Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Literary Interlude, Courtesy of Nathanael West

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Yesterday, I finished reading Nathanael West's famous 1939 Hollywood horror/satire novel The Day of the Locust, and was so thoroughly dazzled by the particular passage below—coming as it does in the midst of that amazing apocalypse he unleashes in the finale—that I felt a great need to briefly chime in here and share this with you all:

New groups, whole families, kept arriving. [Tod] could see a change come over them as soon as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don't know what to do with their time. They haven't the mental equipment of leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a "holocaust of flame," as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

My response to this? God help me if I ever get to such a jaded, cynical point in my own life! (Although, judging by some of the thoughts running through my head during Toy Story 3 last night, I wonder if I haven't reached that point already...)

Oh, and if you haven't already read The Day of the Locust: Yes, I do think it is worth reading, provided that you're able to adjust to its surreal wavelength and not expect much in the way of realism, psychological or otherwise. Though it's commonly considered a satire, to me it reads mostly as a grotesque horror tale about the dark side of the Hollywood dream factory; that is why its over-the-top ending feels all too appropriate. I'm not sure that I find West's bleak vision totally persuasive—I have this nagging feeling that his targets are a bit too easy for its satire to be particularly penetrating—but, whatever you may think about what he's expressing, he does so with a ferocious intensity that, at the very least, demands respect. And nowhere do you sense that ferocity than in the passage above.

Okay, back to enjoying the weekend...

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