Tod Hackett finishes a day on the job as a set designer for National Films in Hollywood. He hears a racket outside his office and looks out his window to see an army of British, French, and Scottish soldiers running and riding in a frenzy. Apparently the cast of a movie being shot, they follow the direction of a studio employee yelling impatiently through a megaphone.
Tod leaves his office and decides to take a streetcar partway home and then walk the rest of the way because he is lazy. Tod has been in Hollywood for three months, since he was recruited and hired by telegram from the Yale School of Fine Arts. Tod's appearance makes him seem almost mentally slow, but he is complicated, with many personalities, "one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes."
As Tod gets off the streetcar on Vine Street and begins his walk home, he observes the people of Hollywood and divides them into two classes. The first class is made up of the people who seem to be coming from or going to somewhere. These people generally wear clothing that does not correspond to their occupation, such as a woman in a yachting cap who is not sailing, but merely shopping. The second class consists of those people who are going nowhere. These people simply stare about them and look meanly at anyone who stares back. Tod identifies this class of people as those who "had come to California to die." It is this type of people whom Tod would like to include in the painting he plans to paint to display his true talent. He has already named the painting "The Burning of Los Angeles."
Tod had considered giving up painting during his final year at art school. He had become less interested in the aesthetic problems of great painting, and instead moved towards mere attractive illustration. It is for this reason that Tod jumped at the Hollywood job, despite the protests of his art school friends who claimed he was "selling out."
Tod walks the rest of the way home into Pinyon Canyon. The hills and trees of the canyon are ugly, but are improved slightly by the light from the setting sun resting on them. Observing the houses of the canyon, Tod notices the strangeness of their architecture, with representatives of many different periods and places and styles, but all built with flimsy materials like paper and plaster. He does not laugh at the incongruity and monstrosity of the effect this architecture produces, but only sighs in sadness.
The first three chapters introduce us to Tod Hackett, and it is through his point of view that we see most of the events of the novel. Tod has only recently arrived in Hollywood from the very different atmosphere of art school across the country at Yale. He still spends much of his time noticing his new surroundings, and his presentation of the people and sights of Los Angeles combine the detailed, material observations of a artist with the detached, analytical commentary of an intellectual and outsider
The novel's very first image—a fake army running across a studio lot dressed in the costumes of centuries-old European soldiers—plunges us headlong into the artifice and masquerade of Hollywood. The scene swiftly shifts to the streets of the city, where such artifice and masquerade persist even outside the confines of the studio lots, in people's costume-like clothes and the jumbled, artificial architecture that attempts to recreate styles from around the globe and throughout history. Appropriate to his job as a set- designer, Tod plays the narrative role of a behind-the-scenes man. He highlights the "actors" and materials behind the appearances: he explains that the woman in the boating hat is shopping, not boating, and he explains that the seemingly stucco, thatched, or stone houses are really made of plaster and paper. Tod is not scornful of these day-to-day masquerades: as a painter and designer himself, he understands the need for handsome presentation. Instead of laughing at the botched architecture, he reacts with sadness at the result of these attempts at artistic beauty that lack skill, taste, and quality materials.
West portrays Tod as somewhat above this Hollywood need for fantasy and artifice, a detached observer of them. He takes these instances of artifice as his artistic subject, depicting them in his paintings. Tod's paintings represent art, not artificiality: his masters are "Goya and Daumier." His newfound desire to paint the people of Hollywood has saved him from sinking to the realm of boring illustration and "mere handsomeness."
Tod's position of detachment and slight superiority over the fantasyland of Hollywood shifts through the course of the novel. Even now we see a hint of these upcoming shifts in Tod's somewhat inordinate interest in other detached spectators—the Midwesterners who stand around the city idly staring, the people who have "come to California to die." With the incorporation of these "starers" into the Hollywood landscape, the population becomes divided into groups of those who perform, or who are stared at, and those who comprise the audience, the starers. Attempting to place Tod within this division is somewhat difficult because of the affinities he shares with the starers: outsider status, detachment, and so on. Tod's efforts at painting the street audience watching various performers make his personality seem like a set of Chinese boxes. The relations between audience and performer within the paintings are difficult to analyze even to begin with, and another layer of complication emerges when we consider the relation Tod, the painter, has to the painting.