Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1939) was one of J G Ballard’s favourite novels, and it’s easy to see why, considering the way its ending, in which a crowd outside a 1930s Hollywood premier turns into a rioting mob, serves up such a Ballardian mix of celebritised glamour and seething everyday savagery:
“New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He 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.”
The novel’s protagonist, Tod Hackett, is a would-be fine artist working as a designer for a film studio. He notes two types of people in the streets of Hollywoodland: those who live (or pretend to) the life of glamour, and the underclass of the un-glamorous and ordinary, come to California with the forlorn hope of fixing the misery of their lives with a dose of the glitz they see on screen, only to be disillusioned and betrayed:
“Scattered among these masquerades were people of a different type. Their clothing was somber and badly cut, bought from mail-order houses. While the others moved rapidly, darting into stores and cocktail bars, they loitered on corners or stood with their backs to the shop windows and stared at everyone who passed. When their stare was returned, their eyes filled with hatred.”
Hackett is making sketches for a painting to be titled “The Burning of Los Angeles”, in which that underclass of the ordinary finally revolts against those it envies, but the book’s ending implies that the reality of Hollywood will always be one step ahead of the most blatant attempt to satirise it.
Hackett himself is not immune to the glamour, caught as he is in a (mostly lustful) infatuation with a would-be starlet called Faye Greene, who explains to him matter-of-factly how “she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her”, thus ruling Hackett out on two counts. Instead, Tod gets to witness as Faye conquers one of the newly-arrived saps — one Homer Simpson, by name — inveigling her way into both his spare room and his wallet, having him buy her swathes of new, glamorous outfits so she can parade herself in front of other men and somehow win herself a film career. Homer — who, in his utter limpness of personality, is more like Hans Moleman than his actual Simpsons namesake — simpers through his every humiliation at Faye’s hands, and only lashes out, near the end, at the wrong person, in the wrong place.
Nathanael West worked as a writer in Hollywood at the time he wrote Day of the Locust, but before that already had an eye for the wasteland of early 20th century American life:
“Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.”
This is a quote not from Day of the Locust, but one of West’s previous novels, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), in which a newspaperman, given the job of providing answers in the paper’s agony column, is overwhelmed by the sheer weight of human misery that pours in via the mailbags each day, as well as by the cynicism of his colleagues who treat it all as a joke, and who are themselves nothing but “machines for making jokes”. The likes of Miss Lonelyhearts, he’s told, “are the priests of twentieth-century America” and “Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, [is] the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts”, but his work offers no real redemption, salvation or true substance.
West refers to the (male) protagonist of Miss Lonelyhearts throughout as “Miss Lonelyhearts”, something which puts a distance between his character and the reader, as though forcing us to take the part of his mocking peers. Day of the Locust‘s Tod Hackett, by planning his satirical painting, seems to be taking a similar stance towards the denizens of Hollywoodland, but nevertheless wonders “if he himself didn’t suffer from the ingrained, morbid apathy he liked to draw in others.”
Writing in 1993, Ballard called Day of the Locust “the best of the Hollywood novels”, even though we get to see very little glitz and glamour in its pages. It’s much more about being on the outside looking hungrily, angrily in. Which is perhaps the point about the paper-thin Hollywood West presents: all its glamour is an illusion, so everyone is on the outside, looking in. Paper-thin as it is, it has no inside.