Surface and Secret in a Superficial Los Angeles: The Day of the Locust and The Big Sleep

Los Angeles is a city people flock to when they want to reinvent themselves, a city where appearance and show are of paramount importance. After all, it is home to the world's greatest manufacturers of illusion and beauty. It comes as no surprise that writers have focused on working with the stereotypical image of a superficial Los Angeles. Two works that do so are Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Both authors set the tone of their stories by emphasizing the misleading facades of a superficial Los Angeles; this superficiality is then epitomized by the novels' respective central female characters. The conclusions of both novels seem to offer a condemnation of the overemphasis on superficiality.

Although two stories of vastly different genres and styles, The Day of the Locust and The Big Sleep both rely heavily on the disparity between superficial appearance and the reality underneath that appearance. West and Chandler use this disparity to delineate their stories' physical and emotional landscapes. In The Day of the Locust, the first things Tod Hackett notices upon arriving in Los Angeles are its people and its architecture. Both try to be something they are not. He describes the people as "masquerades"(60) who use their clothing to simulate rustic characteristics. Similarly, the buildings are in a myriad of styles--Samoan, Mediterranean, Egyptian, Japanese--but beneath the pretty exteriors they are only "plaster, lath, and paper"(61). One of the early scenes of the novel features Tod stumbling upon what he had thought was a puppy in a blanket but which turned out to be "a male dwarf rolled up in a woman's flannel bathrobe"(63). An initial picture of innocence and harmlessness turns into something grotesque. In this manner throughout the novel, West takes pains to expose the shallow and somewhat perverted interior that rests within the beautiful Hollywood exterior. For example, the Estees keep a statue of a dead horse at the bottom of their swimming pool so they can "[show] it to people and [listen] to their merriment and their oh's and ah's of unconfined delight"(71). Mrs. Jennings makes a career out of disguise: "She makes a vice attractive by skillful packaging"(72). Similarly, Raymond Chandler also focuses on deceiving exteriors hiding what is corrupt inside. A prime example of this would be the bright, grandiose Sternwood mansion with a stained-glass display of chivalry over its doors. However, Philip Marlowe--after witnessing the depravity and ugliness that exist behind those doors--notes that "knights had no meaning in this game"(707). As in The Day of the Locust, human beings and physical locations adopt all manners of disguises. The smut peddler Arthur Geiger pretends to sell collectible books, and his customers all appear to be "very nice-looking people"(610). The hedge in front of Geiger's home also serves as a mask that attempts to conceal the dealings inside the house. Even for a detective novel, it seems a disproportionate amount of characters in the story harbor another identity or secret intents. Both West and Chandler portray Hollywood as a festering den of iniquity that lurks beneath the superficial facade of normalcy.

Intriguingly, both The Day of the Locust and The Big Sleep revolve around corrupt female characters who appear to thrive in such superficial surroundings. They themselves come off as being superficial; they are pretty but they are shallow and rotten underneath. It is as if these women are personifications of their surroundings. Everything about Faye Greener seems superficial. West describes her as having "odd mannerisms" and "an artificial voice"(94). Her "elaborate gestures" are "completely meaningless"(94). West connects her artificiality and her hypocrisy with her Hollywood upbringing when he remarks that "while [Faye] often recognized the falseness of an attitude, she persisted in it because she didn't know how to be simpler or more honest. She was an actress who had learned from bad models in a bad school"(104). In other words, her superficiality is a natural extension of her surroundings. Faye's physical beauty and her childlike qualities are touched upon extensively, but she has virtually no other redeeming characteristics. She behaves like the spoiled child she is throughout the entire novel. She toys with Tod, with Homer Simpson, with Miguel and with Earle, but she is kind to neither. Her cruelty is evident in the way she forces Homer to drink alcohol and then laughs at him when he makes a mess. She has little concern for others. When Earle clobbers Miguel, she runs away without turning back to see if Miguel's all right. Similarly, after the violent fracas in her living room after which Abe and Earle end up unconscious, the only thing Faye appears to be concerned about are her ruined pajamas. Despite all the harm Faye inflicts upon others--directly or indirectly--by all appearances she appears to move on unscathed at the end of the novel. The same applies to Carmen Sternwood. When Marlowe first meets her in the Sternwood's foyer, his description of her as "small and delicately put together"(590) seems innocuous enough; if her unhealthy appearance and "sharp predatory teeth"(590) briefly unsettle the reader, her giggling signals that she is a vacuous yet harmless child. As Marlowe discovers later, this is far from the truth. As her crazed, murderous ways are gradually revealed, Chandler introduces more animalistic terms in describing Carmen. Her teeth, the hissing sounds, "her eyes still empty yet full of some jungle emotion"(708). Carmen, too, shares Faye's lack of concern as she giggles and acts coquettishly, seemingly unaware of or disclaiming all responsibility for the murders she committed. At the end of the novel, Chandler leaves the impression that although Carmen will be watched over, she will not change: the impotent stained-glass knight is incapable of reforming her. Like Faye, Carmen inflicts pain on everyone around her yet emerges blissfully unaware of her crimes.

Both West and Chandler depict a Los Angeles in which appearances diverge radically from truths, a Los Angeles where corrupt, heartless women like Faye Greener and Carmen Sternwood thrive because they make the best use of their beguiling appearances. If West and Chandler condemn the superficiality and hypocrisy of Los Angeles and its inhabitants, they are equally critical of the indulgence such a society extends toward the likes of their own: Faye and Carmen. In the end they remain virtually unchanged, their blackness barely producing shadows in the bright California sun.