But I understand that is just my take. After all, I come from Scandinavian immigrant stock, people who thrived in the Western abyss.
To me, it made perfect sense that Las Vegas was where Tartt’s protagonist Theo becomes enmeshed in drugs. We’ll never know if it was just the coincidental ping of timing that laid his life out like that, but was his loneliness, heartbreak, and despair perhaps more shielded or concealed in a city of 8 million? Perhaps he would have been led to substances—anything—to handle tragedy no matter where he lived. But in a place where the sunshine isn’t fickle, and dreams are borne from a can-do, no-matter-what attitude and environment, appearances are deceiving. Inter-connectedness is harder to come by. And despite massive changes in globalization and the sociality of digital media, one has to seek more diligently for throngs of people to invade your space, your senses, and your ideas of normalcy. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Yet Theo is rudderless. Mostly due to his father’s dysfunction, Theo’s isolation matches his new environment: “Though we’d been driving a while, there were no landmarks, and it was impossible to say where we were going on in which direction. The skyline was monotonous and unchanging and I was fearful that we might drive through the pastel houses altogether and out into the alkali waste beyond, into some sun-beaten trailer park from the movies.”
Further, “As we drove, the improbable skyline dwindled into a wilderness of parking lots and outlet malls, loop after faceless loop of shopping plazas, Circuit City, Toys “R” Us, supermarkets and drugstores, Open Twenty-Four Hours, no saying where it ended or began.”
This is not all there is to Las Vegas, of course. Lots of people actually do live there. In fact, it is still experiencing booming growth, particularly with young families and retirees. There’s simply been no time to prove this place beyond its dubious and manufactured reputation. Years and years of organic population growth leave more of an imprint than a spontaneous poof of development. And many people prefer this ability to quickly iron out the creases of their life amidst a well-organized palette.
However, it is the quick-paced buzz of New York that grounds Theo. When he returns to the Barbours’ apartment after returning to New York: “the oddest part of the evening was my blood-deep, unreasoning sense of returning home.” And in the hotel in Amsterdam, the elevator doors are “a very urban sound, a sound I associated with Sutton Place, and her.” But with his father, who readers associate with Las Vegas, we get this: “Yet if you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern (which apparently he had never taken the trouble to do), you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light.” As Theo mentally compares the two places, Tartt gives her readers this, via Theo: “In New York, everything reminded me of my mother—every taxi, every street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun—but out in this hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed; I could not even imagine her spirit looking down on me. All trace of her seemed burned away in the thin desert air.”
I get that: I’d rather have the whoosh of a large metropolis than a whoosh of a tumbleweed.
Funny thing about aging and maturity, though. Despite my inherent penchant for more populous places, if you give me a secluded backyard full of orange trees, a view of a dusty brown mountain, and a smattering of cacti, I’d be more than happy. But I had to know where I stood before I could ease into a comfortable chair that may prevent me from getting up again.