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A Satire With Teeth
on 7 March 2017
I know quite a few people really loathe this novel, but I must admit that I have always enjoyed it. Nathanael West’s truly grotesque tale has as much relevance today as it did back in 1939 when it was first published.
Tod Hackett has moved to Hollywood where he has a job in the film industry in the Thirties. Unlike others he isn’t someone trying to be an actor or are bumming around, as West tells us that California is a place where people come to die. Remember that this takes place in the Great Depression, and people who had bought into the American Dream saw it crash around them, leaving them penniless or having to rebuild all over again. As with any recession though certain businesses flourish, such as entertainment, and so the film industry didn’t suffer as other industries did.
Here we meet a host of characters that are intentionally shallow and stereotypical as West drives home his tale of frustration and anger in a deep and bitingly satirical way; this story has teeth and holds on like a pit bull terrier. The characters as such portrayed here are grotesques in one form or another and you could say that this does have a feel of a pantomime in some ways.
As Tod progresses with his painting, The Burning of Los Angeles so he uses the other main characters here as part of his work, but rather like the devil tinkering, what goes on the canvas starts to take a life of its own in the real world. With these outcasts and their perversions, vanity, lies and other failings so everything comes to a head when a new film is being premiered, and thus chaos reigns. With scenes that are slightly surreal as Tod makes his way around the film studio in the hunt for one young lady and the allusion to his name, plus the locust mentioned in the title this does have biblical symbolism, ones that lead to Hell.
If you have never read this before then I would warn you to think about what you are reading, otherwise this may not really come across as it is meant to. It is also worth remembering that when this was first published it was hardly a bestseller, despite some good reviews. It has only been after the author’s death that the book started to gain in popularity and become something that is now recognised as a classic.