Monday, April 14, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

The Day of the Locust

Number 73 on the Modern Library’s list, The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, is a crazy nightmare of a book.  It was so faithfully translated to film that if, like me, you saw the film first and only later discovered it came from a novel, you might find that reading the novel is like seeing the movie over again in your mind.  It is vibrant and vivid, and it is easy to see why it would be chosen to be rendered graphically.  The time of the novel (1939) and the time of the film-making (1975) have in common a tenor of upheaval and unrest.  The anxiety of living in such a time is the undercurrent of this novel.  How can anyone be sure of how to act when the rules are shifting all around them?

At the same time, the story is heady and exciting.  It is ostensibly a satiric expose of Hollywood; it has lasting power because of its theme of maintaining facades in order to achieve some notion of success.  Because the scene is Hollywood, this “success” involves a headlong rush of living: No quiet, soft falling in love here, no settling down and regular meals, regardless of what the characters might yearn for deep inside their other-American souls.  A jackpot is the goal.

This novel has a genre feel to it, like a crime novel, in which the plot with its shocks and twists is more prominent than character development, or philosophy.  Maybe this is because of its anti-formalist structure and style of its writing. It is not free-form or experimental like some other novels on the Modern Library’s list.  Unlike, say, Tropic of Cancer, which self-consciously explores topics forbidden to fine literature, this novel is honest in its sensationalism.  It comes through, therefore, more satisfyingly.  It is crazy, it is hallucinogenic, it’s a traffic accident you can’t turn away from.  It is non-intellectual and easy to read.  But it leaves its impression.

The thread of anxiety turns out to be a fuse, ending, as all well-lit fuses must, in an explosion.  The heady and exciting become crude and savage.  The guy who may be ordinary inside, and floundering in this strange world, loses his mooring and becomes unhuman.  The fast living and the falsities collide in, quite literally, a street riot.   The carnival atmosphere shifts naturally to horror.

This book leaves many open questions.  What is it trying to do? What kind of splash must it have made? Is this what tripping feels like? Why can’t I get images of Donald Sutherland out of my head?  It might not be to everyone’s taste.  If those tastes run to Henry James or E.M. Forster, for instance, this book may be too much.  Then again, sometimes too much is exactly the thing.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.