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'The Day of the Locust' shows a surreal and unhappy version of Hollywood

A replica of the Hollywood sign was put up in Bronson Canyon for the 1974 film Day of the Locust.
A replica of the Hollywood sign was put up in Bronson Canyon for the 1974 film Day of the Locust.
Marc Wanamaker/Bison Archives

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Back in the 1930s, people across the country were packing the bags and setting out for California.

From wanna-be starlets to retirees, the West Coast held the promised good health and lots of wealth from the silver screen. But in reality, it wasn't all hoorays for Hollywood.

Nathanael West's iconic novel, "The Day of the Locust" paints Tinsel Town as a surreal, nightmarish landscape of disillusionment and broken dreams.

It's dark. But fascinating. And that's why we've included it in our summer book series - The California Canon.

Editor and book critic David Kipen tells us how West writes of an American dream gone wrong.  

The relationship between protagonist and author:

"'The Day of the Locust' is about a guy named Todd Hackett, who is an artist, and comes west to Southern California in the 1930s. He is hired by a studio to be a storyboard artist. He goes to live in a place called the San Bernardino Arms, it is a kind of shabby hotel in Hollywood,  the kind of shabby hotel that West himself would have lived in. . . And in this hotel, there are a bunch of low-lifes. . . and all of these folks who are on the outside looking in, and wanting a break in Hollywood, which [Hackett's] got but he has terrible misgivings about the commercialism of Hollywood... There are all of these lurid nightmarish pictures of how Nathaniel West saw Southern California in the late 1930s. Nathaniel West came to Hollywood much like his protagonist, he came to Hollywood to make a buck, but what he finds is a kind of prostitution of his talent." 

Hollywood's dark side:

"'The Day of the Locust' ends in a riot, and partly the book is about the violence that West sees at the heart of fandom. There's this apocalyptic premiere at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where fans are pressing in to be next to these stars that they supposedly adore, but it was West's vision that this was not a benevolent desire, there is fury at the heart of it because these people are famous and the ones on the other side of the velvet rope were not. That suggests celebrity worship is not just empty, but it is dangerous. Well, you could look at a lot of things going on in society today and think that West was ahead of his time. . . That sort of desperation became to him emblematic of the desperation in the culture. He's not really talking about Los Angeles as this exception. His descriptions of Southern California are what he sees as cancerous in the country, but somehow the essence of it. It is boiled down to an extreme."

Describing Southern California's unique landscapes:

"There's a wonderful feel for landscape in the book, not just the landscape of Southern California as it was before we got here, but also the built landscape of Southern California. Some of the most hallucinogenic passages are the way he describes Beachwood Canyon, where a lot of the book is set, the way you would have a French chateau next to a Tudor mansion, miniaturized to fit on a major thoroughfare, and next to that is some sort of bizarre Tahiti fantasy house. This idea of the streets of Los Angeles, the streets of Hollywood, echoing the collision of architecture and style that one would find on a backlot, and nowhere else in the world, is to the narrator's mind, bizarre and uncanny and unwelcome and kind of hideous. West writes about it the way a great satirist would have to write about it something hideous, that is to say with great, unmistakable, frightening delight."

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