Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.
Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.
The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.
Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott