gaby's Reviews > Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust

Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
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Apr 04, 11

bookshelves: los-angeles
Read from March 22 to April 01, 2011

"Violence in America is idiomatic." Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein)

Reading West is to be struck, as in the face, again and again by his visceral sexual violence. It's frustrating but not surprising that the main literary legacy of West is a more generic brutality -- without acknowledgment that much of that violence is sexual in nature and theme. This shines brightest in Day of the Locust, where the very West-ian Homer Simpson (could it be a coincidence????) struggles hourly as though sex was a virus in him, struggles to keep it dormant, plagued with a chronic worry that it might break out and crush the wholeness of a girl "like an egg in the palm of his hand." Elsewhere, our narrator Tod fantasizes about rape while eating a steak dinner, musing over "A feeling, already, of what it would be like to push her down." This violence and obsession is foreshadowed in Miss Lonelyhearts, who "buries his face like a hatchet into her neck," but it's a more subdued thing in that novella. It blossoms in full force in Day of the Locust as a steady, ugly compulsion - the will to injure women, to rape, molest -- it becomes clear in Day of the Locust that it was something more than an occasionally ugly turn of phrase. I understand, of course, that there really was a legitimate metaphor in this obsession -- Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood, invites dishonor in that way; its inhabitants feel a compulsion to seek its attention by any means necessary. But to discuss West without acknowledging the obvious dimension of gender politics is to do a disservice to history and to his work. It wasn't just a metaphor -- and even if it was, we might as well unpack it.

The other stars of these books are their cities -- New York in Miss Lonelyhearts and Los Angeles in Day of the Locust. New York is a frantic maze of stairs and skyscrapers; but Los Angeles stretches out lazily across the desert. West writes of Los Angeles at a time when there was a real symbiosis between the city itself and Hollywood - both were lawless and lovely then, coarse and brutal; they shared an easy economy between mechanical lenses and streets; to see one was to see the other. Things have changed -- the two have not quite grown together. A bitterness, yes, an ennui has come to overshadow the luster. But it's something more -- perhaps it's just that the city has gotten too big to be congruent with Hollywood. Too big, too diverse. The lawlessness is disconnected, or more diffuse. You can still catch the light just right sometimes, in the corners of the Hollywood Hills or downtown. But the two have outgrown each other; nothing left but memories and innuendo. I love reading about Old Los Angeles - and there's just no one who wrote about it better than West.
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message 1: by mark (new)

mark monday excellent review!


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