Concurrent Panel Session Six

Abstract Title

"You can never hassle me about drinking": Experimental Fiction and the Poetics of Bearing Witness in John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas

Start Date

7-4-2018 3:00 PM

End Date

7-4-2018 3:50 PM

Abstract

John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas (1990) marks a significant departure from the narratives about addiction that have dominated the Western novel for nearly two centuries. In earlier iterations of addiction fiction, such as Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend (1944), the addict typically is cast as a degenerate whose morally corrupt choices cause him to sink ever-deeper into a morass of sin and degradation. Even when the fictional addict escapes the seemingly inevitable death spiral towards rock bottom, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), the form of addiction fiction demands that he shoulder his addiction like a burdensome albatross through the “salvation” of his sobriety.

Leaving Las Vegas, by contrast, confronts the reader with an addict-protagonist, Ben, who is not only resolute, but also unapologetic in his decision to quit his job, move to Las Vegas—“land of anytime alcohol” (65)—and drink himself to death. Unlike his literary forebears, though, Ben experiences no shame or guilt as he descends into the oblivion of alcoholism. In this paper, I examine the ways in which O’Brien crosses and re-crosses the generic borders of addiction fiction, paying particular attention to his use of a shifting third-person limited point-of-view. I argue that through this point-of-view, O’Brien achieves a distancing effect that disallows the reader from responding to Ben with a simple Puritanical moralism and, instead, articulates an experimental narrative poetics that invites the reader to bear witness to addiction in a more honest, compassionate, and humane manner.

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Apr 7th, 3:00 PM Apr 7th, 3:50 PM

"You can never hassle me about drinking": Experimental Fiction and the Poetics of Bearing Witness in John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas

John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas (1990) marks a significant departure from the narratives about addiction that have dominated the Western novel for nearly two centuries. In earlier iterations of addiction fiction, such as Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend (1944), the addict typically is cast as a degenerate whose morally corrupt choices cause him to sink ever-deeper into a morass of sin and degradation. Even when the fictional addict escapes the seemingly inevitable death spiral towards rock bottom, as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), the form of addiction fiction demands that he shoulder his addiction like a burdensome albatross through the “salvation” of his sobriety.

Leaving Las Vegas, by contrast, confronts the reader with an addict-protagonist, Ben, who is not only resolute, but also unapologetic in his decision to quit his job, move to Las Vegas—“land of anytime alcohol” (65)—and drink himself to death. Unlike his literary forebears, though, Ben experiences no shame or guilt as he descends into the oblivion of alcoholism. In this paper, I examine the ways in which O’Brien crosses and re-crosses the generic borders of addiction fiction, paying particular attention to his use of a shifting third-person limited point-of-view. I argue that through this point-of-view, O’Brien achieves a distancing effect that disallows the reader from responding to Ben with a simple Puritanical moralism and, instead, articulates an experimental narrative poetics that invites the reader to bear witness to addiction in a more honest, compassionate, and humane manner.