Day of the Locust

dayofthelocustFinished reading “The Day of the Locust” yesterday. This passage stood out to me, the description of a mad crowd at a movie premiere at the novel’s climax:

“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 for 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. Their 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.”

West’s portrayal of LA as a spiritually corrupt wasteland, a place where Western culture has come to die and the frontier spirit of America has reached an endpoint where all it can consume is itself, seems to be a prototype for nearly every portrayal of LA that I can recall. I think of the music of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, I think of Joan Didion’s deadpan treatment of LA in her essays, I think of films such as “Falling Down,” “Crash,” and “LA Confidential.”

At this point in time, more than half a century after West’s critique, it reads as both out of date and prescient. In a way, all of America is now LA, and LA is now surely more of a ‘real city’ than it was in West’s time. West’s LA is a white man’s LA, a dissatisfied critique that is unkind to the whites’ artificial society but nonetheless one coming from a white perspective. Today’s LA is a brown city, a city made of immigrants not principally from Iowa and Kansas but from everywhere from Mexico to the Phillipines. Hollywood is no doubt just as corrupt as it was in West’s time, and the culture of celebrity just as crazed if not more, but nonetheless the products of Hollywood are no longer as monolithic and uniform as before. At the same time, in their extreme violence and spectacle of depravity they would fulfill West’s most fantastic nightmares: imagine sitting him down to screen an Eli Roth flick.

West’s novel is obsessively focused on the artificial: the inauthentic and the reproduced at all levels, the built environment, consumable products, cultural products, human interactions and behavior, all the way to human ambitions and dreams. In this regard it broke ground on the territory further explored in Don DeLillo’s work, “White Noise,” and other American literature usually called postmodern.

West’s novel, however, has too much of a moral core of outrage to be regarded as postmodern. There’s nothing elusive about its perspective: there is such a thing as authenticity, but it is somewhere other than here. Postmodernists like to call into doubt the line between the reproduced and the real and are cautious about revering the authentic over the artificial; West was dead certain that there was such a thing as an imitation of life, it was a parody and a farce and a thing to be pitied and feared, and in it thrived a cruelty and exploitation fed by illusion and trickery. And it was growing in America, and it called its home Hollywood. He dreamed of apocalypse, a season of fire in LA.

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