The novel's brief first chapter introduces the protagonist, Tod Hackett, and many major themes. It also shows how West will use his protagonist's stream of thoughts (and later Homer Simpson's) simultaneously to create character and to analyze the Hollywood milieu. The Hollywood sets that Tod observes are our first clues to the city's false face, and they are immediately contrasted with the incongruous appearance of its successful citizens, whose garb belies their real occupations, and then West compares these people with the desperate poor, those who hate everything they stare at. These falsities are paralleled by Hollywood's pretentious and imitative architecture, whose artificiality is emphasized by the shoddiness of its material. The chapter blends Tod's observations of this fraudulence with a brief sketch of his character and background.
Tod's complicated personality partly explains what we will see later as his obsessive interest in Faye Greener and his combined sympathy and criticism for much that he sees. His plan for his painting, The Burning of Los Angeles, launches the novel's apocalyptic theme, affirming Tod's seriousness as an artist, and here West hints at Tod's aggressive pleasure in thoughts of destruction. Tod's desire to imitate the art of Goya and Daumier, great painters who portrayed lower-class life satirically, identifies Tod as an incipient social critic. However, he will become engulfed in the fantastic world which he means to criticize. The contradictions in Tod's character are manifested in his wish to see the fraudulent architecture dynamited, and in his recognition at the same time that few things are sadder than "the truly monstrous," and that ordinary people can long for beauty and romance. This chapter contrasts dreams and reality, the permanent and the impermanent, the outside and the inside (as in the incongruity of Tod's plain appearance and his inner sensitivity), and his dual feelings of compassion and violence.