Books

Azar Nafisi on The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

2009 is the 70th anniversary of the publication of the small novella by a now mainly forgotten but wonderful writer, Nathanael West. The Day of the Locust is the story of Tod Hackett, an artist and scene designer whose main obsession (apart from a prostitute named Faye) is to create a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.” But it is also a kind of an American dream story about the cult of celebrity and those masses of people migrating to Hollywood who by seeking refuge for their hopes and dreams, turn it into a dump in which “there was not a dream afloat somewhere which would not sooner or later turn up on it.” Nathanael West is wonderful in creating atmosphere, what is most gripping about the Day of Locust is West’s portrayal of LA as a city both real and illusory, shaped as much by everyday reality of its inhabitants’ lives as by the fragile hopes and desperate dreams of those who come to it. These characters come to California seeking a new life, desirous of fulfilling a dream, but they also leave their mark on the place, making it reek with the smell of unfulfilled desires and broken dreams—a timely reminder that we need to understand more about the Thirties than its economic crisis.