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.