Reflections on The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 26: Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Day of the Locust is a book that mocks the perfidious nature of Los Angeles in the 1930s. There is something in the tone of this book that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor: the ugliness of the characters and the desire to illustrate the worst characterization of reality. I can see why people enjoy this work, but it is not something I would choose to read. There is something almost postmodern in the work’s desire to choose the absurd as a focus of art, the medium is used to mock the message. Perhaps it is appropriate that throughout the book the primary narrator is working on a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Tod, the primary character in the book, spends much of the book lusting over his neighbor Faye, but his primary desire throughout the book is to rape her, not to cultivate a relationship with her. Tod, like the author apparently, is bent on exposing her as a representative of all that is fake in Hollywood, along with her multiple relationships and some of the absurd situations. The orientation of Tod towards Faye, which continues throughout the book, was a major deterrent from being able to enjoy the work. Each character is a crude stereotype of various groups, and while this may be faithful to the way people in the 1930s viewed other groups, and perhaps it is to shine a light on this part of society, to read this book for me was to enter into characters that I couldn’t find anything redemptive in a slow-moving plot full of absurdity. It is a story of people caught in their ideas of themselves and never finding anything real, but the book itself seemed very contrived and fake to me. Others have found this work very powerful and delightful, so please make your own decisions, these brief reflections are merely a collection of my thoughts on each work.

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