One Nation Under God

By Hari Kunzru, 10 December 2001

In the wake of a cultural crisis, postmodern pleasure palace Las Vegas holds some interesting truths, finds Hari Kunzru

A few days after September 11, finding myself stranded by the closure of US airspace, I drove from Los Angeles through the desert to Las Vegas. There, in between marathon bouts of TV news-watching I wandered under the Eiffel Tower, past gondolas floating up and down a stretch of Venetian canal, through an ancient Egyptian tomb and into tropical jungles filled with white tigers and brightly-coloured birds.


Since the 1980s Vegas has reinvented itself as a kind of global theme park, a shrunken version of the world sanitised, standardised and made safe for consumption by the 35 million tourists who visit every year. The coexistence in one place of these meticulously reconstructed environments has usually been seen as a totem of US isolationism. The average American’s unwillingness to travel abroad has led to the solution (‘typically American’ in its scope, chutzpah and cultural arrogance) of simulating the world at home. On September 11, the Real erupted through the screen of this carefully managed domestic space. Now Las Vegas reads differently. Patriotic slogans flash on the electronic billboards. The strip has become a cartoon stage for the traumas of globalisation. On one side of Las Vegas Boulevard is the New York New York casino, with its recreation of the NYC skyline. On the other is the middle-eastern themed Aladdin. In the days after the attack, New York New York was a focus for public mourning: in front of its replica statue of liberty, people pinned bunches of flowers, children’s drawings, and a plastic fireman’s helmet. Aladdin, on the other hand, was mysteriously quiet. A week after I ate a solitary meal in the half-empty souk, Aladdin’s parent company announced that it was filing for bankruptcy. The photographs on these pages are a record of Vegas in the tenuous (and no doubt temporary) grip of September 11.

Hari Kunzru’s <hari AT> novel The Impressionist will be published by Hamish Hamilton (UK) and Dutton (US) in April 2002

>> Photographs - Hari Kunzru