It’s a pleasure to introduce my former student (and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate) Jill Glass to Numéro Cinq. Jill lives in Los Angeles, writes about Los Angeles, thinks about Los Angeles and even seems to like it there. “The Use of Moralized Cityscape in Los Angeles Literature” is a marvelously intelligent essay on the use of place in fiction, the moralizing of place for fictional purposes (a literary effect called paysage moralisé) and, in particular, the way authors like Joan Didion, Gavin Lambert and Nathanael West re-imagine Los Angeles as a literary universe unto itself. Make sure to look at the notes and bibliography which extend the reach of the essay far beyond its topical orbit. This was Jill’s critical thesis at Vermont College, one of the best I’ve seen.
THE USE OF MORALIZED CITYSCAPE IN LOS ANGELES LITERATURE
By Jill Glass
“I look at the writers who came, when they came, why they came, what they found and how they responded to the city. I am interested in the way the place—in all its apparent oddity—shaped the writer’s imaginations and how their imaginative renderings shaped the city, structured it in image and myth as the city of dream, desire and deception.” i
–David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles.
It was failure that brought Nathanael West to Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s, after his first novel, The Dream of the Balso Snell, was little read and poorly reviewed and his second, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), was not the breakthrough many anticipated. Critically praised, the novel seemed poised for success when West received news on the eve of release that his publishing house, hit hard by the economic depression, had declared bankruptcy. Months later, when the book came to market, it had lost all momentum. In an unexpected development, Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights, and West followed his novel to Hollywood to oversee its transition from page to screen.
The Depression had been good to the film industry. Americans, desperate for diversion, crowded the theaters where they were fed images of Los Angeles life as one of material comfort, escapism and eternal sunshine, the locus of the American Dream. This was not what West saw when he arrived. His Los Angeles was “a grotesque half-world of outcasts and hangers-on, misfits and freaks, exotic cultists and disillusioned Midwesterners,” a jumble of incongruous architectural styles—pagodas and chalets–stacked side by side in rugged canyons, a fantasyland gone awry, the lines between movies and reality badly blurred, a city devoid of cultural or literary definition.
Heightened and distorted, this became the central imagery for his seminal work, The Day of the Locust. The book was published in 1939, a defining year for Los Angeles literature. Raymond Chandler released his novella Red Wind, elevating pulp crime fiction to an art form. His Los Angeles was “a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup…no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”ii John Fante published his second novel, Ask the Dust, the first book to focus a tender eye on the down-and-outers, the immigrant denizens of the city’s downtown flophouses and cafeterias. “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”iii But the Los Angeles of West’s imagination was a bleaker place, a moral black hole–the embodiment of what he saw as the spiritual and material betrayal of the American dream during the years of the Great Depression, a city where people “realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have saved and saved for nothing.”iv
With The Day of the Locust, a black, surrealistic, social satire, West created his own genre—Hollywood Apocalypse. A short 126-page novel, the chapters range from one to eleven pages in length. Written in third-person omniscient, past tense, the story is told from the point of view of Tod Hackett, part moral-innocent, part artist-prophet, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, who has temporarily set aside his aspirations towards serious art to work as a set designer at a second-rate Hollywood studio. As he takes in Los Angeles, he marvels at the blatant artifice of the architecture and the inhabitants. He dismisses the masqueraders, people who parade the streets in costumes that belie and disguise their social standing, but is fixated on the migrant middle-class Midwesterners who “have come to California to die.” He plans to use them as the subjects of the masterpiece he will someday paint in the style of Daumier or Goya, a fantasized catastrophe he has titled “the Burning of Los Angeles.”
He falls in with an assortment of oddballs–a veritable laundry list of Hollywood clichés—an over-the-hill Vaudeville clown, a child actor, a cowboy, a dwarf, and Faye Greener, a scheming, untalented extra with delusions of stardom.
Tod becomes obsessed with Faye, joining her circle of suitors, a group of misfits and has-beens, including Homer Simpson, a sickly Iowan newly arrived in Los Angeles in search of a health cure. It is a losing proposition. Faye makes it clear that Tod has nothing to offer her since he is neither wealthy or good-looking or connected. Her rejection fuels his depraved and lustful fantasies, and after an evening of group flirtation at a Hollywood Hills campsite escalates into violence, Tod chases Faye into the woods with the fantasy of raping her.
Faye’s father dies and she moves in with Homer Simpson in an arranged relationship–food, lodging and expensive clothes in exchange for her companionship. She takes advantage of Homer’s vulnerability and manipulates him into letting two of her other suitors move into his garage.
Tod determines to break off with Faye. His desire for her makes him feel as desperate as the people he is trying to paint. He turns his attention back to “The Burning of Los Angeles,” searching the churches of Hollywood for new subjects. He is disturbed by what he sees—fanatical congregations worshipping false-prophets.
He is coaxed back into Faye’s circle. An evening of cockfighting in Homer’s garage escalates again into lust-induced violence over the matter who will dance with Faye. The next morning Homer finds Faye in bed with one of her suitors.
Tod wanders into Hollywood where a huge crowd of celebrity worshippers waits restlessly for the stars to arrive at a movie premiere. He sees Homer at the edge of the crowd in a state of near catatonia. Homer informs Tod he is returning to Iowa. Without provocation, a child throws a rock at Homer’s head. Homer becomes uncharacteristically violent, attacking the child. The crowd turns on him in sudden, uncontrolled, orgiastic rioting–“The Burning of Los Angeles,” actualized. As Tod is taken away in a police car, he opens his mouth and screams along with the siren.
In West’s Los Angeles, “social, moral and aesthetic judgments are conflated, and the actual city on the ground is rejected in favor of the mythical one.”v West has deconstructed Los Angeles and re-imagined it, shaping the place around the idea he is forcing on the text—Los Angeles as Paradise Lost. The cityscapes exist as the bricks and mortar of metaphor, the symbolic landscape over which he can lay his apocalyptic prophesy of the future of American society. With Europe and Asia on a collision course with World War, West perceived Depression Era America as a country betrayed and alienated by the promise of consumerism, individual and collective identities warped by the effects of mass culture, on a hopeless slide into social, political and moral chaos. In the Day of the Locust, he has given his characters the city he thinks they deserve. His fictional Los Angeles has sown the seeds of its own destruction. It could only be saved by burning, and from the ashes would rise a new, fascist state. West is a relentless, ill-humored satirist. He offers no relief to the characters or the reader, no hope of redemption.
To tell his story, which, at its center, is a meditation on his protagonist’s spiritual condition, West employs a highly stylized technique called “paysage moralisé,”–landscape reflecting interior meaning–which Webster’s defines as a moral message warning of the consequences of certain actions or character flaws. The organizing principle is an old one, used for centuries in art and literature—the idea that allegorical landscapes, can move the mind into a state of contemplation of ‘”solemn things.”
A moralized landscape functions within the framework of formal structure. Superficially, it looks and reads like traditional narrative, but what makes the technique work is what the writer does within the aesthetic space.
There is a strong sense of composition, of deliberate placement–objects and people against the landscape, words within sentences, the patterning of paragraphs.
The narrator functions as a distanced observer, scanning the landscape with a detached eye from above, from beyond, the physical setting where they can step back from the narrative to pronounce judgments on the place and the people. The goal is to impart a sense of “greater meaning”—as if to say, I am writing about Los Angeles, I am talking about the world. There are rhythms built into the paragraphs, moments where the author seems to be using the text to address the reader directly, almost conspiratorially, as if to flatter the reader into accepting their ideas and moral attitudes. The writer inserts subtle cues within the prose, guiding the reader into how to interpret the text, forcing the reader to abandon their preconceptions and see the place from an altered perspective.
The natural and built landscapes are rendered metaphorically. The basic elements of setting are articulated, tweaked, animated, and inverted. All distracting detail is filtered out. Every building, mountain, sight, sound, smell, newspaper headline, landmark, road sign, must carry metaphoric weight. Weather doesn’t just exist, it behaves.
The protagonist is thrown into immediate conflict with the built, physical, or societal landscape. Moral innocent vs. corrupting influence–this is the engine that drives the action.
What the writer must do, in the words of novelist Gillian Tindall, is create “a country of the mind.”
“I am not concerned with actual landscapes and dwellings, but with what these physical settings have become in the minds of novelists. The literary uses to which places are put, the meanings they are made to bear, the roles they play when they are recreated in fiction, the psychological journeys for which they are the destinations. These worlds do not remain private but are transmitted back to the readers, who in their turn, see the original locations with changed and awakened eyes. These physical settings, these real places, are essentially put to work as metaphors, emblems or examples for ideas that transcend that particular time and place. It is in the peculiar tension between the timeless and the specific that much of the force of the novel lies.”vi
In her 1965 essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” Joan Didion wrote, “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself: Nathanael West understood that.” Hugely influential tin shaping Los Angeles’s literary identity, West’s The Day of the Locust, with its prescient, visionary, apocalyptic imagery, managed to do with fire what Charles Dickens did with London fog—make it a moral issue. One only has to look at the trickle-down impact of Dickens’ moralized London cityscape on future generations of writers to appreciate the portability and durability of the technique. Once a set of moral assumptions is established, it became an accepted way of thinking and writing about a place.
Although the London on the ground in the mid-1880’s could be perceived as bustling, exotic, exciting, a blueprint for progress, modernization and an improved quality of life, Dickens’ smoky, blighted, moralized “Modern Babylon” cityscapes with their dirt, stench, foul weather, and sickness of body, mind and soul cemented his contention that sprawl and growth could not be perceived as a disastrous turn of events for mankind. In his 1853 novel, Bleak House, he writes:
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among the green aits and meadows, fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great city…Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of the wards; fog in the stem and the bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”vii
Dickens’ London permeated the psyches of generations of writers who chose to view the city through the same emotional lens, co-opting his moral stance towards the cityscape, perpetuating, building on, recycling, and reconstituting his mythology and imagery.
In E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howards End, his moral-innocent protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, looks out from the house across land that had once been considered rural, and says:
“ ‘London’s creeping.’ She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was red rust.
‘You see that in surrey and even in Hampshire now,’ she continued. ‘I can see it from the Purbeck downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down all over the world.’”viii
In J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, Turgis, a young clerk, sees London as not only a ruined cityscape, but as ruined version of itself:
“The trams, buses, shops, bars, theatres, and picture places, they all gleamed and glittered through the rich murk…A bus took him to the West end, where, among the crazy coloured fountains of illumination, shattering the blue dusk with green and crimson fire, he found the café of his choice, a tea-shop that had gone mad and turned Babylonian, a white palace with ten thousand lights. It towered above the older buildings like a citadel, which indeed it was, the outpost of a new age, perhaps a new civilization, perhaps a new barbarism; and behind the thin, marble front were concrete and steel, just as behind the careless profusion of luxury were millions of pence, balanced to the last halfpenny…”ix
Like Dickens’ city shrouded in fog, West’s city on fire has provided an irresistible metaphor. Whether a direct or peripheral influence, moralizing Los Angeles, with its attendant apocalyptic imagery, has become a cross between a literary tradition and a cottage industry. The literary history of Los Angeles is littered with the work of novelists, essayists, social historians, screenwriters, and filmmakers who, out of moral imperative, cultural snobbery, offended sensibilities, or perverse pleasure, evoke man-made or natural disasters to reduce the city to literal or metaphoric ruins. It is predominately the work of outsiders–writers who migrated or visited from the Midwest, the east coast, and Europe. Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Simone de Beauvoir, Ross Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Cees Nooteboom, Umberto Eco, Jan Morris, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Towne, Carolyn See, Michael Tolkin, Sandra Tsing Loh, Mike Davis, Lynell George, Joel and Ethan Coen, T.C. Boyle, are just a few of the writers represented in the five anthologies I read in preparation for this paper, including one not-so-subtly titled Absolute Disaster.
Why do they do it? Hollywood Apocalyptic–its visions played out over the grand scale of history or the inner stage of subjective consciousness—is a juicy genre. The moralized cityscape is just too useful a platform for writers who adhere to the belief that events on the page must have significance beyond themselves–they must speak to a larger truth.
For these writers, working from the apocalyptic European-American fear of things falling apart, and the ethos that history will extract its revenge for our bad acts, Los Angeles provides a spectacular backdrop. The natural landscape performs biblically—burning, sliding, quaking, flooding. It is a city of contradictions–built for movement, frozen in gridlock. It makes great headlines–Crime rises to the level of national mythology—the Black Dahlia, O.J. Simspon. The film industry corrupts the morals of the mankind, and the relentless sunshine can’t obfuscate the shadow world of racial tension, corruption, greed.
When I started this thesis, I did so with the idea of showing how three different writers could use elements of setting to create a unique “sense of place.” I chose, rather at random, two works from different decades–Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short story, “The Slide Area,” and Joan Didion’s 1965 essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” to juxtapose with the Day of the Locust based on what appeared, at first read, to be their differences. There were some, technically—in genre, year written, stylistically–voice, tone, POV, and literarily—each character, while similar in profession, education, race, age, appeared to traverse a distinct Los Angeles, cities that existed, functioned, pulsed in unique ways, with their own laws and logic. After several more read-throughs, these three pieces were much more similar than I originally realized– heavily stylized works of “paysage moralisé.”
I found it interesting that West, an East Coaster, Lambert, an Englishman, and Didion, a transplanted New Yorker, had seemed to have such similar emotional responses to the city, and felt a need to transmit their sense of displacement and disorientation onto their characters, who traverse the landscape with a barely contained sense of dread.
David Fine, in his book, Imagining Los Angeles, writes:
“Los Angeles (literature) is about the art of entry, about the discovery and the taking possession of a place that differed significantly from the place left behind. The distanced perspective of the outsider, marked by a sense of dislocation and estrangement, is the central and essential feature of the fiction of Los Angeles. The writers came into an expansive landscape that appeared to them to have no discernible center, no reigning architectural style, and no sense of a regional past that, despite the mission and Spanish-derived buildings cropping up everywhere, could exert any local aesthetic authority or convince them that they had, in fact, arrived in a place.”x
Gavin Lambert was a short story writer who ran out of things to say about England. He turned to film criticism, later accepting a job as assistant to director Nicholas Ray, a move that brought him to Los Angeles in 1957. He arrived in a city sent into suburban sprawl by the advent of the freeway system, a disconnected, alienating landscape, inattentive to the growing economic and racial divide between the classes, dotted with private beach clubs “surrounded by high wire fences topped with three barbed strands and masked with oleanders.”xi With the studio system dismantling, he caught the last whiff of Old Hollywood.
“The Slide Area” is the fourteen page title piece of Gavin Lambert’s 1959 linked short story collection, narrated in the first person, present tense by a nameless, faceless screenwriter who seems haunted by both what he is doing—writing a mediocre script for a hack director—and what he is pretending to do—work on a serious novel. Inventing a flimsy excuse to leave work early, he wanders through the ghost town of wrecked and abandoned sets. He begins a lonely drive toward the ocean, encountering a series of characters along the way who appear like apparitions on the landscape–a bankrupt countess who cannot afford a thirty-five cent drugstore novel, a trio of elderly ladies trapped under the hillside they were picnicking on moments before a landslide, and finally his drunken lover, distraught over the shooting of her sister. He misses connections, always arriving after the action, too late to help.
Joan Didion, novelist, essayist and nascent screenwriter moved to Los Angeles in 1964, at the behest of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who found himself desiring a six-month leave of absence from New York City. Already pegged as a “brooding, detached, apocalyptic and neurasthenic” writer, she arrived in Los Angeles in a self-admitted fragile state of mind, to a city with a high jobless rate, poor housing, bad schools, and growing tension. State and local governments worked overtime to overturn components of the Civil Rights Act, creating palpable feelings of injustice and despair. In August, 1965, a routine traffic stop in South Central Los Angeles provided the spark that lit the fire of the Watts riots which lasted for six days, leaving thirty-four dead, over a thousand people injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, hundreds of buildings destroyed, and an inedible mark on race relations.
With the publication of her first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), “Didion suddenly joined the ranks of writers whose opinions about American society and culture could always be trusted to be properly reflective, whose mood would tremble in direct relation to the state of the national psyche, and whose sensibilities might be counted upon to provide concrete reasons for the nonspecific anxiety of the reading public of a country which seemed to many to have taken leave of its senses.”xii
“Los Angeles Notebook,” is a four-page essay written in first person, present tense. In it, she finds herself sniffing the air, predicting an oncoming malevolent Santa Ana wind that has not been forecast. She feels it, and so can everyone around her—the sulking maid, the fussing baby, her machete-wielding neighbor. She recalls the wind’s historical significance. It makes school children too distracted to study, drives women to murder, it portends catastrophe, revives images of a city, mortally wounded by fire, ready to burn again.
At their core, each writer is saying the same thing about place—Los Angeles is a polarized, alienating, broken city of shifting and unstable surfaces—and forcing similar ideas on to the text—that a society lacking in moral order is, in essence, doomed to self-destruct. The stories function as classical cautionary tales—moral innocent vs. corrupting influence—with similar outcomes—a conditional surrender to the dark forces.
It is a literary tradition veering close to cliché, according to Canadian literary scholar and historian Sacvan Bercovitch. “The failure of the dream…the response to that is all too familiar: those endless lamentations about the ever-imminent catastrophic ‘fall of America,’ the doomsday chorus of American literature, stretching from the Puritan Jeremiahs to (say) Henry Adams, Nathaniel West and Thomas Pynchon.”xiii
Yet he also writes, “To be American is to discover oneself by prophecy,” which may explain why, plot wise, each writer has essentially lifted the apocalypse mythology from the book of Revelation, a “depiction of portents, unnatural or extraordinary occurrences read as signs, a sense of irreversible deterioration of values and behavior, incapable of correction by purposeful reform, a centerpiece catastrophe imminent or actual which will radically alter the status quo frame of reality, an accompanying final judgment, the coming of a new world, frame of reality or consciousness to replace what was destroyed.”xiv They refashioned, recycled, re-imagined it, and then projected it onto the Los Angeles landscape.
It may be a testament to the resonance of the myth that each writer has managed to keep his or her work thematically interesting, but there is also a great deal to be said about the active use of “paysage moralisé”. It is quite a manipulative and engaging technique, in that it requires the writer to finesse something neutral—a city on the ground–into something moralized in such a way that the reader does not feel they are being lectured, sermonized, recruited, or brainwashed. It has to function at two levels—formally structured narrative and philosophical discourse. It is worth exploring both the overlapping and individual ways that West, Lambert, and Didion deploy the technique–the technical and aesthetic choices they make in order to create a moralized environment.
How do the writers take control of technique? They immediately establish a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation by convoluting the imagery of the cityscape. The sense—implicit or foreshadowed–that the character will be changed, challenged or corrupted by “place” becomes the moral pivot of the story.
Both Lambert and West begin with their characters surveying the quintessential landscape of inverted reality—the movie lot—through the distancing technical device of a window.
Tod Hackett hears:
“…a great din on the road outside his office…An army of cavalry and foot was passing. It moved like a mob; its lines broken, as though fleeing from some terrible defeat. The dolmans of the hussars, the heavy shakos of the guards, Hanoverian light horse with their flat leather caps and flowing red plumes, were all jumbled together in bobbing disorder…A little fat man, wearing a cork sun-helmet, polo shirt and knickers, darted around the corner in pursuit of the army.
Lambert’s screenwriter looks out the window:
“I am sitting in the office 298 of a Hollywood film studio, working on a script and thinking that the film Cliff Harrison is going to make of it won’t do either one of us much good. This morning I noticed a truck parked outside one of the shooting stages. Scenery was being unloaded, the walls and furniture of a living room carried into the empty stage…There is no stopping it now, I thought. Later, imagining the reality being hammered and painted and wheeled into shape over there, I looked at the pages on my desk and found them more impossible than ever. Tomorrow there will be more arguments with executives. We shall plead our cause and discuss what is truth.”xvi
What are they able to accomplish in these passages?
We see how Tod Hackett looks at the world—with the detailed observations of an artist and the detached commentary of an outsider. The faux-army in their centuries-old European costumes speaks right to the central metaphor—the artifice and masquerade of Hollywood life. The reference to the “mob” foreshadows the riot scene finale. West offers all sorts of sensory cues—“din,” “red,” “jumbled”—to startle the reader. There is no coyness in his writing. We know we are in a fictive place that is over-the-top.
Lambert’s opening mines identical juxtaposed reality/fantasy metaphoric territory—the living room being constructed on a soundstage, the executives who will discuss the truth about fiction, but his resigned tone and conscious choice to withhold sensory details creates a chillier emotional climate. His is a ghostly place of no colors, remembered events and imagined sounds—silent and suffocating.
Didion’s essay opens:
“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast, whining down the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it and everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.”xvii
Didion is an impeccable stylist, piling detail upon detail, seemingly at random, but leading to a final inescapable point. In her essay collection, The White Album, Didion commented on her own style, saying: “It seemed constantly necessary to remind the reader to make certain connections. Technically it’s almost a chant. You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell or come to terms with certain contemporary demons”xviii She also expressed her belief that to some extent writing about a place “creates” that place, both by bringing it to life and by replacing impressions readers may have received elsewhere.
It is interesting to look at how Didion patterns her paragraph. She delivers several lines of neutral description, then finishes with a moralizing twist, stepping out of the text as if to deliver a message from “on high.” All three writers employ the exact same device time and time again.
“The ocean appears suddenly. You turn another hairpin bend and the land falls away and there is a long high view down Santa Monica Canyon to the pale Pacific waters. A clear day is not often. Sky and air are hazed now, diffusing the sun and dredging the ocean of its rightful blue. The Pacific is a sad blue-grey, and nearly always looks cold. Each time I drive down here it feels like the end of the world.”xix
Todd Hackett leaves the movie lot and walks home past houses stacked in the rugged canyons that, by virtue of their slapdash construction, are virtually indistinguishable from film sets:
“Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages…he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper. He was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used…plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.
On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine Castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights…Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless.
As an aesthete, Tod appreciates the need for attractive presentation. He tries to be “charitable” in his surface assessment of the incongruity of the architecture–imported from other times and places–and the landscape, but it disturbs him on a deeper level. By choosing to use the word “monstrous,” West is allying his place description with the concept of “grotesque,” a moralized art form that Wolfgang Kayser, a leading scholar of grotesque, describes as such:
“By the word grottesco the Renaissance, which used it to designate a specific ornamental style suggested by antiquity, understood not only something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic, but also something ominous and sinister in the face of a world totally different from the familiar one, a world in which the realm of inanimate things is no longer separated from those of plants, animals, and human beings, and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid.”xxi
Didion uses the double meaning of symbolic grotesques throughout “Los Angeles Notebook,”—“subdivisions sliding out to sea”, and Lambert employs the technique as well. He describes the neighborhood that his alcoholic lover calls home:
“She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what now is a tawdry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her.”xxii
Another example of the grotesque occurs later in The Day of the Locust, after Tod’s failed, rape-fueled pursuit of Faye through the woods. He lies on the ground, feeling “relaxed, even happy,” and listens to a bird sing:
“When the bird grew silent, he made an effort to put Faye out of his mind and began to think about the series of cartoons he was making for his canvas of Los Angeles on fire. He was going to show the city burning at high noon, so that the flames would have to compete with the desert sun and thereby appear less fearful, more like bright flags flying from the roofs and windows than a terrible holocaust. He wanted the city to have a gala air as it burned, to appear almost gay. And the people who set it on fire would be a holiday crowd.”xxiii
The cartoons Tod refers to are a series of freehand character studies he has been working on in preparation for painting ”The Burning of Los Angeles. ” In Chapter One, West writes:
“They were the people he felt he must paint. He would never again do a fat, red barn, old stone wall or sturdy Nantucket fisherman. From the moment he had seen them, he had known that, despite his race, training and heritage, neither Winslow Homer nor Thomas Ryder could be his masters and he turned to Goya and Daumier.”xxiv
Here West not only signals the character’s shift in perception, but he employs another technical device: the shorthand of borrowed imagery. West takes a leap of faith that his reader will know the works of these masters–Daumier’s paintings and drawings of morals and manners that lampooned contemporary Parisian politicians, professionals, and the petit-bourgeois, and Goya’s satirizing human folly and weakness in crowd scenes which are not a multiplicity of individuals but a sea of faces and bodies in which separate identities are submerged.
Didion uses the technique as well, making literal use of other writers’ poetry and literature as an added layer of moral authority, which reinforce her philosophy. Slouching Towards Bethlehem’s title comes from W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” his despairing response to a Europe heading straight towards the apocalypse of World War II. She includes the text of the poem as an epigram:
“The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern…”xxv
Then Didion goes on to place what are arguably the most quoted lines in the city’s literary history within the body of “Los Angeles Notebook”:
“’On nights like that,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote about the Santa Ana, ‘every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.’”xxvi
There are other overlapping devices at work. Both Lambert and Didion psychologize the weather:
Didion, discussing the Santa Ana:
“It is only a few miles’ drive to the ocean, but before reaching it I shall be nowhere. Hard to describe the impression of unreality, because it is intangible; almost supernatural; something in the air. (The air…Last night on the weather telecast the commentator, mentioning electrical storms near Palm Springs and heavy smog in Los Angeles, described the behavior of the air as ‘neurotic’. Of course. Like everything else the air must be imported and displaced, like the water driven along huge aqueducts from distant reservoirs, like the palm trees tilting above the mortuary signs and Laundromats along Sunset Boulevard.) Nothing belongs.”xxviii
West, Lambert, and Didion also use the ancillary device of newspaper headlines to contrast Los Angeles unfavorably to “remembered elsewhere’s.” They blame the media for force-feeding information to the masses that corrupts their morals–fueling their anger, boredom and restlessness. In Didion’s essay, the Los Angeles Times is “keeping a box score of traffic deaths.”
In the Slide Area, Lambert’s screenwriter scans the headlines while standing next to two studio executives:
“For once a political event, though it was later found not to have taken place, occupies the front page headlines. With no kidnappings, aeroplane crashes or sex crimes blocked out in huge letters anywhere, I feel for a moment that something has gone wrong. So do the executives, as they gaze at each paper in turn and find no escape from REDS INVADE BURMA!
Their faces are solemn, sweat pours down. They scan the pages like people trying to find their bearings. Then, his eyes narrowing, one turns to the other. ‘It says Bobo Rockefeller’s got herself arrested.’
In the Day of the Locust:
“If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a ‘holocaust of flame,’ as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash. Their boredom becomes more and more terrible…Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates.”xxx
In contrast to the colorful, lively opening scene at Tod Hackett’s film studio, in the end both West and Lambert use movie set imagery as metaphor for what Bercovitch referred to as the “failure of the dream.” Their abandoned stage sets, no longer the representation of fantasies turned into temporary realities, now stand immobile or lie in twisted, jumbled piles, once again reduced to “plaster, canvas, lath and paint.”
Lambert’s screenwriter walks through a backlot of neglected scenery:
“Then comes the point of no return. The great open air scene dock is like landscaped bric-a-brac. Derelict pioneer wagons left to flake and lurch in the dry grasses; a huddle of chipped classical pillars; an early ranch house with no glass in the windows and one wall missing and the stains of fire; an old stockade, A Chinese palace arch. A tall unhinged door fallen across a wheel, a rowing boat propped up against a castle watchtower, and a staircase winding to the sky.
Here it sleeps, in the sun, this neglected litter of the past. Time and heat make their inroads a little more each day. A ruined secret world more real than the practical avenues and boulevards, the only place you can be certain that ghosts walk.”xxxi
Tod Hackett looks down on the backlot from his vantage point on a hill:
“From there he could see a ten-acre field of cockleburs spotted with clumps of sunflowers and wild gum. In the center of the field was a gigantic pile of sets, flats and drops. While he watched, a ten-ton truck added another load to it. This was the final dumping ground. He thought of Janvier’s “Sargasso Sea.” Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination! And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it.”xxxii
Needless to say, these are stories that can’t end well. Each narrative fulfills its prophecy. Each author resolves the action with tone and theme precisely aligned with their opening lines. Joan Didion strikes a note of odd consolation:
“”For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”xxxiii
Gavin Lambert ends on a note of quiet despair:
“As we pass St. Mark’s square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, they disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette.
The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: Why, I’m almost home!”xxxiv
West pulls the ripcord on escapism:
“He was carried through the exit to the back street and lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He knew it was the siren. For some reason this made him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as he could.”xxxv
Shortly after the publication of The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West wrote his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, “So far the box score stands: Good reviews—fifteen percent, bad reviews—twenty five percent, brutal personal attacks—sixty percent.”xxxvi
Sacvan Bercovitch edited the definitive anthology of West’s work. He writes:
“Nathanael West died in a California highway accident in 1940 at the age of 37, little known outside a small circle of fellow writers. Now he is recognized as a uniquely prophetic figure, whose darkly comic, compassionate vision of America awash in mass-produced fantasies augured much that was to come in American literature and life.”xxxvii
The book sold less than fifteen hundred copies and West’s death was overshadowed in the press by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who passed away the previous day. By the late-1940’s, the depression passed and the intellectual elite was ready to embrace West’s apocalyptic visions, The Day of the Locust enjoyed a critical revival, and is now considered one of the greatest “unread” classics in American literature.
Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area was well received by the critics, the Times Literary Supplement going so far as to say that “it earns a place on anyone’s shelves along with Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.” He wrote a cult Hollywood novel, Inside Daisy Clover, and a number of well-regarded screenplays and biographies. Outside of a few years spent living in Tangiers, Lambert has continued to reside in Los Angeles.
Joan Didion became a literary star, the author of bestselling novels and essay collections, and a number of middlebrow screenplays. She and her husband came to Los Angeles for six months. They remained for twenty-five years.
They came, they saw, they moralized, they stayed, perpetuating a literary tradition that endures to this day.
Notes and References
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West, Nathanael. The Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 1962. 178.
Tindall, Gillian. Countires of the Mind. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. 9.
Tindall, Gillian. Countires of the Mind. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991. 148.
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Bercovitch, Sacvan. “How the Puritans Discovered America.” (in RSA. Rivista di studianglo-americani, anno II, n. 2-3, 1982-83, pp. 7-21; monografico “In the Puritan Grain”). 26May2003 http://www2.facli.unibo.it/Materiali/Materialididattici/Minganti/ HowthePuritansDiscoveredAmerica(Bercovitch).html>.
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xxi Landow, George P. “Grotesque Symbols and Symbolical Grotesques: Carlyle.” Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer: A Victorian Web Book. 22 May 2003 <http://126.96.36.199/victorian/genre/ej/2a2.html>.
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