(This is a prompt from the website daysixtyfive.com, day four of seven posts in seven days, subject: a book/film that has changed the way you think. Link below.)
There are many books and movies that affected me in some way, and some more than others. Of those that affected me deeply, most I would not want to write about because their either very personal or their effects are not interesting to anyone except me. But there are two works of fiction I read in college that changed me in ways so fundamental that I have to write about them. One was Joyce’s Dubliners, his folio of brilliant short stories that to me was a how-to on how to write concise fiction of heightened realism, and my early attempts at short story writing were in part inspired by this work.
The second was Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. Published in 1939, I first read this novel as an English class assignment, and I had no idea what was in store for me. On the surface it’s a story about Tod Hackett, a recent transplant to Southern California who left the Yale School of Fine Arts to work in Hollywood as a set designer. Even though he’s working in an industry of glamour and movie magic, he’s surrounded by the desperate, talentless people who will never make it in show business, let alone rise to the top, and all he sees is a veneer of superficiality covering up disillusion, doom, and failure. The disappointment of his new home has inspired him to paint “The Burning of Los Angeles,” which he hopes will be his master work.
Tod is also attracted to Faye Greener, another struggling Hollywood diva who was abandoned by her mother, shares an apartment with her failed Vaudvillian father, and lives for the attention of men ogling her. Tod pursues Faye, but she has no attraction for him so Tod’s desires will remain unrequited. The rest of the characters are a collection of outcasts and hangers on who occupy the underbelly of Tinseltown. The novel begins with comical absurdity, ends in cruel violence, and culminates in an LA riot, a prophecy of the real riots that would erupt in LA.
So how did The Day of the Locust change the way I think? At first it affected the way I feel. At the time I read it, I was dealing with the tragic loss of my mom to cancer and my damaged psyche was still highly vulnerable. West’s realistic, unsentimental prose and Tod’s descent into darkness spoke so acutely to the hurt I was feeling that it disturbed me deeply. I was so distressed that I had to write out my agitated feelings and then burn the paper to cathartically purge myself. I had been so numb with pain that it took a tragicomic novel of shattered hopes and frustrated dreams to help shake me out of my malaise. In time The Day of the Locust would not only become one of my favorite novels, I would also come to feel a kinship with Nathanael West so familiar that I eventually realized we were looking at the world with the same pair of eyes, and that of all the many writers out there great and small, he is my artistic brother.
Fiction isn’t reality, it’s make believe, but it can be realistic, trigger real thoughts and real feelings, touch the heart, and bring us closer together. And all of that can deeply affect how one thinks.
©2020 Robert Kirkendall