Friday 10 October 2008

American Psyche: Nathanael West and the Hollywood Apocalypse

by Will Greaves

This week, American Psyche examines the role of Hollywood in inspiring one of the most apocalyptic novels in American literature: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939).

Born and raised in New York, Nathanael West displayed a distinctly lacklustre attitude towards studying whilst at school and college. He did, however, acquire a love for grotesque stories, and, after a short stint living in Paris, West later fell in with a circle of Manhattan writers including William Carlos Williams. It was after becoming a scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures in California that West would be compelled to pen perhaps the quintessential Hollywood satire.

Accompanying a number of ‘serious’ authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, into the lucrative scriptwriting profession, West’s move to California reflected the pull of one particular manifestation of the American Dream: thousands of Americans had been lured by the perceived possibilities of the west during the hardships of the 1930s, as John Steinbeck recorded in The Grapes of Wrath (released in the same year as Locust). And just as in Steinbeck’s novel, this Dream is revealed as nothing more than a delusion.

West’s novel is crowded with characters of “grotesque depravity”: Faye Greener mixes naiveté with a serious manipulative streak; desperate to succeed as an actress, she is willing to sell her innocence as an exchange. Homer Simpson (almost certainly the inspiration for Matt Groening), on the other hand, is a sterile shadow of man, ineffectual in all areas of life. Even Earle, the cowboy, is described as having a “two-dimensional shape that a talented child might have drawn”. The Day of the Locust is, clearly, populated by a series of B-movie stereotypes that suggests West’s frustrations with the illusory world he inhabited, and even, perhaps, his own guilt for contributing to this industry.

In the novel, Hollywood is a myriad of “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas […] Tudor cottages,” where even the “dressers are painted to look like pine.” In fact the only certainty amidst this simulacra of gaudy styles is the sheer artificiality of the landscape. Hollywood, an industry centred on the construction of a reality that fulfills our desires, becomes the most poignant manifestation of the corrupted Dream: deluded by the glamour of the screen, West is condemning a society that has misinterpreted this initially spiritual ideal as a desire to achieve wealth and fame. As if to emphasise this corruption, even the Californian oranges – intrinsic to Grampa Joad’s perception of the Dream in The Grapes of Wrath – lose their symbolic promise for West’s characters, being unable to “titillate their jaded palates.”

The apocalyptic and deeply ironic climax sees a crowd of fans descend into a savage mob, clamoring on top of each other, desperate to catch a glimpse of Hollywood stars at the premiere of a new film:
An ambulance siren screamed in the street. Its wailing moan started the crowd moving again and Tod was carried along in a slow, steady push […] It gathered momentum and rushed […] He held on desperately, fighting to keep from being sucked back.
West seems almost to be predicting the mass human suffering of the following decade; indeed his depiction of a society on the verge of anarchy, conveyed through a bleakly humorous writing style, seemed to tarnish the novel’s critical reception: writing to Fitzgerald, a close friend who died only a day before him, West admitted: “So far the score stands – good reviews: fifteen percent. Bad reviews: twenty-five per cent. Brutal personal attacks: sixty per cent.” America, it seems, was not yet ready for West.

The Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink offers a similarly dark satire on the scriptwriting profession in 1930s Hollywood, even including a fictionalised version of Faulkner as a raging alcoholic.

1 comment:

suzebrown said...

Marion Meade is publishing a new biography of Nathanael West and Eileen McKinney in the winter of 2009. (Harcourt Houghton Mifflin)