Monday, October 10, 2011

#73 - The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West is one of the lesser-known lights of the Taken Too Soon constellation of American writers in the 1930s, the generation that boasted Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Day of the Locust was his last novel, published in 1939. In late December 1940, a mere day after F. Scott died of a heart attack, West ran a stop-sign and was killed in a car accident.

Like Fitzgerald (who was a friend), West was interested in the dark corners and back-alleys of his America. But where Fitzgerald's work focused on the personal tragedies of affluent expatriates and the New York elite, West's final book packs a panoramic lens and heads out West, to a land as superficially beautiful and deeply disturbing in our day as it was in his - Hollywood.

Most of Day of the Locust is told 3rd-person from the perspective of Tod Hackett[1], a set-painter in a Hollywood studio. Tod is a talented east-coast artist who came out west following the offer of an exciting job. He has found instead a land of pastiche-culture and mad and desperate people. The first is wickedly illustrated in Tod's view as he walks home from work in the novel’s first chapter:
”...[V]iolet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, humpbacked hills and they were almost beautiful. But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.”
This is The Loved One territory. These ludicrous houses, we learn, are made of plaster, lath and paper so that no such mundane concerns as gravity may interfere with the fancy of their builders. While the effect on the Yale-educated Tod (and the reader) seems ridiculous, in one of West’s most striking asides we are reminded that for ‘the natives’, these simulacra are entirely in earnest:
“[The] houses were comic, but he didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless. It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”
Tod pretends to be outside of this culture, as an intellectual observer and an artist. But the unfolding novel reveals to the reader that this is just a pose. Tod hungers after his own superficial fantasy – the pretty Faye Greener, who lives down the hall from him.

Faye is a stereotypical “Aspiring Actress” type, and not very talented. (We are told she recently had a bit part as a harem girl in a picture – she had one line, and said it badly). She is flighty and dramatic and every bit as empty and meaningless as the Egyptian Temples on Hollywood Boulevard, and yet Tod pursues her irrationally and relentlessly. He contemplates violence against other men who win Faye’s attention; he even (in some of the book’s most disturbing passages) fantasizes about finding her in a brothel, or raping her. In West’s Hollywood, the emptiness of the spectacles does not diminish at all the dangerous intensity of the thrill-seekers.

As the novel develops, Tod explores a rift between these shallow but perilously earnest sorts and another equally dangerous group he calls “the ones who came to California to die” – the rejected and the desperate, who stand in the corners and watch this world of spectacles and spectacle-chasers with uncomprehending fury. Though they fascinate him and spur him to his greatest work (the painting “The Burning of Los Angeles”), Tod struggles to define these sorts precisely.

At times he wonders if they are nothing but madmen; he comes closer when he supposes them to be just another sort of seeker – the kind that will not be satisfied with shallow spectacle, but want a real experience. Having come to California chasing a promise and having been disappointed with what they find, they are left with nothing but a repressed resentment that can only be fulfilled now by destruction.[2].

Among these desperate ones is Homer Simpson (not that one), the third of the major characters in the novel, who came to California to rest following a bad sickness and almost immediately fell into Faye Greener’s orbit. Homer is a pathetic character, quite generous in his way but quite passive-aggressive in his giving. He longs for Faye, yet even when accident throws them together, he remains unsatisfied – what the union he’s been seeking turns out to be another empty promise. It is through Homer also that we come to see that Faye has a cruel and exploitative streak to her.

With a set-up like this (and a title evoking Biblical plagues), we can well foresee that we are not headed for a tidy comic ending. But the extent of the savagery which envelopes the last scenes was shocking to read – especially because the violence was funny, being perpetrated by banal characters acting and speaking offhandedly, almost mechanically. It is a testament, I think, to West’s skill that he can swing so easily from gentle satire to black humor of this sort. Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One is a biting riff on the vacuous Hollywood culture; in Locust Nathanael West is playing the part of darkly humorous Jeremiah, foreseeing the imminent collapse of civilization.

Throughout, West’s characters are rather formulaic. With the semi-exceptions of Tod and Homer, they seem more like types than people. Faye is the flighty and self-absorped aspiring actress; we also encounter the washed-up vaudevillian, still rehashing his schtick; the stoical cowboy; the sleazy producer; the wannabe-gangster; the Hollywood “stage mom” and her brattish child star. Each is described with a painter’s eye, but the characterizations are seldom more than superficial. Within the context of this novel, this works[3].

West’s prose is crisp and quick. Some characters’ dialogue is badly dated by slang and the occasional ill-advised attempt to render a regional accent, but the narrator’s voice is strong and clear and has the painter’s (or, I suppose, the cinematographer’s) eye for exacting detail. When he is aiming at humor, he hits the mark – as with all of his descriptions of Hollywood excess. When he is aiming to be serious, a certain clinical detachment prevents him from lapsing into unreadable bathos, and creates an effect that can be at times deeply disturbing – some of the scenes where Tod contemplates violence toward Faye stand out in this regard.

A bit less artful (at least, to this reader) was the overall plot, which ambled here and there. West’s basic storyline was strong, but he diluted it about with the inclusion of a number of vignettes which illustrate his themes but slow the momentum of the plot as it builds to its bloody end. All of these were vividly written – he describes a fatal cockfighting scene in such disturbing detail that I had to put my book down and physically recover. But the cumulative effect was to make me lose my place in ‘the story’, and I wish he had been more selective, or a bit more careful in the novel’s overall structure.

Day of the Locust was an unsettling book to read. Of course, Hollywood has not collapsed into murderous ruin but West is nonetheless, in the last analysis, prophetic. I close with this quotation, which struck me particularly. It predicts the way that modern ‘entertainments’ jade our senses and drive us ever onward in pursuit of more dramatic, shocking diversions.
Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

[1] I noticed straightaway that Tod’s last name was suggestive of the Hollywood “hack” – but it had to be pointed out to me by a note penciled into my copy that the unusual, “one-d” spelling of the name ‘Tod’ was the German word for ‘death’.
[2] It’s striking the extent to which any acts of building and creation in Locust are described as ephemeral and false, while every description of destruction and death is rendered by West with vivid detail.
[3] Especially once it was pointed out to me (again by a helpful marginal note in my library copy) that some of these ‘types’ are reminiscent of the Hollywood B movie of the era.

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