Yesterday I was good. I managed to read through a whole book in one day. The booking being Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust.
I was a little afraid of this book and hesitated before picking it up. It promised to be depressing in the usual gritty way. The way that hasn’t got a single speck of hope or a likeable character on it. My mood has been pretty down in the dumps lately, so I wasn’t sure that’s the book I’d want to be reading right now.
But I liked this book. It’s one of the very few of its kind I have liked. It didn’t depress me and I think it’s because I read it completely wrong. Schoolteachers like to say that there is no wrong way of interpreting literature. This is a falsehood and they’d have had to own up to it if faced with some of my takes. I think I read it with an innocence/sincerity that is not expected of a modern reader.
I also liked the narrative voice / tone of this work and I suspect that is what made all the difference between The Day of the Locust and your average misanthrope’s depress-fest. It wasn’t the typical detached and uncaring style of someone studying life forms under a microscope. It also wasn’t judgemental. I got thinking that it (the narrative) works for me because it doesn’t go on the same level with its subject matter. It’s not part of the swamp of mundanity and sordidness. It’s outside it. It’s compassionate and kind towards the victims. Reading it was bizarrely non-depressing.
One of the most well-known quotes from the novel is this:
Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears. When they finish, they feel better. But to those without hope, whose anguish is basic and permanent, no good comes from crying. Nothing changes for them. They usually know this, but still can’t help crying.
Yet I found it hopeful rather than irredeemably pessimistic. And I can’t think why. I’ll try a wild stab in the dark: if you acknowledge that so many people are unhappy, because the world is shit and has cheated them out of a wholesome life by feeding them on cans of Hollywood dreams, that they don’t mean to be doing these corrupt and vile things, but are victims, not agents. Well. If the novel brushes against the possibility of such an interpretation, then that kind of interpretation brings it to my court of humanism and away from misanthropy. I suppose, if the author can feel a degree of tenderness, and I as a reader can feel it, then maybe within that tenderness is a little hope? The sort of hope that comes from being in this together.
I might be taking it too far, but I think the victims vs. agents and sympathy vs. detachment/disapproval could be the reasons for why I liked this book and almost no other on a similar theme.
I did skip one scene though. I’ve got a few things I always skip in books and films: animal cruelty, violent torture and rape. This book had animal cruelty and since I pretty quickly figured out where this was going, I skipped to the next chapter. I don’t need any of those things in graphic detail to feel their horribleness.
It’s quite a nightmarish, violent, apocalyptic work, really. And these should be the foci of a correct reading, but my reading was mostly dominated by this flicker of hope, and more shamefully still, finding the character of Homer very cute, and the protectiveness of Tod towards him to be very cute also. Maybe those two things were parts of my perceived hope, too.
Early fresh thoughts like these then.