Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Ah, I have been so bad about this blog. I was so close to catching Carlton, but, what with my recent job hunt and all, reading books has been the second farthest thing from my mind, the farthest being posting on the blog. The closest thing to my mind is Michael Phelps. He's as good at swimming as I am lovemaking.

But now it's time to put all jokes aside, because The Day of the Locust is a not a very happy book (though it is very good). I'm not sure if I've read anywhere that it is the quintessential Hollywood book, but you're reading it here now. West's 1930's Los Angeles is populated not by movie stars and celebrities but by has-beens and hangers-on, the fringes of Hollywood culture, who operate, sometimes literally, behind the scenes.

Consider the cast: At the center of it all is Tod Hackett, a set painter who spends half of his spare time painting a masterwork called The Burning of Los Angeles that depicts the final destruction of the city at the hands of its own, like some form of self-cannibalism. He spends the other half of his spare time ogling Fay Greener, a teenage would-be starlet who, shall we say, spreads her affection very thin. But it isn't a story of unrequited love; it's a story of consuming and unfulfilled lust. As the narrator tells us point blank, for Tod, "Nothing short of violent rape would do." Fay's father is an aging Vaudevillian who has been phased out of modern pictures. She also has another suitor in Homer Simpson (I know, I know), a simple man whose doctor has recommended he spend some time in Southern California for his health. West lets the irony of this speak for itself, as it is Simpson's uncomplicated feelings for Fay that eventually cause him to break down and set into motion a massive riot that brings Hackett's painting to life.

The cast actually does very little, and yet it seems like the terrifying final chapters hinge on the tiniest human movements. How sad it is to see Harry Greener stumble drunkenly through his clown act, and how disheartening to watch Tod and Fay and the others loiter and drink and do nothing, as if it were an expression of the totality of their existence. For West, human ugliness arises out of little more than boredom, the symptom of a desire for objects unclear, to be anything else, to do anything else. Hackett's job is to paint worlds, to create the illusion of places, but he cannot satisfactorily define his own world or his own existence. He hates Los Angeles because it is nowhere and offers nothing, and The Burning of Los Angeles is the way that he channels the destructive--and self-destructive--impulse. Others in the book seek more proactive recourse, but like Hackett, they are all intensely miserable.

The Day of the Locust is like Hobbes' famous epithet on human life: Brutish, nasty, and short. What it lacks in length (it and West's novella "Miss Lonelyhearts" add up to a scant 183 pp.) it makes up for in power. If you ever find yourself on a flight to LAX, you may want to pick it up for the ride--just to prepare yourself.


Carlton said...

Nice review, Mr Chilton. I am sending some pretty strong job-getting vibes your way.

Christopher said...

Oh, I got a job. Probably because of your vibes.