The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

When I think of the Great Depression, I tend to think of either Grapes of Wrath or soup kitchen lines in long ago New York. I don’t tend to think of Hollywood, though it certainly existed at the time and was certainly part of what that time meant for the people of the country. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West is going to change that for me somewhat, as well as possibly change how I see many people’s dreams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Connelly.)

In The Day of the Locust we have a painter, Tod Hackett, who has come to Hollywood to design sets, though he is constantly planning and never actually working on a painting that will show what Hollywood taught him about the nature of people. He falls in love with a hard-nosed girl who is dead set (clearly hopelessly) on being a star, but several other men do as well…including a very naïve man from the Midwest who is almost certainly doomed to be hurt. Of course, the poor Midwesterner eventually is.

We don’t really see the studio powerhouses in The Day of the Locust, the stars. We see all the ordinary mass of humanity who move to Hollywood with great dreams…dreams they have no real hope of fulfilling:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon….It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sign. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

We know from the very beginning that the characters aren’t going to end well. However, people still dream. Along the course of the book, West comes to some conclusions about those dreams:

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 they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…..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.

I’ve seen books that focus on the sleazy side of Hollywood before, but never quite like West’s take. Most look at the underbelly of the glamor, but West looks for the mass humanity that never even gets to the glamor. It simply was never there for them.

In reflecting on that situation in The Day of the Locust, West manages some interesting insights on how much of what we dream never really exists. There is disillusionment, but unlike the norm it only comes to the most hopelessly naive because the rest didn’t even get to have many illusions.

Not only is Hollywood not paved with gold, it isn’t even a trick of light. Even that was only rumor.

The Golden Argosy-A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English language

This is an eclectic collection of short stories. It was published in 1947 and re-released in 1955. It’s now out of print, so I had to interlibrary loan it. And, now I am actually regretful that it is out of print. Because I’d totally tell anyone that was a lover of short stories to run out and get it. It is available on Amazon
as of the writing of this post. If you do love short stories, I recommend getting this book. Or check your library, it might be on the shelves there.

This is listed by Stephen King in his Top Ten. He was the only one to do so. He wrote a short blurb in Top Ten about it, stating that he found it by chance but absolutely loved it.

The collection includes some of the classic short stories that you may remember having read or at least heard of over the years, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, The Lady or the Tiger, The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. it also includes stories by “greats” that might have been known in the late 40s but aren’t as well known now (making them new to me), like Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Killers by Ernest Hemingway, The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley.

The foreword from the collection states: “The compilers of most collections of short stories quite naturally seek to present material which, if not actually new, is at least likely to be unfamiliar to the reader. Frequently, some old favorites are included, but as yet no anthology, as far as we know, has been limited to the tried and true….Yet it seems obviously desirable, particularly for those who have not large libraries, to have in a single book as many as possible of the established classics in the field.”

They end the foreword with “Here, we believe, is a treasury of great storytelling–a reference collection of the best of a favorite form of literature–a book which we hope will prove to be a source of recaptured delight for many and a new and rewarding adventure for many more.”

The short story is often proclaimed as “dying” or “dead”, and there is a significantly limited venue for it. However, short story collections continue to be published, and short story collections continue to be sold. There are also the well-known places to seek out short stories (The New Yorker for example) and the lesser known places (email Dave, he’d be more than happy to point you out to quite a few of them if you’re looking for a place to read some). There are the new places, like the ones being released by Joe Hill and Stephen King exclusively for Kindle (at least initially).

A well-written short story is a testament to an author’s writing ability, in my opinion. Many short story collections that come about nowadays have stories involving already established characters. They’re created for fans of a particular series. I almost see that as a cheat of the short story form. If you’ve already established a character over a series of books, to use them seems to defy the art of short stories. A short story has to be economical with details. But, it also has to create the scene, and flesh out at least one or two characters into a real person.

A lot of these stories have twist endings. A character finding something out at the very end that is a revelation, or the story revealing something to the reader at the very last moment. I love these types of stories (The Gift of the Magi for example).

I definitely will be buying a copy of this book, as some of the stories I want to re-read. It also introduced me to some authors I’ve heard about over the years but have never read. W. Somerset Maugham is an author I’ve toyed with reading in the past. After reading his short story, Rain, I am definitely going to read more of him.

Sorry for all the gushing. It was just a joy to read this.

And for any aspiring or actualized writers reading this, I leave you with:

“You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.
– Larry Niven”

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford centers on the friendship between two sets of “good people,” the English Lenora and Edward Ashburnham and the American Florence and John Dowell. The couples have been casual friends for almost nine years, regularly meeting at a German health spa for Florence’s and Edward’s respective heart ailments. Only, John suddenly discovers that his wife Florence has been having an affair with Edward for nine years. The collapse of the lives involved and the corruption running throughout, of which John was previously unaware, occupies the bulk of the novel.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Julian Barnes, 1st for Mary Gordon, 3rd for David Leavitt, 5th for Tom Perotta, and 7th for Ann Patchett.)

You’d think John would hate Edward once he makes his discovery, but things aren’t that simple. He seems to come to hate his wife Florence (whom he ceased loving long ago and thought more of as a fragile invalid to protect, not knowing that his marriage had been deliberately set up on this deception so Florence could live the life she wanted) and Edward’s wife Lenora somewhat, but he still seems to think highly of Edward even after discovering the affair:

For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance. And, you see, I am just as much of a sentimentalist as he was….”

Florence set up John to be a patsy from the beginning, though that was the only way available in that society to achieve her goals. Edward had a continual problem with fidelity, though he wanted to be good. Lenora was aware of her husband’s failings, but even aided him and was willing to have people destroyed to maintain the marriage her religious principles ordered her to maintain.

I got the idea that John, and Ford through John, thought the whole situation inescapably (and perhaps excusably in John’s view) doomed. For and John seem to leave the question of where the ultimate blame rests, though there seems to be blame, ambiguous:

Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people—like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords—broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?

I don’t think I would have liked The Good Soldier so much if it was just a tale of hidden deception amongst longtime friends who still remained somewhat surface despite the length of the friendship. What I like is the ambiguity in where Ford (and/or John) lays the blame. He seems fatalistic about it, but also seems to lay blame equally on all of the individuals, the conventions under which they operate, and the circumstances of their lives. The blame doesn’t seem to ultimately matter and everyone remains “good people” to at least some extent, “good people” who all have miserable lives.

That ambiguity, particularly as expressed through the main character John, is what makes The Good Soldier particularly intriguing for me. I could ponder over it for a good long while.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I just moved.  Well almost two weeks ago.  But my Top Ten book is in a box somewhere still, with the rest of my books.  (currently residing in my living room).  Thanks to Dave, this entry is happening.

Oryx and Crake was listed by G.D. Gearino. 

This is the start of a trilogy of which I have not read the rest of, the third one just came out.  I read Oryx and Crake for the first time in approximately 2002, about the same time I read Atwood’s book Blind Assassin.  I loved Blind Assassin, but remembered not being as fond of Oryx and Crake.  I didn’t really remember anything about it, other than it was an “end of the world” story.  So, I decided to re-read it and see if I liked it better a second time around.  I did.  But it is still far from being my favorite Atwood book.

In Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood imagines a place where a breakdown of society happened in the past.  She details the dystopian society that sprung up because of that dissolution.  In Oryx and Crake, she has us at the end of an annihilation of the human species.  The narrator is Snowman, who feels he might be the last remaining human.  There are Crake’s children, but they are genetically created in a lab, removing many of the genes that were seen as causing most of the problems in humanity (for example:  the need for a theology has been removed from them.  They grow up ridiculously fast, to avoid the pesky childhood years.  Snowman is the narrator and at the beginning introduces us to Crake’s children, and we find out all the animals are Oryx’s.  Then in the next couple of chapters, we find that all of the animals around are actually genetic splices like the wolvogs, who look like dogs, and retain the ability to act like dogs, but use that behavior to lure victims in and then kill them.

The story switches back and forth between the present and Snowman’s past, starting at the age of five, all the way up to what happened to cause the end of the world and the children of Crake.  We find out that the genetic splicing started before Snowman (previously known as Jimmy) was born and his father was one of the scientist’s doing it. 

Atwood does a brilliant job of slowly peeling layers away as Snowman’s past is revealed and the events leading up to the present day.  You do keep turning the pages, wondering what is the next layer to the answer of the question “What happened?” 

I had quotes from the book to show this, but I am typing this on my laptop and between a slow internet connection and a falling apart keyboard, I am currently typing at 10 wpm (maybe 20) and constantly still having to backspace to correct when the spacebar does not work or the shift button sticks  or the word comes out all messed up.  So, since the last paragraph took me 5 minutes, and I currently want to throw my computer through a window, I am ending RIGHT HERE.