The Day of the Locust

About a year ago, I purchased Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust as a Kindle twofer.  I read Miss Lonelyhearts a few months back, and finally got around to reading the longer novel.  Many people love The Day of the Locust, while an equally large group does not.  I'm in the latter group.

When it comes to certain novels, I always wonder if people love it for the sake of saying they love it. There's a certain cachet that comes with tossing out references to slightly-obscure yet classic novels. It doesn't mean they have to be enjoyable or even coherent.

As I think about the premise of The Day of the Locust, I feel strongly that I should have liked it.  The setting, the characters, the premise--everything is there that I would like.  It's a bit noir meets Russian novel meets existentialism.  The novel tells the story of the sycophants surrounding a drop-dead gorgeous 17 year old girl named Faye.  Faye Greening lives in Los Angeles, wants to be an actress, enjoys messing around with men, and briefly becomes a prostitute in order to pay for her father's funeral.  As you do.  The reader mainly sees the story through the eyes of Tod Hackett, an artist working as a set dresser in Hollywood whilst working on his next big painting.  He's obsessed with Faye.

Here is a list of other people obsessed with Faye:

Homer Simpson (yes!): A simple, deliberate man from the Plains who moved to California for his health.  The author is obsessed with Homer's large hands and their disconnectedness from the rest of Homer's body.  I'm sure many theses have been written on the symbolism of Homer's hands, but I interpreted the inertness and heaviness of these usually dextrous body parts to represent Homer's impotence and inability to seize what he wants.

Claude Estee: A screenwriter to whom I do not remember being introduced in the narrative.  It happened (probably), but it wasn't memorable.  Or rather, Claude wasn't memorable.

Earle Shoop: The fake cowboy who is very, very, very tall and wears a ten-gallon hat.  He is also very boring.

Miguel: A Mexican cockfighter who ends up living in Homer's garage.

Abe Kusich: A bookie, criminal, and dwarf who is foul-tempered, foul-mouthed, and serves little purpose in the narrative.

Faye herself.  Noteworthy things about Faye include platinum hair, a habit of running her tongue over her lips, and her breasts that were not small, but "placed wide apart and their thrust was upward and outward."  This seems to be an important detail because later, Tod imagines Faye looking at the stars and her breasts pointing up.  So, just in case you missed it, the femme fatale possesses a levitating bosom.  I'm sure this is also some sort of strange metaphor for her personality but I seriously cannot be bothered with psychoanalyzing the author's description of Faye's breasts.  For pete's sake, all ladies have breasts and they all look different.

Bringing all of these odd characters together could have made for an interesting story, but it's really a slow, sad plodding through the inevitable tragedy and breakdown of the most likable and innocent character.

Well, it's slow and sad except for the horribly violent parts, like the stomach-churning cockfight scene.  Or how about Tod's attitude toward Faye: "Nothing less than rape would do.  The sensation he felt was like that he got when holding an egg in his hand.  Not that she was fragile or even seemed fragile.  It wasn't that.  It was her completeness, her egglike self-sufficiency, that made him want to crush her."  Oh goody.  Rape.  Tod has rape fantasies about Faye often, and this seems completely reasonable to him.  I had to reread that paragraph because I couldn't quite believe it the first time around.  This is insupportable and inexcusable thinking.

I didn't find the prose to be particularly inspired, either.  One serious clunker actually made me laugh, even though it's not funny.  After Faye starts working as a call girl, Tod confronts her and yells at her about it (but also wants to rape her???).  Later, it's stated that "she wasn't angry, but grateful for his lecture on venereal disease."  Is this some sort of joke?  Other reviewers have talked about the humor of this book.  If all of what's bothering me is sarcasm, it's in poor taste and so heavily veiled that it's practically wearing blackout curtains.

The final scene, which involves a rather nonsensical riot, did impress me with West's ability to create a sense of claustrophobia and helplessness in the face of mindless madness.  I felt as if I were being borne along and crushed by this maddened crowd along with Tod.

Hollywood is the enemy here, and I felt that West was trying to do to Hollywood what Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby did for tony New York society, with one vital difference: Gatsby was infinitely better.


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