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Obsession as Catharsis in “Souvenirs from Paradise” 

Obsession as Catharsis in “Souvenirs from Paradise” 

  • A review of Erin Langner's essay collection, "Souvenirs from Paradise."

“Obsessions are a way of knowing a person,” Erin Langner writes, and obsession is certainly a central subject in her debut essay collection, the Zone 3 Press Nonfiction Book Award-winner Souvenirs from Paradise. In its pages, Langner explores how her relentless “object appreciation” and preternatural curiosity have led her back to the Las Vegas Strip, of all places, more than twenty times since the mid-2000s. “Maybe performing an obsession is a distraction, like a thrill ride, like a vacation,” Langner muses early on. “Maybe it’s a portal between fantasy and reality. Maybe it takes you somewhere you were afraid to go.” But she is admittedly self-conscious about, even perplexed by, her own infatuation with Vegas. What does this particular obsession say about the person she is?

The book is organized into twelve sharp essays, each titled according to an object, person, or event—“The Neon Sign,” “The Fallen Star,” “The Mirage.” In the book’s second essay, “The Tourist Guide,” Langner addresses us in second-person. “You would be forgiven for thinking Vegas is not the place for you,” she begins; an art critic and museum staffer, Langner implies Vegas is not for her, either. She takes us through a week spent on the Strip, moving from hotel to hotel, each of which promises its own immersive experience—the Euro-chic pool at the Wynn, the Emerald City of Oz at the MGM Grand—but Langner is disenchanted. “They don’t know that this is their last year here… They don’t know that childhood fantasies are falling out of vogue,” she writes of Leo the Lion’s feline descendants languishing at the MGM. As she will make clear through the rest of the book, she wants something real, something with teeth—not these anemic prisoners.

Langer proves to be a captivating tour guide throughout the collection. Her simultaneously erudite and embodied ekphrasis shines brightest in “The Art Experience,” giving us access to her perspective and a thematic focus for the book. We follow Langner into one of artist James Turrell’s immersive light exhibits on the fourth floor of a Las Vegas Louis Vuitton store. “The light levels, the huge changes, the dimensions, the space’s shape all align to erase the distinction between what is ‘real’ and what we merely perceive as realness,” she explains. She describes the reality of standing inside with perfect clarity: “Unlike a fog, which tends to gradually subsume your surroundings, Turrell’s effect felt hyperactive and instant, absorbing the definition of everything in sight.” The physical experience of this installation leads her into the surreal, her visceral memory. She recalls how her “veins throbbed with excitement” when her manager at her grad school museum internship handed over keys to acquisition storage. She remembers a photo of Turrell’s magnum opus, Roden Crater, which “looked like a wound that was distinctly smooth in its center and bruised around its edges”—uncannily similar to the port-a-cath on her mother’s collarbone, a feature of experimental cancer treatment. 

This wound emblematizes the place Langner is most afraid to go: a motherless world defined by grief. “I worry sometimes that spending so much time among the untouchable objects is part of a larger metaphor for my life, indicative of an unwillingness to touch the ‘real thing’—the difficult thing,” she discloses. “I know from experience how much easier it is to look at the object of the obsession—and how much easier it is to mistake it for the real thing you are chasing.” Obsession, she warns, can indeed be a pleasurable distraction from pain.

At first, Langner treats her own pain obliquely, circling it but rarely lingering. As she struggles with her own distaste for another woman at a Vegas bachelorette party she’s attending, she hones in on a plastic crown—symbol of normative femininity and the object of her disgust. “Maybe I was unaware of the pressure of certain traditions, had evaded the weight of certain accessories by being raised by a man,” she posits, almost off-handedly. (I get the sense it was hard for her to write that sentence.) Still, the problem of the missing mother—the absence of that first role model—becomes more apparent.

As the book progresses, Langner moves through the mirages of her mind to find the real, examining casinos and popstars, life events and relationships with equal intensity. “The Ratpack Casino” takes us into the Sahara’s House of the Lords, a hotel bar Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. used to frequent, where Langner contemplates an empty ashtray resting on the table: “I was the new normal embodied by that unused, soulless ashtray. I’d never smoked a cigarette because cancer ran in my family.” The irony of her behavior dawns on her: “As I sipped my wine, the feebleness of this attempt to defer my mortality flickered through my mind.” It’s these moments of close observation and honest self-reflection that reveal a character we can empathize with: a woman steeped in fear. 

In Langer’s discerning gaze, Vegas’ simulacra become mirrors—facades and copies become portals that facilitate reflection. Langner writes about a replica of the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in Caesar’s Palace, which elicits an echo of the sensation she had felt standing at the base of the original in the Louvre. “The people in Vegas may never see the ‘real’ sculpture. For them, this was a real experience,” Langner muses—she feels it, too. She suggests that replacements, duplicates, and performances can help us access deep-seated feelings and assuage real pain. In “The Impersonator,” she contemplates a Michael Jackson impersonator’s meteoric rise in popularity after Jackson himself died. “An amount of time is expected to pass before any form of replacement should happen. But will enough time ever pass?” She couldn’t help her desire to get on stage during an impersonator concert. What’s wrong with finding solace or joy in a performance or reenactment?, she seems to wonder. 

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As it turns out, Langer tells us, enactment can be cathartic. Toward the end of the collection, Langner admits she’s ashamed of how much she loved an interactive Titanic exhibit she saw with her father and younger sister as a child. Looking back, she realizes, “I never wanted to be vulnerable—but when I identified a vulnerability in others, I was attracted to it. I longed to know more about their experiences, to look at their vulnerabilities without having to expose mine, to wander through their belongings without touching.” When she found her “guest name” on the list of the dead in the final gallery of the Titanic exhibit, she wasn’t upset by the outcome—she felt kinship. Immersion and roleplaying give us permission to perform emotions we may have otherwise stifled, the ones we are most ashamed to show.

Souvenirs is Langer’s attempt to access and share those complicated feelings, and though its subject matter is personal and singular, her example has universal value. This collection demonstrates how the very fantasies that distract us can also heal us, if we can only interrogate why they absorbed us in the first place. 

Souvenirs from Paradise: Essays
By Erin Langner
Zone 3 Press
Published October 2022

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