Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What I Read: Day of the Locust

Well, since 2016 has been year of the mediocre white male, seems fitting that my last book review of the year is one by a mediocre white man!

Just kidding. I have no idea if Nathanael West was himself a mediocre white man. But Day of the Locust features a whole bunch of them. It's telling that the novel (or is it more like a novella?) didn't initially sell well, and wasn't considered a "classic" until some years after its initial publication. I'm split on this—on the one hand I'm something of a populist and want to say that if a novel fails to do well with its peers, then maybe it's not that good. On the other hand, Moby-Dick and other greats were equally underappreciated in their times, and books like The Da Vinci Code top contemporary bestseller charts. So...who knows?

Image courtesy Penguin

But I really, really, really did not like this book. There were some scenes of striking and surreal visual interest (as any Hollywood back lot must be, I imagine) but it was all overshadowed by how needlessly and humorlessly obnoxious most of the cast was. Tod Hackett spends a good portion of the time either daydreaming about raping (West's words, not mine) Faye, the token love interest, or scheming to try to seduce her. Most of the other men aren't much better: they all feel entitled to Faye's attention as well as her body. Some are violent about it; others just seethe. Faye herself is every awful stereotype about women rolled up into one uncomfortably young character (she's around 17 and has men in their 20s, 30s, maybe even 40s chasing after her).

All of this would be possible for me to ignore, or look over, or hand wave away if the writing were anything amazing, but it's not.

In my trek through the TIME Top 100 novels, I've come to notice that there are certain groups of novels. A number of books can be classified as featuring "Dysfunctional Expatriates," for example. Another group could easily be "Sad Families." You also have "Character Studies," "Romantic Melodramas," "Formal Experiments," and so on. One of those groups you could easily label "Farce" and that's where Day of the Locust seems to fit in best. Other notable members include At-Swim-Two-Birds, Money, Lucky Jim, and Under the Net. But where the others are genuinely funny, or even satirical, Day of the Locust is just a book spent with unpleasant and uninteresting people.

Maybe it's book for Hollywood people, I don't know.

The edition I checked out from the university library also featured West's earliest novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell. As far as a surreal and expressionist trip through the annals of art goes, it was okay. It's an improvement on Day of the Locust in that because it's so surreal, it can't really trade in stereotypes because it can't really even attempt to realistically characterize anyone. But otherwise it's too far out there in Experimental land for me. ("Experimental" would be another group in the list: Nightwood, Naked Lunch, Mrs. Dalloway, On the Road.)

I think I'm extra frustrated with how unfunny this book was because I was really looking forward to it and expecting it to be something akin to a written version of a Marx Brothers movie. Something like Under the Net but set in Hollywood rather than London.


Anyway, it sucks that West died prematurely in a car accident because maybe he could have stopped being such a whiny entitled dude (if his writing is anything to go by), but as it is I am thoroughly unimpressed. He's up there with John Updike and V. S. Naipaul when it comes to "Writers Whose Works I Found To Be Thoroughly Unpleasant to the Point of Revulsion." #sorrynotsorry

And on that note: fuck off, 2016. You even ruined wanting the year to be over. You and Nathanael West can go suck eggs.

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