Modernism, eh, what’s it all about? For Marinetti art is violence, cruelty and injustice. Fellow Futurists Zdanevich and Larionov described painting as the newsman, recording the ephemeral change of us all. For Eliot, the poet must remove his own personality from the work. Kandinsky the expressionist accused people of being blind and resistant to the new. Ortega y Gasset wanted the dehumanisation of art. Max Nordau said we were in the middle of a severe mental epidemic, with “clubs of suicides” in every city. For Rimbaud, the poet was the thief of fire and language contained everything. All of them fighting against something, all of them seemingly standing outside everything. After all that, that forced and enforced and forceful alienation, what is left of art, literature, the mimetic interpretation of human life? Is the human still there, beneath the stylisation, the despair, the isolation? Or is modernism a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community?
Modernism seems to be characterised by a surfeit of straining. Everything must be presented in terms of the battle between life and art, or life and death, or nature and humanity, or nature and religion or something-this and something-that. Modernism is life made binary, and within the limiting poles of that binary reduction, emotion is rendered into struggle. Fear in a handful of dust, a crowd flowing over London Bridge, so many undone by death, so many.
Some of that can be seen in the works of Nathanael West, and yet, for me, he transcends the limitations of other modernist writers. How? I’m not sure, but I think it is by his insistent satirical bent. There is nothing arch about his satire. It hasn’t mutated into the tedious knowingness which blights post-modernism, for example. Nor, for all the violence in his novels, is there outright cruelty in the satire. And there is, above all, something human about it: his characters, grotesques and caricatures though they may be, devoid of rational thought, unable to see beyond their own limitations, still somehow manage to feel human. You care about the almost catatonically passive Homer Simpson in The Day of the Locust. You probably shouldn’t, but you do. Likewise Faye Greener, who appears to have few redeeming features other than her great beauty, but who still instils in the reader something more than mere priapic desire. Where, in other modernist works, characters become subsumed within the debased culture which is being examined, so that they become as flat and debased as that culture itself, in Nathanael West’s fiction his characters seem to be on lonely crusades for something – decency perhaps, hope, aspiration. And the reason that happens, I think, is the insistent humour which pervades the work, humour derived from the author as narrator but also from the characters as protagonists. West, like James Purdy, is simultaneously funny on different levels.
Oddly, though, a bald summary of the plot would not give the impression of a humorous novel. Rather, it would suggest a novel of great loneliness, of fractured ideals and ambitions. Individually, the characters are a ragbag of losers: Tod Hackett is an artist who struggles between the naturalism of his training and a sense of “moral indignation” which he wishes to portray, in the manner of Goya or Daumier, through works like the apocalyptic Burning of Los Angeles. He is hopelessly in love with Faye Greener, an aspiring but failed actress, luminously beautiful but impossibly vacuous, reduced, finally to prostitution. Her father is Harry Greener, another failed actor, hamming his way through life as a door-to-door salesman, whose best performance may or may not be the heart attack he may or may not be experiencing. Homer Simpson is an accountant whose connection with reality appears to have been severed, whose idealism and naivety makes him the perfect foil for charlatans and neer-do-wells. We also have Texan Earle Shoop, a man short of intelligence or charisma or charm; Abe Kusich, a dwarf with a vile temper and tendency to repel those who wish to help; and Miguel, the Mexican with criminal leanings, taking advanatage wherever possible, drawing Homer and Faye among others, under his spell. As you see, then, not an impressive array of characters. The community of broken dreams and broken people in The Day of the Locust is as extreme as may be found anywhere in fiction. I began by asking if modernism is a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community. Well perhaps. The end of The Day of the Locust gives us:
all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super "Dr. Know- All Pierce - All" had made the necessary promise and they were marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.
It is not a great stretch to see, from this, a descent into Nuremberg and its rallies, or to extend into the future and see, once the dance is over, the nothingness of McCarthy’s The Road. So am I arguing that this is a pessimistic novel, that its message is one of unmitigated despair? No. I don’t believe that, and I don’t feel it when I read Nathanael West. Why is that?
There is a sense of pathos running throughout the novel. You don’t pity the characters, as such – that would be distancing, creating a barrier between them and the reader. But a generalised sense of pity, or regret, or basic sadness seems to infest them, and their humour and the humour that surrounds them becomes bittersweet, poignant. While laughing at the situations, you wish they weren’t so; while enjoying the characters, you wonder how they could get more pleasure from life if they could step outside their illusions. You cannot help these people but, given the chance, you might wish to try. It is the Pinnochio principle, perhaps. These puppets want to be real and that, the only real thing about them, is what makes them so endearing.
And here, West turns some alchemical magic on the reader as well, because we become complicit in the characters’ dreams. They won’t change: West knows that, we know that; like Jacques the Fatalist, whatever plot diversions life may throw at them, they will finally veer back on to the same, lonely by-road down which they were always destined to travel. That is the way of all of us, perhaps, but, through his sad and lonely characters, Nathanael West allows us the luxury of dreaming otherwise, if only for a little while.