The Resolution Project Book Twenty-Six: The Day of the Locust (1939)

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books / the resolution project

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.

“Being with her was like being backstage during an amateurish, ridiculous play. From in front, the stupid lines and grotesque situations would have made him squirm with annoyance, but because he saw the perspiring stagehands and the wires that held up the tawdry summerhouse with its tangle of paper flowers, he accepted everything and was anxious for it to succeed … [s]he was an actress who had learned from bad models in a bad school.” (p.65)

The Day of the Locust cover

This was a fun little book packed with meaning and metaphor. Recent transplant Tod Hackett is a painter making a living in Hollywood during the Great Depression. While he’d rather be working on his magnum opus, a huge painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles”, he pays for his sad little apartment in the San Bernadino Arms by designing costumes and sets for the movies, all the while nursing a crush on his neighbour Faye Greener, a 17-year old aspiring starlet. His pursuit of her affection will lead him through the dregs of Hollywood, through whorehouses and cock-fights, culminating in a riot outside a movie premiere.

If I had to pick one of the books I’ve read so far on The Resolution Project, this one reminded me most of number twelve, Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. Both books share an interest in other peoples’ sordid stories and shady rooming houses, and while Tod Hackett is mildly more of a character than Bradshaw/Isherwood by the virtue of him having an ambition in life (even if that ambition is first to possess, then when that fails, rape Faye), they’re both pretty much silent protagonists. While this works great in video games (see Chrono from Chrono Trigger and Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life games), if you want to use this device in a novel, you need to populate the world with some other strong characters to make up for the lack, which West does here, to a certain extent at least. There’s a large assortment of interesting types, vaudevillians, cowboys and Eskimos among them, who at least provide interesting juxtaposition against the stolid main character.

The Day of the Locust‘s Hollywood and environs feels almost post-apocalyptic, filled with oddities left there by a film industry ravenous for the outlandish and strange and new; at one point Tod compares cast-off film sets to a painting of the Sargasso Sea, and this metaphor can easily be transferred to the rest of the book’s cast. What these people bring to L.A. is a sense of globalization come early, and their transplanted architecture rings phony against the look of the area. This definitely put me in mind of the fine essay film from a few years back, Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which is all about discussing how the city is portrayed in film, and how it seems from the outside looking in to lack much in the way of its own identity (Andersen is very persuasive in his argument against Hollywood’s co-opting of the city). It’s one of those movies I think back on often, as it’s fucking great.

Some of the best quotes from the book are remarking on the outsides of things, and how things look has become pointless, a signifier without anything to be signified. By means of example, here’s Tod traversing a movie studio in search of a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, for a film he believes Faye is working on:

“From the steps of the temple, he could see in the distance a road lined with Lombardy poplars. In was the one on which he had lost the cuirassiers. He pushed his way through a tangle of briars, old flats and iron junk, skirting the skeleton of a Zeppelin, a bamboo stockade, an adobe fort, the wooden horse of Troy, a flight of baroque palace stairs that started in a bed of weeds and ended against the branches of an oak, part of the Fourteenth Street elevated station, a Dutch windmill, the bones of a dinosaur, the upper half of the Merrimac, a corner of a Mayan temple, until he finally reached the road.” (p.105)

The book is also spot-on when it comes to the culture of celebrity, and how easily it turns into mud-slinging and hate. There’s a lovely sequence later on when Tod sees a mass of people waiting to see stars exit their cars at a movie premiere, and he talks about how these peoples’ lives have led them to this state, to care only for famous people and to perversely wish for them to be struck down. While he was describing people who live in Hollywood primarily, you only need to look at the checkout line at the grocery store to see that this is basically our culture’s primary mode nowadays. So while the book possesses little in the way of characterization outside of some stock tropes (including, again like Isherwood, a potential ancestor of the modern day Magic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that haunts modern romantic movies in the person of Faye) it’s more of a comment on a city whose primary export is dreams, and primary import is people to leach those dreams out of. Definitely worth a read.

Total pages read since January 1st: 6185 pp.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep (1935)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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