Nothing can protect you from loneliness. …
You have been so frustrated with yourself,
not knowing how to convert your de-humanization,
your deconstruction of self,
your humiliation into a body capable of love.
What is the best thing an artist can be? Intelligent, brave, curious, …seen? I think many people might answer that an artist should be able to find beauty in this world—an aesthete. I would say that, paramount to any other quality, the best thing an artist can be is unexpected. And Vi Khi Nao’s work is always unexpected. She is a singular artist who juxtaposes language, characters, and elements of plot in ways that expose undiscovered relationships and highlight the surreality and certain sad beauty of our everyday lives.
The Vegas Dilemma, Vi Khi Nao’s newest work, is a collection of stories broken into three parts which predominantly center around a nameless character as they roam around Las Vegas, doing menial everyday tasks like grocery shopping, going to Starbucks, or ordering doughnuts (the character is motivated a lot by food).The Vegas Dilemma is a book about loneliness: a desperate modern loneliness that explores how distant we feel from each other despite the access to many things that can bring us together—like buses on paved streets, airports, and the internet. As the reader moves through each part, the nameless character’s world is featured less and less as something tangible. Without a name, that character seems to infiltrate the worlds of each of the twenty-seven short stories in this collection until we reach reach the last entry, which is a dizzying love letter told in poetic fragments that bounce all over the country as the lovers dissipate into metaphysical body parts and memories.
No offense to Vegas—I’ve only been there once—but it seems like a perfect place to create a foundation for this collection: a setting that is bright and glittering artifice atop an expansive and unforgiving desert. A place that exists solely because of money. These characters exist below the glitz, though, in the dark areas of town, in empty midnight fast food restaurants and behind doors in private homes. In these private or less-seen spaces, Nao focuses on the things we use to distract us from unhappiness, the things we use as substitutions for love and connection, namely shopping and food.
In the first part of this book, the nameless character is constantly walking from one store to another “because [she] want[s] to forget [her] body, [her] place in the world, and [her] sadness,” often ending up at a supermarket, which she calls “the lighthouse of the world.” She moves towards these beacons, purchasing food and consuming more and more in hopes of some protection or respite. The world itself eventually becomes something to consume, from her home to the street: “[e]verything in life tastes too sweet to her. Everywhere she goes. Even asphalt tastes too much of dextrose, dripping with artificial honey and sugar. Whenever she walks, the earth seems to glue her to its soil. It takes all her power and force to pull herself together to move forward.”
Consumerism and consumption are treated like a compulsion, especially in stories like “She is No Longer on Vacation with a Hole” and “Callously Touched by this Maniacal Man.” Characters in these stories struggle to fulfill their needs through insatiable shopping while their families or partners look on helplessly. This idea is underscored in “In My Youth My Father is Short and Poor” too, where Nao states “[i]n the future the soul will be converted into a credit card. In order to make an emotional or intellectual transaction, the soul must slide the card into a slot inside the body.” For a lonely person, emotional and sexual human interactions become transactional. The most substantial relationships readers encounter are several characters who use websites to engage in relationships but there is rarely an example that exists outside a screen.
The unhuman connection is foregrounded in “Nocturnal” where the nameless character (or a nameless character – it’s difficult to confirm that it’s just the one) is again walking at night through the Vegas streets. She hits the button to cross the road and the symbol flashes and sounds.The nameless says, “[i]t always feels like another human, a human machine, is walking with me temporarily during this time,” as she crosses the road. In the next moment, she finds a homeless man who she thinks is dead. She calls the cops but proceeds on to Target without waiting for them to arrive. On the way back home, she sees another homeless person who “startles [her] with her existence.” These real people are so much further removed from her and much more unknown than the comforting green figure that helps her across the road. It is ironic because the nameless is often seen without a home herself, rootless and without an identity, like the street people she encounters. Despite their similarities or their humanity, the facade of a relationship like an OkCupid profile, the cashier at Target, or a crosswalk sign become more meaningful, or more human compared to the people she encounters living in the same space as her.
The most relatable yet frustrating element of this work is that even though we see very little human connection in this world, there still exists a pervasive desire for that human connection, especially in sexual relationships. Sexuality becomes a way to connect to someone else and a way to understand life. One character says that “[t]hrobbing viscerally is her cunt’s way of expressing its philosophical stance on immortality.” In addition to clothes and food, sex is one constant need in almost every story because it staves off that empty feeling found in both loneliness and death. We see characters allowing their partners to have affairs because sex is a necessity that exists outside of love, as something people need to express and recognize themselves. Several stories contemplate sex outside of a relationship and Nao never explicitly draws a dichtomy but rather shows without judgement instances of sex with love and instances of sex without.
Towards the end, Nao becomes more explicit in her own position as author or godhead. In “She is No Longer on Vacation with a Hole,” she writes “[s]ome sentences move other sentences without knowing” while later, in “Love Story with Bifurcation and Violation,” she says, “[y]our pencil is leading me across the room. To your face. I place your face in the palm of the page”. In these spaces, Nao seems to be suggesting an autonomy in the characters that was unrecognized in the earlier parts. Suddenly, there is creation and not from some obscure g-d but from the lover and from the narrator herself. They are writing their own stories. The lover seems to be able to ‘write’ or lead the narrator to her. Yet, even if the lover is the pencil or the phallus, the narrator is the page, the receiver. She controls what is written on her. She tells the lover “[y]ou are not going to conceive me” and “[y]ou are not Virigina Woolf.” Even though we see the yearning for love and for a deeper human connection, the narrator refuses to lose herself in someone else’s narrative. She is the creator. It is ultimately affirming. Here, a power in that type of loneliness emerges.
Because The Vegas Dilemma is so unexpected, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the work at first glance. It doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure and it uses language in new and original ways. These challenges are the heart of this book—readers must rethink and restructure how they understand love and longing. In essence, it makes a reader truly meditate on the idea of loneliness. My favorite stories in this collection delve into abstraction and become poetry, where the melody of language and feeling triumph over traditional form. They include: “Callously Touched by this Maniacal Man”, “In My Youth My Father is Short and Poor”, “Vignettes: Exploration of Certainty & Uncertainty”, and “She is No Longer on Vacation with a Hole”. As a whole, The Vegas Dilemma is utterly creative and sadly beautiful. It is not all tragedy; there is humor, intelligence, and hope, I think, in these pages, too. While it centers squarely on loneliness and the ‘human condition,’ I see the constant movement throughout the book as a source of faith in humanity—that the characters never stop travelling tells us that they might still find something. They continue to move to and from homes and lovers and websites and other intimate places, and, in a quiet way, that seems hopeful, if only in a Sisphysian way.
My heart keeps bending backward,
exercising another muscle, rehearsing a different muscle, to get to you.
Our bodies are blown backward and forward
by the dust and debris that curls under the body of the bus.
The Vegas Dilemma
By Vi Khi Nao
11:11 Press LLC
Published September 07, 2021