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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Day of the Locust

Sometimes a fictional character is so detestable that the question of their believability becomes insignificant. Their odiousness overwhelms the mere fact of their comparability to real people. Such is often the case in The Day of the Locust, a short Hollywood novel by Nathanael West, whose Miss Lonelyhearts I reviewed a short time ago.

Tod Hacker is the main character, an artist hired into as a set designer for the movies, although there is scant attention devoted to his profession. Tod never had any Hollywood dreams, so he has a sense of detachment from the desperate souls seeking stardom that surround him. He is working on a painting called “The Battle of Los Angeles” which depicts the dead-inside residents setting the place on fire.

Two of these fame-seekers are Harry Greener, an ex-vaudeville clown reduced to using his talents to peddle soap door-to-door, and his daughter Faye, who works as an extra and wants to marry someone with the money or power to put her in pictures. Tod falls for Faye but she won’t have him, to his ever-increasing frustration.

Instead, Faye traps a man named Homer Simpson (no, really. The book is from the 1930s) into an odd, sexless domestic arrangement. It’s clear that Homer is also smitten with Faye, but for aesthetic reasons she won’t have him either.

The plot of the novel basically just follows Faye as she becomes more and more cartoonishly evil and detestable, though West takes pains to make the rest of his other characters nearly as unlikeable. It’s nice reassurance that West is a complete misanthropist, not just a misogynist.

There’s also a lot of nonsensical stuff involving a fake cowboy and some cockfights described in excruciating detail. Improbably, the novel ratchets up the violence all the way through to the end. Throughout the novel West reveals his utter hatred of humanity, his belief in our basic stupidity, gullibility, greed, and evil nature.

What remains unclear is why he thought anyone would enjoy reading this, or astoundingly, why enough people do that this is considered a classic, albeit a minor one. I might not be much of a theorist about art, but it seems to me unlikely that really fine art can be produced through hatred and bitterness. It’s obvious those are the only motivating emotions behind The Day of the Locust.

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