The Day of the Locust

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Published in 1939, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust is a harsh, satirical take on Hollywood–what West calls a “dream dump”–and the poor souls who languish there. Todd Hackett is a fresh-faced, Ivy League schooled artist lured out to California by a talent scout to illustrate costumes and sets for the movies. As is often the case in Hollywood, the deal is a Faustian one. Hackett’s sensitive nature and artistic temperament make him an ideal casualty of West’s dream dump. The same could be said for another fictional young artist lured out to Hollywood by a talent scout for a film studio: Barton Fink. That film borrows liberally from West’s novel, from its set-up right up to its infernal climax. But where the film makes a final swerve into fantasy, The Day of the Locust, for all its grotesquerie, keeps one foot firmly planted in realism.

Barton Fink’s ideas about artistic integrity–his precious attachment to the life of the mind, for example–are skewered by both the Coens and the bottom-line obsessed studio bosses to whom he’s contractually obligated. From his ivory tower Fink chooses as his subject the common man, even if he couldn’t spot one standing right in front of him. The Coens lay the irony on thick here. Fink’s socialist realist play, which had originally won him the fickle attention of Hollywood–with its opening cries of the fishmonger–is the punchline of one of the film’s running gags. West doesn’t treat Hackett’s lofty artistic ambitions in exactly the same way. Maybe that’s because Todd shares with his author the aspiration to represent Hollywood existence as a circle of Hell. Like his author, Todd chooses as his subjects the most hopeless and destitute. And so the large-scale painting he works on throughout the novel, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” is probably the part about him that’s least pathetic. This painting at least enables him to keep the flame of his talent burning, however weak and withered it might be. In a novel where the majority of the characters are denied much in the way of hope, opportunity and dignity, this is a noteworthy instance of author benevolence.

In his introduction to my edition, Budd Schulberg calls The Day of the Locust a collection of “mad vignettes.” A few are standouts: Todd escapes his loneliness one night by going to a successful screenwriter’s party and later finds himself in a brothel watching an erotic French film projected onto a roll-up screen. In another, Todd is strung along by his romantic obsession, Faye Greener, out to a cowboy camp with one of her deadbeat flings, where they catch and cook quail and get drunk off tequila. The vignette itself is intoxicating and plays out like a dream. Near the end of the novel there’s a cockfight staged in a garage, lit up by a car’s headlights. One of the handlers is a dwarf who later, in the midst of a drunken frenzy, gets swung by his feet into a wall. Where else but Hollywood.

The Good Soldier

51in-thk8xL._SY300_I’ve read The Good Soldier twice now and both times been amazed by the virtuosic performance of its author, Ford Madox Ford. The novel, a feat of narrative ventriloquism, is narrated by John Dowell, a literary ancestor of Nabokov’s notorious unreliable narrators, though Dowell has more in common with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire than Humbert Humbert. Dowell and Kinbote aren’t nearly as astute, crafty, or monstrous as H.H. They’re guileless, or at least that’s how they hope to come across.

The Good Soldier was published in 1915, decades before the publications of Lolita and Pale Fire. The comparison is useful, I think, in showing just how contemporary The Good Soldier reads even today, and how indebted Nabokov, among many others, might’ve been to this strange book. Like Kinbote, Dowell’s capacity for self-delusion is almost psychotic in nature. They also share a fondness for prolix, purple prose, and candour, or better to call it pseudo-candour. All unreliable narrators have this in common: their determination to be honest with their dear reader runs up against their inability to be honest with themselves. Dowell’s pseudo-candour comes out in his claims of uncertainty: “I don’t know” is a refrain of the novel. He uses the disarming statement partly to earn the trust and affections of his readers. Tellingly, his uncertainty never extends to his portrayal of his dead wife: about her, he claims to know everything. Dowell’s bitter attitude towards his dead wife is one of the keys to understanding him as it reveals his not-so innocent side.

If there’s victim in The Good Soldier, I’d say it’s Florence, Dowell’s wife, who kills herself after she spies her lover, Edward Ashburnham, making advances on another woman. Florence is no saint. She twice makes a cuckold out of her husband and deceives him into thinking she has a heart condition, which turns Dowell from husband into nurse. It’s a role he’s more suited to because Dowell is remarkably without passion for women, hence the irony of the novel’s subtitle, A Tale of Passion.

The way Dowell describes his wedding night is laughably asexual; equally laughable is how seemingly unsuspecting he is of Florence’s infidelities. After they move from America to Europe, they live in a flat in Paris with Florence’s first of two lovers, Jimmy. Jimmy convinces Dowell that, because of Florence’s fragile heart, he must never enter her room without knocking. At night, Florence locks her room from the inside on account of her “fear of thieves.” Dowell tells us all this straight-faced, as if we wouldn’t be shocked by his astounding innocence of what was actually happening directly under his nose. It reminds me of a cruel note a student leaves in Charles Kinbote’s coat pocket that says, “You have hal – – – – – – s real bad, chum” and Kinbote’s epic failure to recognize this as a remark on his clinically bad breath (he instead interprets the word as “hallucinations” despite the “insufficient number dashes”).

I see Florence as a victim because of how shabbily Dowell treats her memory: don’t speak ill of the dead is a maxim he never considers. And then there’s the ease with which he tosses Florence from the narrative during the book’s second half, like throwing her out of a moving car. This is when his attention turns almost exclusively to the good soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham, who, with his “courage,” “virility,” and “physique,” serves as the perfect foil for our passionless narrator. Of course, Edward Ashburnham is far from perfect: there’s a reason why the book’s title isn’t The Good Husband.

I can’t sum up the novel any better than Mark Schorer does in his introduction to my 1951 paperback edition in which he likens the novel to a maze. It’s one that Dowell both weaves and gets lost in, just as we get lost in it in our attempts to understand this enigmatic narrator and the significance of the sad story he has to tell.

Miguel Street

booksNabokov, in one of his many literary injunctions – this one appearing in the foreword to his Lectures on Literature – says, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” He’s referring to the classics. With those, the rereading experience would no doubt be rewarding, but more of a chore than a pleasure I’d say. So what makes a book, a regular book without classic status, so eminently rereadable? I guess it would have to be a book whose qualities endure, or a book whose qualities are invulnerable to a reader’s change in age and temperament, to put it boringly. Maybe modesty of scope is another possible explanation. Who rereads books with outsized ambition? One summer’s enough to tackle War and Peace. But two summers?

Miguel Street is a collection of linked stories, a genre more popular today, probably, than in 1959 when the book was first published. It revolves around the many colourful characters inhabiting the book’s eponymous narrow street in Port of Spain during the years spanning the Second World War. The stories are told from the perspective of a precocious and fatherless young boy. His adult self intrudes subtly and always effectively, so as to provide occasional keen insights when the young boy’s naivete precludes him from making them.

This is how the narrator describes his street: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.”

Miguel Street imagines a particular place (Port of Spain) during a particular time (the Second World War). The splashes of local colour give the book a distinct Caribbean flavour. The dialogue is written in a patois and characters invoke verses of popular calypsos when they feel the need to affirm certain fundamental truths. Here, the character Hat calls on a popular calypso after his brother’s wife runs off with an American: “I was living with my decent and contented wife/Until the soldiers came and broke up my life.”

Despite these particularities, the themes in the book are universal. Each story focuses on one of the neighbourhood characters. Their foibles are not skewered but treated with the utmost sensitivity and more than a little trace of irony too. The story titled “B. Wordsworth,” about a local poet the narrator befriends for a few weeks, is one of the more devastatingly sad stories I’ve ever read. Naipaul’s language is so pared down as to resemble poetry; the stories themselves are as tidily and tightly structured as poems.

Hat is the one character who appears in nearly every story, and he remains something of a mystery until the penultimate story in the collection. He is a kind of father figure to the narrator, and a voice of reason on the street too. His judgments of other characters and their predicaments are always astute and incisive, a quality the narrator seems to admire in him. When the narrator’s feelings for Hat change, it represents an irreversible change in the narrator himself.

In the final story, the narrator tells us how he leaves Miguel Street, the setting of his childhood. In that story, the collection not only wraps up but addresses its most resonant theme head-on: the end of childhood, and with it, innocence.

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

The review of the biography Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan in this month’s Harper’s begins with the reviewer’s visit to The Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, both a tribute to the author and the actualization of an idea Brautigan wrote about in his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. In the novel, there’s a library called The American Forever, Etc., which functions as an asylum – as one character calls it – of rejected manuscripts. So too does The Brautigan Library function this way, currently holding a capacity 291 unpublished books, though it plans to go digital, making room for more.

The Abortion, which I borrowed from my parents right after reading the Harper’s piece, is a love story set in San Francisco, San Diego and Tijuana. The bulk of the action takes place in the library in San Francisco, where our thirty-one year old narrator – sensitive, long-haired and nameless – has been living and working in near-total solitude for years, having not stepped beyond its glassed front doors since assuming his post (his predecessors befell all kinds of unusual fates). As the sole on-site employee of the library, he’s responsible for receiving the books that the authors must deliver by hand, then recording their basic information into a ledger. It’s the task of the authors themselves to shelve their books where they see fit.

It’s a powerful and compelling idea, a library for rejected manuscripts, bound up as it is with the prospect of failure that haunts most writers. It also reminds me of something Pauline Kael once wrote: “men have an inalienable right to be untalented.” The library is a testament to that right. Our narrator welcomes the multitude of failed writers who walk through the library’s front doors. He cares about them and their unloved creations because he too is a writer, or so it’s suggested, and so his fate could easily be theirs (in one self-referential moment, a writer named Richard Brautigan delivers a book, one of several he’s been delivering over the course of the narrator’s tenure).

In the meantime, however, our narrator is committed to his sinecure, that is, until a beautiful but tormented young woman named Vida walks in with a book: “She had a fantastically full and developed body under her clothes that would have made the movie stars and beauty queens and showgirls bitterly ooze dead make-up in envy.” Her body, it turns out, is the subject of her book. It’s a burden for her, a magnet for unwanted attention.

What follows is an evocative account of them falling in love. The light touch exhibited in these intimate passages I’m tempted to attribute to Brautigan’s immersion in the summer of love. Which is where the Historical part of the title comes into play.

To read the book now is to acquaint oneself with a relic of a bygone era, when Playboy magazine was in its heyday (there are multiple references) and the Beatles had just released Rubber Soul (there’s one reference). Needless to say, the narrator and Vida are hippies, but in an endearing, self-conscious way. Brautigan emphasizes their hippie-ness by contrasting them to a conservative young couple they encounter on a bus from San Diego to Tijuana, where Vida is to undergo the titular abortion.

In the Harper’s review, we’re told that Brautigan eventually moved to Montano to distance himself from the hippy movement, while subjecting his writing to a process of “dewhimsicalization.” The move would precipitate his descent into alcoholism, attended by a steady artistic output either published and panned by critics or rejected outright by his editor. Though he’d live to disavow the whimsical quality of his earlier works, which brought him fame and success, the charm of The Abortion is its whimsy. The novel reads like a leisurely paced fable or fairy tale, by turns sincere and playful, if a little cheeky in places. At its heart is an affirmation of love and literature.

The Voyeur

“The Voyeur” is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s second novel, first published in 1955. The plot is simple, bare: Mathias, an itinerant watch salesman, takes an early morning ferry to the island of his birth, purportedly to make sales. It’s a three-hour crossing. Arriving shortly after ten on an unseasonably warm April morning, Mathias has roughly six hours to canvass the island before the ferry departs for the mainland at four. It’s a Tuesday. The next ferry-crossing isn’t until the following Friday. If Mathias misses the boat, he’ll have to stay on the island till then. These specifics aren’t insignificant: Mathias is obsessed by them. As the boat makes its slow approach to the island’s harbour, Mathias attempts to calculate, with painful and comical exactitude, how to maximize his brief time on the island so as to turn the greatest profit, i.e: to sell all of the eighty-nine watches in his suitcase in six hours. The stakes are high: “He really needed the money.”

Naturally it comes as a surprise to the reader that, despite his urgent calculations on the boat, Mathias loses track of time at a cafe in town while he waits for a garageman to fetch him a bicycle. Yet the degree to which Mathias begins to squander his day on the island is ambiguous at first because Robbe-Grillet is a writer who distorts time. Two pages of description can span a single minute, maybe less. What fills those two pages, as anyone familiar with Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman will know, is microscopic detail of the external world, of objects, gestures and shapes, as perceived by our protagonist. This is starkly different from stream-of-consciousness, or interior monologue: this is exterior monologue, a term applied to the works of Robbe-Grillet and his cohorts that I picked up from an Entitled Opinions podcast about the nouveau roman.

In “The Voyeur,” the devil is in the recurring details. Robbe-Grillet is constantly returning the reader’s attention to the contents of a pocket on Mathias’s duffle coat. There we find a hemp cord he picks up on the boat, as well as cigarettes and a package of gumdrops he buys in town. Why does he feel compelled to pick up the cord and conceal it in his pocket? In flashbacks of his childhood, Mathias is a collector of pieces of string. But is this a realistic adult hobby? And why the gumdrops, if he doesn’t show interest in eating them? At a later point in the novel, the hemp cord is mysteriously missing from his pocket.

The rare insight we get into Mathias’s psychology is through his observation of girls. Whether it’s a young barmaid in a cafe or a girl on a movie poster or one in a photograph, through Mathias’s eyes, they are all timorous and supplicant. The napes of their necks are usually exposed. Piece these together – the contents of his pocket, his way of seeing girls, the deviation from his purpose – and we arrive at the suspicion that something sinister is at work in the mind of our protagonist. The novel builds its suspense on this unsettling suspicion (a suspicion that remains unconfirmed).

In an interview in The Paris Review, Robbe-Grillet says this of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: “I am much more interested in the first part which is the preparation for the murder. You remember the scene where Raskolnikov is getting the axe ready? And he is fascinated by the act he has to accomplish? The last part of the book, about guilt and moral responsibility and so on, bores me profoundly.” When the interviewer asks him if it’s because neither he nor his characters feel moral responsibility or guilt, Robbe-Grillet answers emphatically: “Never!” And so what we have in “The Voyeur” is something akin to the first part of “Crime and Punishment.” There is no last part, no attempt to moralize or explain the novel’s apparent crime, or redeem its apparent criminal.

“The Voyeur” is Robbe-Grillet’s theories of a new novel put to practice. In the same Paris Review interview, addressing his decision to insert an imaginary character into his autobiography “The Mirror That Returns,” Robbe-Grillet says, “[i]t doesn’t matter which has been born of experience and which belongs to the imagination.” Thus, at the end of “The Voyeur,” Robbe-Grillet deprives his readers of the privilege to confidently differentiate between what was real and what was imagined.

As for those long, repetitive, geometrically precise descriptions of gestures, objects, and shapes, as committed as these descriptions are to the theories behind the novel, that doesn’t make them any less tedious to read. But when the details point obliquely to Mathias’s apparent crime – the contents of his pocket, for instance, or the timorous gesture of a barmaid – the attentive and clinical way in which they are described adds to the ominous mood of the text.

In spite of Robbe-Grillet’s avant-garde commitments, he writes riveting, conventional dialogue scenes. And Mathias’s Raskalnikov-esque paranoia about getting his alibi straight, when the author’s eye is focused on the internal world of his protagonist and not on his external perceptions, makes for some of the more captivating passages in the novel.

The Fan Man

Have you ever imagined your soul taking the form of a hot dog? Have you ever daydreamed about starting an ear wax museum? Have you ever read “The Fan Man”??

Over the years, I’ve read William Kotzwinkle’s “The Fan Man” a number of times, though never googled it, for fear that I’d uncover its legion of fans. I’ve met very few people who’ve read the book, let alone heard of it, and part of me wants to keep it that way – as a literary secret. But maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. Maybe “The Fan Man” is as popular a title to baby boomers as “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” I’ll have to remember to ask my parents.

“The Fan Man” seems plucked straight out of the pages of Robert Crumb. Indeed, if it was ever made into a film, it would have to be animated. Live action would never be able to reproduce the experience of reading this book. I’m thinking not of Crumb now, but the languorous, expressionistic style of “The Triplets of Belleville,” although that style probably wouldn’t do justice to the frenetic energy of the narrator’s thought process. Its ideal audio version would’ve been recorded by Dennis Hopper circa “Easy Rider” because no one could say the word man quite like Dennis Hopper could back then. The word man, I should say, appears in nearly every sentence of the book, often more than once.

Horse Badorties is The Fan Man of the title. The setting is Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the summer (© 1974). The book is a kind of picaresque. It’s no coincidence that, after buying an enormous umbrella off a hot dog vendor in Chinatown, Horse Badorties dubs himself a “Knight of the Hot Dog.” His insignia? “Crossed hot dogs on a bun.” And so this (hot dog) knight-errant of the Lower East Side wanders around in a drug-induced haze, obsessively contemplating his food options – every healthy idea is undermined by an unhealthy craving – and collecting junk to clutter up his many pads. Of primary concern, however, is his endeavour to recruit adolescent girls for his “Love Chorus.” All the while, he yearns to return to the pastoral surroundings of his childhood, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

(Re: drug-induced haze. Horse claims that what he packs into his pipe is exotic natural New Age-y stuff – “wild asparagus leaves,” “banana flakes” and “Peruvian mango skins” to name a few – but one gets the impression that he’s not being completely honest).

(Among Horse’s indispensable possessions, which he keeps on his person in a satchel, is what he calls “the Commander Schmuck Imperial Red Chinese Army hat,” equipped with ear-flaps to protect him against Puerto Rican music, to which he has an aversion. Just thought I’d mention that detail).

As for the “Love Chorus,” Horse is the maestro. They rehearse in a church, preparing for a one-night only “Love Concert.” In the meantime, Horse awaits the overdue shipment of their musical accompaniment, hand-held battery-powered fans imported from Japan. The collective whirr of the fans, combined with the untrained singing of the girls, will create a sort of music of the spheres. Horse has delusions of grandeur about the “Love Concert” (just one of his many kinds of delusions). One scene involves him maneuvering past security at Rockefeller centre to persuade NBC executives to cover the performance. This comes directly after he’s fallen into a pond in Central Park.

There is a darkness to “The Fan Man,” a similar type of darkness prevalent in Crumb’s comics. Perverted hippie acid trips. Not for the faint of heart. In fact, most readers would cross to the other side of the street if they ever saw Horse Badorties approaching in real life. It’s plain to see that our hero is destitute and unwell. He certainly has some unsavory predilections too (i.e: for adolescent girls). Still, in spite of all this, “The Fan Man” remains the most hilarious book I’ve ever read. And I don’t think the darkness is the point, rather, just something we should keep in mind as we enjoy the book’s inventiveness, both in language and incident.

I don’t think I’m gonna say anything more, man, so I don’t spoil the book for anyone that hasn’t read it. Now, man, I will finally have to google the book so as to get a photo of the jacket, man. But first, man, I must make a telephone call to Alaska!

Fat City

“He lived in the Hotel Coma – named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself.” This is the opening to “Fat City,” Leonard Gardner’s only novel, published in 1969 and set in Stockton, California a decade earlier. It’s a sweltering summer in inland California. The he is Billy Tully, a former pro boxer now pushing thirty, his best years behind him. Billy Tully lives with regret, over a boxing career that didn’t live up to expectations and over a wife who left him. For money, which he usually spends on whiskey and beer, Tully sometimes gets up at dawn to put in a day’s work as a farm labourer – an onion-sacker or tomato-thinner. “Of all the hated work he had ever done, this was a torment beyond any” is how Gardner describes Tully’s long, backbreaking day tomato-thinning in the blistering heat of mid-summer.

Tully is the most pitiful of the three main characters depicted in the novel. His body, once his livelihood, wears the scars of his short-lived career. He’s reminiscent of Brando’s Terry Malloy from “On the Waterfront,” whose indelible “I coulda been a contender” line perfectly captures the pain of missed opportunities, of a life gone awry. Like Malloy, Tully can also trace his downfall to the outcome of a single bout. The two other main characters are Ernie Munger and Ruben Luna. Ernie Munger is a young up-and-comer who works the night shift at a gas station. Ruben Luna is a forklift operator and former pro boxer turned trainer. He once trained Tully, and he takes Munger under his wing because he sees potential in him.

But Luna, the character most advanced in years, isn’t naive about the lie of potential: “[H]is fighters were less dependable. Some trained one day and laid off two, fought once and quit, lost their timing, came back, struggled into condition, gasped and missed and were beaten, or won several bouts and got married, or moved, or were drafted, joined the navy or went to jail, were bleeders, suffered headaches, saw double or broke their hands. There had been so many who found they were not fighters at all, and there were others who without explanation had simply ceased to appear at the gym and were never seen or heard about again by Ruben.”

I keep returning to “Fat City” for the unaffected and graceful quality of the prose. There is poetry in the language as well, which consistently uplifts the desolateness of the narrative. The book is so tightly and carefully crafted – a beautiful distillation of a specific American experience. American writers convinced their great novel must be an opus should take a cue from “Fat City,” which manages to universalize its characters’ struggles in less than 200 pages.

“Fat City” is often called a boxing novel, but Gardner writes about the fraught relationships between men and women as expertly as he writes about the sport. Ernie Munger’s courtship of a young woman named Faye Murdock is among the strongest and most poignant parts of the novel. Gardner captures the confused mind – a mess of fears and desires – of a young man stepping precariously toward commitment. Fearing a loss of independence as much as he fears losing his claim to his woman, Ernie Munger proceeds like a man newly blind. In contrast, Faye Murdock, it’s suggested, knows exactly what she wants.

A note about the title: here’s a quote from Gardner taken from the novel’s wikipedia entry (where I also got the photo of the vintage paperback design): “Lots of people have asked me about the title of my book. It’s part of Negro slang. When you say you want to go to Fat City, it means you want the good life. I got the idea for the title after seeing a photograph of a tenement in an exhibit in San Francisco. ‘Fat City’ was scrawled in chalk on a wall. The title is ironic: Fat City is a crazy goal no one is ever going to reach.” Here’s a link to a short piece about the novel, written by Denis Johnson, which is how I first heard about it.