Lethe in Vegas by Chris AlAswad, which is part of the series called Novel of Life, is my recent first foray into exclusively web-based fiction, the last and first one being Penguin’s We Tell Stories. I’ve read a few ebooks but those were .pdf versions of works that were also published on paper, particularly Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn The Final Empire, among others. Lethe in Vegas honors me with a good introduction to a non-linear, multimedia reading experience.
Lethe in Vegas begins with a young man named Lethe Bashar on a bus en route to Las Vegas. Lethe ran away and is free to live without prohibitions. But is this really the life he wanted? This is the question he struggles with as his new found freedom, spent lounging beside a pool and looking for drugs, spins out of control.
The online novel touches on the dark reality behind the American dream. Most of the post-war and contemporary American literary works I read have dealt with the dissolution of the family, the twisted values spawned by consumer and individualist values, and so on. Lethe in Vegas grapples with something much more gloomier than that. It focuses on the more destructive way individuals deal with the anxieties inherent in such a society, drug dependence.
In the chapter Lethe Wanders From the Backpacker’s In, the narrator describes the “seediness of Las Vegas” as “the part of the very fabric of its society. It didn’t show up self-consciously as in other cities like a festered sore. Nor did it flaunt itself on the periphery. The seediness made up the living core of the population.” This is the other side behind the glitter and glamor that we are bombarded with on films, magazines, TV, and etc., of the place that peoples of the former colonies are otherwise conditioned to believe as paradise.
Beyond the scintillating lights of the famous Las Vegas Strip was the city itself-a mass of empty storefronts, rundown casinos, liquor stores and 7/11s. The colossal casino-hotels stood out in the distance from the East and West sides, as if in a separate sphere, like the emerald city of Oz. The barren landscape receded from Boulevard’s yellow-brick road and became the makeshift construction of low-income housing, grimy enclaves, and rows of dilapidated houses falling into the ground.
And here is the thing I like most about Lethe in Vegas: the vivid and detailed depiction of things. The atmosphere is such that we get sucked into the world of Lethe. This, of course not only refers to the text. As in every other website, the theme and layout is also important. These has to be pleasing to the eyes and this is something that Lethe in Vegas easily achieves. Then there’s those wonderfully selected pictures that accompany the chapters. It was as if these were the real persons and real places met by the author.
The ending strikes me as a bit strange though. I know that Lethe is supposed to be a drug addict and his companion, Louie, has been complaining that he thinks of his life as a sort of novel. But I still find it jarring when he suddenly blurts out near the end that it’s “the end of Chapter One, folks. Tune in next week for the rest of The Novel of Life.” It seems, in my opinion, inconsistent with the serious and realistic tone found in the rest of the novel.
I once tried reading Chekhov stories from the Internet in the vein of “an apple a day…” but gave up because of the computer monitor’s nauseating effect on the eyes. After going over Lethe in Vegas, I am convinced that I need to read more online fiction regardless of the eye problems it will undoubtedly cause. I’ll just have to read more Chekhov stories on actual books rather than on the screen.
Chris AlAswad, the online novelist behind Lethe in Vegas, also keeps a chronicle of essays and meditations on reading, writing, and life called the Blog of Innocence. He also manages the literary webzine, Escape Into Life. ■