Friday, February 11, 2011

I Want This Book Out Of My Head: A Look at The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West


"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." --The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

But obviously that's not going to happen because I'm writing a review of it.

I've been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out how to begin writing about this complicated, depressing, horrific, thrilling novel and all I can think about is the movie Annie. Annie as in Little Orphan Annie, or rather the movie based on the musical based on the comic "Little Orphan Annie." Annie was one of my favorite movies growing up. It takes place In New York during the Great Depression and follows the adventures of an optimistic orphan girl after a blustery Wall Street tycoon takes her in. What does this have to do with The Day of the Locust? Well, there's this one scene where Annie goes to the movies for the first time in her life. At Radio City Music Hall, no less. It's a lot of fun, complete with countless ushers, giant moving set pieces and the Rockettes (who can sing without moving their mouths!). I always loved this scene and I think it says a lot about what going to the movies meant for people during the Great Depression. A chance to get away from the harshness of reality and escape into magical worlds, manufactured by Hollywood, where everybody lived in beautiful homes, burst into song, always had enough to eat and always lived happily ever after. It's easy to understand why people spent money on movie tickets even when they didn't know where their next meal was coming from. Movies made them feel good, and more than anything else, they needed to feel good. As the song goes in Annie, "Headlines holler 'Big Depression!' What do we care? Movies are there. Only happy endings. That's our recipe." A little ironic since they're about to watch Greta Garbo's Camille, but you get the idea.



The Day of the Locusts is a book about the movies. It came out in 1939, the last year of the Great Depression, and the year World War Two started. It's also the year considered by many to be Hollywood's finest, but in The Day of the Locust, Hollywood seems like a world unto itself, rotting in the wake of a coming apocalypse. Author Nathanael West focuses not on the stars, but on the lost souls who come to the coast filled with dreams, only to be met with disappointment and heartache. In the middle of this mess is Faye Greener, a beautiful but untalented would be-starlet, whose hunger for success has no hope of being fulfilled. West paints her as a symbol for Hollywood itself: a pretty shell with nothing of substance to offer. Faye uses the many men who desire her for what they can provide, but they too are riddled with delusions. Her neighbor, Tod Hackett, an artist fresh out of Yale, endures Faye's chatter in hopes of sleeping with her--to no avail. Another suitor, Homer Simpson, loves Faye, but is so self-deprecating and sexually repressed, he makes an easy target for abuse. There's no plot to speak of. The book unfolds as a series of encounters between these and other characters as they try to get along in Hollywood. Make no mistake though. This is a horror story. One I haven't been able to get out of my head for days.

Is it surprising that these characters are all miserable human beings? Faye is a petulant little girl, grotesque in spite of her beauty. Her dreams of stardom would be endearing if they weren't so thoughtless. Tod (whose name is spelled the same way as the German word for death AHEM) is convinced he's in love with Faye, but he also repeatedly wishes he had the "courage" to rape her. Homer is particularly frightening: a tightly wound time bomb, whose loneliness is as relentless as it is incurable. West's account of the emptiness of his life is deeply unsettling. There's also a vicious child actor, his inevitable stage mother who makes him perform sexually suggestive songs for Tod and Homer, two men who stage cockfights in Homer's garage, and Faye's alcoholic father, whose dreams of performing Shakespeare ended in a doomed vaudeville career. And then there are those who crowd the city streets and flood movie premiers, the locusts of the title, who "come to California to die," and ultimately discover what terrible things can happen when large groups of people are possessed by a single idea.

What especially fascinated me about The Day of the Locust, and made me want to follow these unlikable characters on their journey, was West's use of what can only be called realistic surrealism. There's that old saying that fiction has to make sense; real life doesn't. Nothing fantastic happens in this book, but everything is imbued with a kind of strangeness, made all the more eerie by the fact that it can actually happen. Homer's nervous tics and Tod's Goya-inspired drawings. The too-mature words of a kid too young to understand what he's saying (who hasn't seen that before?). A wealthy movie man who builds a model of a dead horse in his swimming pool because he is just that wealthy. A realistic (read: gory) depiction of a cockfight. The canyons and hills and constant sunshine of California. It all contributes to a sense of uncomfortable unreality, but it all can (and does) really happen. Many scenes were inspired by West's own experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter. The Day of the Locust doesn't even feel like a story half the time. It feels like real life, and this just makes it scarier. And what better setting than Hollywood where reality and fantasy exist side by side until you can't tell where one ends and the other begins? The Day of the Locust explores the uncanny, decadent world of the movies and the effect they have on us. When we go to the movies, we know it's all fake and we accept it, but we still expect reality to measure up. And we get mad when it doesn't.

This is a great book. Nathanael West's writing is simple and beautiful even as it describes the most horrific behavior. It's also very (darkly) funny, and incredibly disturbing. Now remembered as one of the most important writers of the 1930's, West didn't achieve commercial success in his own time, constantly overshadowed by his good friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Day of the Locust is now considered the best book ever written about Hollywood. It also makes a fitting metaphor for the rise of the Third Reich (remember what I said about Tod's name?) and is definitely worth the read. The last line (which I don't dare spoil) is one of the creepiest I've ever read.

Unfortunately, West never lived to see his book achieve the status it has. He died, along with his wife, Eileen McKenney, in a car accident on December 22, 1940--the day after F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was 37.

Inevitably (and perhaps ironically), The Day of the Locust was made into a movie in 1975. Like its spiritual cousin, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They, it was too depressing (and truthful) to be filmed in its own decade, so they had to wait until America was ready to be more honest with itself. I haven't seen the movie yet so I can't vouch for it, but the trailer makes it look really good (and faithful to the book). Let it double here as a book trailer if you're interested.

One question remains, however: did it have a fancy premier?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Defending Sisters Red


As you may have heard, On January 28, Bitch Magazine posted a list called 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader. Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red, which I devoted a long entry to back in June, was initially on the list, but it has since been removed. You will also find no trace of Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels and Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl either, even though both were included in the original list. And that's where the fun begins. The day after the list went up, a complaint surfaced in the comments about Sisters Red. User Pandora wrote, "I am surprised that you included Jackson Pearce's Sisters Red on the list, mainly because of the rape culture debate it brought about..." This refers to a review that appeared in the blog, The Book Smugglers shortly after the book's publication last summer. In this review, two readers complained of the book's supposed victim-blaming attitude towards survivors of rape.

Just in case, you're at sea about all this, Sisters Red is a refreshing take on the classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood. It's about two sisters, Scarlett and Rosie, who survived a brutal werewolf attack when they were little girls. Now as young women, they hunt and kill "Fenris" (werewolf-type creatures who have a lot in common with sexual predators). Scarlett kept Rosie safe during the attack. She lost an eye and gained disfiguring scars as a result. Consequently, she lives for the hunt, even though Rosie wants a more normal life, especially after she falls for their childhood friend and fellow hunter, Silas. About halfway through the book, while out hunting, Scarlett stops outside of a club and sees a bunch of girls she refers to as "Dragonflies." Here's the passage:

"They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiralling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights – amber, ebony, cream – like shined metal, flawless and smooth. I press harder against the crumbly brick wall behind me, tugging my crimson cloak closer to my body. The scars on my shoulders show through fabric when I pull the cloak tight. Bumpy red hills in perfectly spaced lines.
The Dragonflies laugh, sweet, and bubbly, and I groan in exasperation. They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off. Look at me, see how I dance, did you notice my hair, look again, desire me, I am perfect. Stupid, stupid Dragonflies. Here I am, saving your lives, bitten and scarred and wounded for you, and you don’t even know it. I should let the Fenris have one of you.
No, I didn’t mean that. I sigh and walk to the other side of the brick wall, letting my fingers tangle in the thick ivy. It’s dark on this side, shadowed from the neon lights of the street. I breathe slowly, watching the tree limbs sway, back lit by the lights of skyscrapers. Of course I didn’t mean it. Ignorance is no reason to die. They can’t help what they are, still happily unaware inside a cave of fake shadows. They exist in a world that’s beautiful normal, where people have jobs and dreams that don’t involve a hatchet. My world is parallel universe to their's – the same sights, same people, same city, yet the Fenris lurk, the evil creeps, the knowledge undeniably exists. If I hadn’t been thrown into this world, I could just as easily have been a Dragonfly." --Sisters Red, Jackson Pearce page 208


Shortly after this, Silas joins her and they have the following dialogue:

"His eyes narrow in something between disgust and intrigue, as though he’s not certain if he likes looking at them or not. I want to comment, but I stay quiet. Somehow it feels important to wait for his reaction. Silas finally turns to look at me in the shadows.
'It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it?' he asks pointedly. 'Can I tell you how glad I am that you and Rosie aren’t like them?'
'No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.'
'Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them
?'"

Okay. I have to admit, this exchange bothered me too when I first read the book, because it does sound like victim-blaming. There's the classic argument that when a woman is raped, it's because she somehow "asked for it" (through her clothing, behavior, the look in her eye, that unattended drink that was just begging for a Roofie). Never mind the fact that she said no. This argument always infuriates me because it suggests that if women are stupid enough to behave like anything other demure, tight-lipped little girls who have no idea what sex is, they deserve what they get. There seems to be this attitude in society that a silent contract exists between men and women. Men have a constant, violent sexual appetite that can only be kept in check by the virginal behavior of the women around them. As soon as a woman violates her end of the contract with her dress etc., the man is free to break his and rape her if necessary. Therefore, it's the woman's fault, not the man's. After all, men can't help themselves and women know the rules, dammit. Not only does this attitude ignore that men can be raped and women can be rapists, it's insulting to just about everyone and doesn't do anything to prevent rape or help rape victims. And women are just as guilty of it as men. I've heard one girl call another a slut because of her outfit so. many. times. It doesn't make sense. When a person is raped, it is the fault of the rapist and only the rapist. It is NEVER the victim's fault. Rape is not a fact of life that we have to deal with like Mondays or too much snow. It's a crime, and to blame the victim is to ignore its severity.

So does this mean I agree with The Book Smugglers? Was my unabashed enjoyment of Sisters Red based solely on its connection to one of my favorite fairy tales? No. I really liked Sisters Red and I stand by my original opinion of it. We'll get to that in a minute. Those at Bitch Magazine, however, did not stand by their opinion. On February 1, after Pandora's complaint and others like it, they posted this:

"A couple of us at the office read and re-read Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl this weekend. We've decided to remove these books from the list -- Sisters Red because of the victim-blaming scene that was discussed earlier in this post, Tender Morsels because of the way that the book validates (by failing to critique or discuss) characters who use rape as an act of vengeance, and Living Dead Girl because of its triggering nature. We still feel that these books have merit and would not hesitate to recommend them in certain instances, but we don't feel comfortable keeping them on this particular list....We've replaced these books with Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley and Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden."

I do not think Pearce meant to "blame the victim." True, it bothered me at first, but I think it's supposed to bother the reader. We're not dealing with happy feelings here. The first passage is entirely from Scarlett's perspective, and it shows her mindset. Scarlett has one mission in life: to take down as many Fenris as possible. Unlike Rosie, she has no desire to fall in love or find a new interest, because only hunting matters to her. That doesn't stop her from observing the outside world. The Dragonfly scene, in my opinion, gives us access to Scarlett's vulnerability. When she looks at the Dragonflies, she can't help but think how different she is. She doesn't feel beautiful or desirable, and it bothers her. Not enough to make her give up hunting, but it does bother her. So when she sees pretty, flighty-seeming girls, made up for a night on the town and having fun, she projects her anger and regret onto them. It doesn't help that these are the girls she's fighting to protect and they get to live in oblivion while she has to live a life of constant responsibility. She understands her resentment is misplaced, but she can't help it, especially since she sees Rosie's Dragonfly potential. The only thing Scarlett cares about besides hunting is her relationship with Rosie, and to lose Rosie to the world of normality, represented by the Dragonflies, would be the worst kind of abandonment.

Which brings us to Silas and the second passage. At this point in the book, we know that Rosie and Silas are falling for each other and he's encouraging her to pursue interests that don't involve hunting. We know, but Scarlett doesn't (the sisters take turns narrating present-tense chapters). Scarlett isn't in love with Silas, (Pearce mercifully avoids the "sisters in love with the same guy" trope), but he is the person she's closest to besides Rosie. Silas has dialogue here, but the scene is still from Scarlett's perspective. She needs to see how he reacts to them. If he ever gets the urge for a normal life (again represented by the Dragonflies), she will lose him, because she will never be normal. When he dismisses the Dragonflies and talks about how glad he is Scarlett and Rosie aren't like "them," Scarlett is reassured. I interpreted Silas to have alternative motives here. He's going behind Scarlett's back, not being entirely honest and potentially threatening her relationship with Rosie, so he's appeasing her by telling her what she wants to hear. Which is essentially, who would want to be normal, when normality amounts to ignorance? He reinforces Scarlett's confidence, and keeps it all about hunting, letting her hold a higher ground. I don't see Silas as a devious character. He just wants to protect Scarlett from pain.

In other words, these passages, in my opinion, aren't about the Dragonflies or what makes the Fenris attack. It's about Scarlett and her feelings of isolation. The Book Smugglers criticized Sisters Red for suggesting that warrior women like Scarlett should be celebrated, while women who care about their appearance and like attention are lesser than. This ignores the fact that...

SPOILER

SPOILER WARNING

Rosie chooses a more normal life at the end of the book, even though Scarlett continues to hunt. They understand that they will always love each other no matter what, and they don’t need to want the same things out of life. They are both strong, capable young women, and their choices don’t change that. In other words, Rosie is not portrayed as weak for being pretty and wanting love. She chooses the world represented by the Dragonflies, and Scarlett accepts this. I really loved this about Sisters Red. I appreciated that Rosie got what she wanted, and Scarlett didn’t need to be “fixed.” I’m so glad there was no makeover scene, but I’m equally glad Rosie didn’t sacrifice her desires to make Scarlett happy.

END OF SPOILERS

There’s also the fact that nobody gets raped in Sisters Red. Even though I haven’t read them, I know Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl both deal explicitly with rape. Sisters Red does not. The Fenris kill their victims, but they don’t rape them. That said, it’s na├»ve to expect a reader not to be reminded of rape when reading Sisters Red. Little Red Riding Hood has long been associated with sexuality, and the Fenris come across as metaphorical sexual predators. Their transformation from men to monsters is rooted in lust and they target young girls. However, this controversy seems to have marked Sisters Red as a novel specifically about rape, and it isn’t. This misinformation has seeped into the dialogue surrounding its removal. One anonymous Bitch Magazine commenter acknowledged that she hadn’t read the book, but had “heard” it glorified the pretty sister who hadn’t been raped, and negatively portrayed the sister who had been. True, she admitted she hadn’t read it but that’s not Sisters Red.

I’m not Jackson Pearce, so I can’t say for sure what she intended. Of course, everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. All I’m saying is that a character’s opinion is not necessarily the opinion of the author or the message that author is trying to put forth in her book. Authors trust their readers to think for themselves. If Pandora, the Book Smugglers and other readers were offended by the Dragonfly scene, that's their prerogative. Likewise, Bitch Magazine can do whatever it wants, but I don't agree with their decision to remove these books from their list. Neither did a mess of YA authors, including Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier, who wrote in, requesting their books be removed as well. It feels like a very cowardly move on Bitch Magazine’s part. It's also confusing because these three books are not the only ones that deal with difficult issues. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which had to fight against being banned last September because of its frankness about date rape, has the number 4 spot. Wintergirls also by Anderson, has been cited as potentially triggering for people suffering from eating disorders, and it's still on the list. So why these three? Because they started the loudest fireworks? It’s kowtowing, plain and simple. In their eagerness to please and not offend, the staffers at Bitch Magazine made themselves look foolish. Obviously, the list has no impact on the availability of these books, but it does stuff them in a closet, potentially hiding them from readers who might have found comfort and understanding in them, and that’s a shame.

I feel bad for Bitch Magazine because they were trying to do a good thing here. It’s impossible to please everyone with a list like this, because as this controversy proves, whether or not a book has value from a feminist standpoint often depends on the reader. I’ve heard the much-maligned Twilight saga championed as a feminist narrative because even though Bella Swan chooses immortality with her boyfriend over a human life, that’s her choice and it’s perfectly valid. And even though Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is a hardened survivor who risks her life to save her sister, she still spends much of the series trying to decide between two guys. So is there such a thing as the perfect feminist narrative or heroine? I don’t think so. Does loving Disney princesses and fairy tales make me a bad feminist? I can give you plenty of reasons why it doesn’t, but I’m sure some of you could give me just as many reasons why it does. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. In the meantime, I’m on Jackson’s side.


UPDATE: On February 5, Bitch Magazine posted this. It's not a retraction or an apology, but you can tell they're feeling antsy.