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Landscape War: Vegas and District

The recent shootings in Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay hotel have commentators and pundits at an uncharacteristic loss for words. Any marketable ‘reason’ for the atrocities has utterly escaped the experts, leaving only frauds like Alex Jones to fill the void with a weird alloy of Red baiting, Illuminoids, Salafi cells and the perpetual nervousness of Smith & Wesson. The motive is glaringly obvious, but who would admit it? It is the city in its totality which produced these killings. The lack of ideology, the trite ‘emptiness’ so often attributed to the gunman Stephen Paddock, is blank testimony to the greed, ennui and accredited violence that vie for the agonized open spaces of Las Vegas. Vegas – the only man-made structure aside from the Great Wall which is visible from outer space.

The recent publication of two symmetrical books by the late Tony Duvert show the strange power that a banal cityscape has over its citizens and the circuit traced by the Paddock machine. We will deal here with District, a topography of an unnamed city (its companion volume is Odd Jobs, which deals with a small country town). Both books have been beautifully translated into English by S. C. Delaney and Agnes Potier.

Duvert’s brief District is a sinister Baedeker, divided up into small sketches with titles like ‘Construction Site’, ‘The Bar’, ‘A Billboard’ and ‘Window’. Several of the sections seem to follow one another, but overall Duvert works in jump-cuts rather than an unbroken pan of this unnamed city. Although people certainly do appear in the refuse heaps and dark corners and occasional psychological op-eds are inserted into the exteriors, it is the city which is utterly in control. It plays the role of observer looking over its own shoulder – a disturbance made of the left-over suspicions and documents of prior urban planning which will soon expand into total surveillance. It annexes its population and looks at them like samples in a Petri dish, peering from irregular angles at shapes of plastic and flesh:

The pipes were now buried. Trenches cut into the ground, the earth muddy, orange, oozy, gleaming in little piles at the end of the trench. The pipes carried gas or water, there where people talked, where women were limp and thin as rails, where the children ran.

The city is at such uneasy pains to describe itself as living that the masses of pests, broken products, rivulets of vomit and piss – the poor putrefactions left behind by the negative of communal life – take on the depth and emotion of people and history. In these fetishized passages Duvert’s writing is at its most vertiginous and poetic, glittering and crowding the pages; it is also here where he inevitably fails. He is prey to own considerable gifts for making cloaca sound exciting and the lure of the epic drags him back to Gothic arabesque. It is as if broad daylight made Duvert suspect that his nouvelle roman language is but another plot on the part of devious Architecture. The full desperation of the city’s eternal present bears down on this subject who dares to try and make the city confess:

No one’s left, the ball of black heat has fallen, every time the sun is red a meteorite falls and one’s in darkness, the fire pours from it, a thick fire like motor oil pouring out onto our feet… we’re here in front of our drinks and we fiddle with our ice cubes that rise one by one in our glasses, in the manner that light knows, one by one, how to do.

For both the killer and the book, all oppositions collude in the very heart of the modern metropolis. Duvert describes what is essentially state planning; the trajectory of Paddock is the semi-private colossus. Duvert’s city is full of the specters of work, while Paddock’s is the product of the pleasure complex and labor concealed. Duvert covers the pain of rote survival; Paddock’s rifle tracked the pain of the rites of leisure. Duvert’s city is the arteries of Nowhere; Paddock landed in a place where no one sleeps, where the poor play fortunate for an allotted time.

For both killer and book, modification of time is of the essence. Duvert describes a stasis busy with grubs and predators, while Paddock’s automatic aimed at minute splices of time, the millisecond-long epoch of trading wins and losses. Paddock wanted a piece of the spectacular as recompense for his removal from the winners’ table – bets uncovered, merciless envy, the Risk-God (getting something for nothing, like all true success stories; investing naught but the will to strike first at the opportune time). Duvert analyses the unspectacular where crime is the sum total of the influential landscape upon the patient – and when he loses patience, he might become a Paddock.

In the final analysis, Paddock just cannot compete. An amateurish remake of foreign policy in the Northwest Frontier or Tripoli is his last, useless imitation. Judgment of the landscape upon this man whose very name means ‘enclosure’ in Old English (and is also related to ‘padlock’): it declares him insufferably small-time, a spec visible momentarily as a series of tiny pixilated flashes on a phone or terminal. Time and perspective found him out too, from the broken-down quarters in East LA where he was born to the fixed wheel of Chance and his 47 guns.

The landscape around the fatal hotel in Vegas is austere, in contrast with District’s quivering street-corner garbage. There is a prohibition on clocks inside all hotels and casinos. There is no light, aside from the flashing one-armed bandits and the video screens. Conveyer-belt escalators move the gamblers and tourists from casino to casino – out in the air for a minute, then back inside to a counterfeit midnight. But this world changes when you get to the older dilapidated zones around Fremont Street, the site of Vegas’ founding Gold Rush encampments and whorehouses. Farther out, the environs where the workers live are small flat bungalows, overgrown chain fences and bleak half-abandoned malls. Vegas’ great heroin and meth industries flourish here, a post-human arena interrupted occasionally by the odd fierce or sluggish soul, but empty and hot and vacant-looking almost always. Duvert’s scraps hover over outskirts like these: And finally, straight before you, is a sky that’s pale blue, almost gray, like the color of provincial eyes. Paddock must have driven thorough them at some point, perhaps on his way to Mandalay Bay several weeks ago. The Everyday waited, followed with all the deliberation of a CCTV scan gliding equally over the monstrous and the timid.

Paddock’s victims were unfortunately not the moguls of city power and state corruption, but the objects of cheapness and atrocity who have been made as expendable as their paychecks and pensions at the roulette wheel. He merely enacted a small terror inside a greater, slower one. City of fears paraded as luck or fun, a riddle of the Sands with as much mystery as the gunman had mercy. Paddock couldn’t write a book as curious as Duvert’s or become a revolutionary, or do much of anything but gamble poorly and lose himself. To a landscape of surplus value, he left a trail of dead and the silence of public fools before he passed into the tunnel of yellow neon light.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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