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?