rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,
rejectomorph
flying_blind

Locusts

A windblown con trail formed one of those clouds that looks like a giant tire track. Sunset turned it pink. The sky featured no giant pink roadkill, though. My parents spent an hour glued to the TV, waiting for an airliner to crash. I didn't watch. I knew that whether it crashed or not, I'd hear about it. There's no doubt in my mind that I've seen enough televised fireballs in my life. The whole situation was uncomfortably reminiscent of that passage from Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, when the narrator talks about the deracinated people who had been arriving in Los Angeles from all over America for decades and, having failed to find what they were seeking, grew ever more resentful:

"New groups, whole families, kept arriving. He could see a change come over them as they had become part of the crowd. Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.

"All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters... dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

"Once there, they discover that sunshine isn't enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears, and passion fruit. Nothing happens... did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn't any ocean where most of them came from, but after you've seen one wave, you've seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. 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. They realize that they've been tricked and burn with resentment. 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. Nothing can be ever violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies."


Heh. My ancestors. One of my great-grandfathers arrived in Los Angeles during the boom of the 1880s and used his savings to open a grocery store in a rapidly expanding neighborhood southeast of downtown. The boom collapsed and he went broke. The family story, invariably told in hushed voice, is that he then moved to a shack somewhere out in the high desert and drank himself to death. There are other such stories in the family, and probably in every family descended from members of that long stream of California immigrants. In my great-grandfather's case, had he held on for a few years, he'd have seen the next boom come along. Another boom always has come along in Los Angeles. When it does, those ruined in the previous collapse are simply forgotten. The city has, as do all boomtowns, an entire archaeology of buried lives concealed under its prosperous glitter.

A lot of reviewers give the impression that West's book is about Hollywood, or the movie industry. They miss the point. It isn't even just about California. It's about the modern world, about the disappointment and rage and destructiveness which result from the realization that reality cannot live up to the illusion, that the extravagant promise has not been kept. It's about the relentless detachment from reality which characterizes so much of modern life. It's about the loss of the tragic sense of life, and what fills the void which that loss creates.

Airplanes don't crash at Glendale anymore. That suburb's Grand Central Airport was long ago rendered obsolete by the growing size and speed of commercial aircraft and was subsequently subdivided and built over. Of course, with television, people need no longer hang out at an airport in hopes of seeing a plane crash. They can see it live or on videotape delay (over and over again) from the comfort of their own homes. Nathaniel West died in a car crash the year after The Day of the Locust was published. His work is not widely known. I wonder what he'd have made of 24 hour cable news? I wonder what he'd have made of that giant pink bunny?
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