Puzzle in Hollywood: Discovering Nathanael West’s Hidden Structure

George Dantzig solved unsolvable math problems because he assumed they had solutions.  In my case, I discovered both the problem and the solution when I was assigned an oral presentation on the structure of The Day of the Locust during a college course on novels taught by a Nathanael West scholar.

The presumed solution to the problem of structure in West’s classic 1939 Hollywood novel had already been stated in class.  There’s a riot in the first chapter and also in the final Chapter 27.  The middle Chapter 14 was published as a short story before West wrote the novelMy Dantzig-like assumption was that I had to find something else to say about structure to get a good grade.

On the evening that I worked on the assignment, I immersed myself in the novel for hours before I saw the first clue.  At one point in West’s story, there is a major plot event similar to another event later in the novel.  I realized that the chapters for these two events are equidistant from the central Chapter 14, just like the two riots.  When I looked at the pairs of chapters, 2 and 26, 3 and 25, 4 and 24, etc., I discovered that each pair is a match.  The first half of the novel is reflected in the mirror of the second half.  I had searched for hours, but once I saw the first clue, it took only minutes to figure out the entire novel.  Like a wooden Chinese puzzle, the pieces just fell into place.

I gave my presentation and I was certainly expecting some nice compliments, but I had not even finished the first sentence when the instructor leaned forward in shock.  With just as much shock, I realized this West scholar had not seen the puzzle.  I spent the rest of the presentation aggressively defending my thesis.

That semester I was taking an overload, so after this incident I just went on to the next novel.  Later when I was a library school student at the University of Chicago, there was some national news about professors taking credit for the work of their grad students.  I remembered that I had handed my college instructor a nice fat journal article.  Although I didn’t look into it, the story gave me some standing with my fellow Chicago students.

After graduation, my career immediately veered from traditional librarianship.  I built a new classification system with my first professional position and continued in that direction, building new classifications for a multitude of clients, subjects and materials.  My specialty now is the design of taxonomies and other structures for information presentation.  I’m good at this because I have a natural ability to see patterns, which is why I recognized the puzzle in The Day of the Locust.

A few years ago I attended a professional meeting in New Orleans.  Pam Rollo, now the President of the Special Libraries Association, arranged a dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants.  It is an evening that I will cherish for many reasons.  Pam and I were talking about my unusual career path when I mentioned the Nathanael West story as an early indication of my skills.  I said that if my teacher, a West scholar, hadn’t seen the puzzle, then nobody had seen it.

It was then I understood my obligation to Nathanael West and decided to pursue the discovery.  I studied, and continue to study, the major criticism on The Day of the Locust.  As far as the literary community is concerned, the structure of the novel consists of two riots and a short story in the middle.  IsisInBlog is the first publication of the puzzle.  Its details will be explored in future postings when I reveal Nathanael West’s elegant mirrored chapters.

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Jan 2006

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