The Force of the Crowd, Part 2: The Day of the Locust

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been reading Nathanael West these past few weeks and one of the things that struck me in his novels is the importance of the crowd upon each novel. While the crowd seems to be an important background element in Miss Lonelyhearts, being the wave that attempts to break down the rock that Miss Lonelyhearts sees himself as, The Day of the Locust thinks about the function of the crowd in a different manner.

The Day of the Locust recounts the various people the character Tod Hackett encounters as he attempts to woo the beautiful and vapid Faye Greener. Set in the 1930s, most of the characters are a bit down on their luck, although it is unclear whether it is because of the financial climate or the individualistic desperation to be in Hollywood. Tod is luckier than others being a scene painter for the studios and as the novel progresses he works upon a scene entitled The Burning of Los Angeles.

While the crowd is extremely important to the ending of the book as it literally maims Tod during a riot at a film premiere, it is not the same pulsating force that Miss Lonelyhearts encounters in the advice column letters. The crowd instead are the strange grouping of outsiders that have emerged in Los Angeles, none of them natives, all trying to “make it big”. Instead, they are pushed to the fringes of society as prostitutes, door-to-door salesmen, recluses, and various undisclosed underworld figures dabbling in cock fighting and gambling.

However these same characters seem to perpetrate the very same stereotypes Hollywood is so fond of: Faye is the vapid beauty willing to sell herself for anything; Abe, the ambiguously Jewish midget gangster; Earle, the laconic cowboy; and Miguel, the Mexican lothario, who uses the women around him. Of course, there are the occasional successful characters, but they do not matter to the plot of the book. They are simply there to observe and recount the Hollywood tale, and perhaps even turn it into a screenplay.

One of the most interesting things about this book is that it both wants to actively portray a 1930s Los Angeles (I keep imagining the scene where Tod sees a woman’s grocery bag spill open, oranges rolling away) and the dangers of a larger society. While there is only one moment of the “crowd” in the story, instead of the constant infiltration found in the New York of Miss Lonelyhearts, it is a tsunami, emerging from nowhere. And yet, West seems to warn that this is the most dangerous crowd–the one that seems uneffective, lantent, waiting for any little thing to become a storm and rise up.

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