My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nathanael West’s 1933 novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, has passionate defenders. Harold Bloom declares it his favorite modern novel; in his chapter on it in How to Read and Why, he notes that Flannery O’Connor’s own two favorite modern novels, which she saw as akin to each other, were As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts. And there is a blurb inside my New Directions edition from Stanley Edgar Hyman calling it “one of the three best American novels of the first half of our century (with The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby)”—Hyman is better known today as Shirley Jackson’s husband, and Shirley Jackson and Nathanael West are clearly birds of a feather. I first read the novella in my teens, under orders from the aforementioned Bloom, but was moved to re-read it recently when a friend told me how hard it was to share in the classroom with the trigger warning generation. In his grimly comic indignation at the horror of human existence, West wants to squeeze every trigger in sight.
The very conceit of the novella is a provocation: Miss Lonelyhearts (a young male writer who is never referred to by any other name, not even by the impersonal narrator) is the advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. He is tormented by the letters he receives (real letters that West actually appropriated from a newspaper job), to whose anguish there is really no answer. Take this one from a sixteen-year-old girl without a nose:
What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?
This is hard to read because you have to receive it both as unutterably sad and also as horribly funny. There are sensibilities for which this kind of thing can never be funny, but mine is not one of them. The deadpan of the final question, the somewhat cynical naïveté of “Even if I did do some bad things,” the slightly ludicrous extremity of the overall situation—these add up to a bleak laughter at the nature of things; I do not think it is a cruel laughter, though, it is more akin to the self-mortifying laughter in Swift or Beckett—or Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor—at the common plight in which we are all complicit. When West gets around to depicting actually cruel laughter, as when Miss Lonelyheart’s friends in the speakeasy are trading rape jokes even as they metafictionally mock the ’30s vogue for “hard boiled” writing, the narrator informs us of such cruelty’s etiology:
Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.
Miss Lonelyheart’s co-worker Shrike—named for a predatory “butcher bird”—is the agent of unbelief. He tortures Miss Lonelyhearts by mocking and parodying every escape route from loneliness, despair, and violence. His systematically parodies religious belief, devotion to nature, love of art, and even the easier escapes of drugs and alcohol. The spirit of cynicism and sarcasm, he leaves no potentially redemptive discourse unmocked; he refutes nothing, but leaves every argument and way of life looking tawdry and ridiculous (I would be surprised if no critic has compared him to such canonically suspicious hermeneutists as Lacan, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.).
Miss Lonelyhearts, for his part, is described this way:
Although his cheap clothes had too much style, he still looked like the son of a Baptist minister. A beard would become him, would accent his Old–Testament look. But even without a beard no one could fail to recognize the New England puritan. His forehead was high and narrow. His nose was long and fleshless. His bony chin was shaped and cleft like a hoof.
He is, in other words, a descendant of all those compromised goodmen and ministers in Hawthorne who wanted to be holy but in whose flesh the thorns of temptation and guilt left bloody lacerations. He has a Christ complex—and a statue of Christ’s body nailed to the wall in his one-room lodging, along with his copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a bookmark in the Father Zossima chapter. Shrike preys upon this: “He was thinking of how Shrike had accelerated his sickness by teaching him to handle his one escape, Christ, with a thick glove of words.” In search of some relief, Miss Lonelyhearts pursues love, first with his sometime girlfriend Betty and then with one of his letter-writers, a woman seemingly desperate for sex because she is “married to a cripple.” The novella’s swiftly narrated sequence of horrible incidents, all with ironically blasé chapter headings (“Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit,” “Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience”), demonstrate the impossibility of religious belief in the modern world and the Ecclesiastes emptiness of a world without faith. Loveless sex, with occasional beatings, and a climax in delirium and violence, are all that Shrike’s world has to offer. The novella is immensely impressive, and its pared-down imagistic prose and starkly allegorical energy seem to set a standard for modern American writing. The mix of humor and horror is almost unavailable to the literary class today, lost as we are in smug neo-Victoriana (the ’30s may well have been too hard-boiled, but we are weakly poached in our own self-righteous tears).
Still—and maybe I am just a philistine—I prefer West’s longer 1939 novel of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, to Miss Lonelyhearts. The later novel far more successfully dramatizes the earlier novella’s themes, demonstrating them through character and incident rather than asserting them; also, the proto-postmodern space of Hollywood, which is the occasion for so much of West’s brilliant descriptive writing, is a superbly persuasive “objective correlative” (I am feeling old-fashioned today) for the spiritual emptiness of modern life. The novel’s protagonist is Tod Hackett, an aspiring artist and Yale graduate who has been brought west to be a set designer. In L.A., he becomes infatuated with his neighbor, Faye Greener, a beautiful young wannabe actress whose dying father, a brilliant Dickensian grotesque, is an old vaudevillian who never stops the act. For her part, Faye rejects Tod because he has no money and no prospects. She takes up instead with a midwestern transplant named Homer Simpson (yes, that’s where Matt Groening came by the name), a man of no experience in flight from his urges and desires. The novel is again episodic, a series of fairly horrible scenes (a vividly described cockfight, Tod’s rape-like pursuit of Faye, Faye’s own abusive torment of the naif Homer, etc.), but the main action, witnessed by the passive Tod, is Homer’s destruction by the corrupt world to which Faye has introduced him. Throughout, Tod is planning his great painting, The Burning of Los Angeles—and the novel’s famously spectacular climax, at an infernal film premiere, spiritually if not literally makes good on the painting’s title. West’s major theme seems to be the universal ubiquity of predation, its necessity in the human psychic economy. Here is how Tod thinks of Faye:
If he only had the courage to throw himself on her. Nothing less violent than rape would do. The sensation he felt was like that he got when holding an egg in his hand. Not that she was fragile or even seemed fragile. It wasn’t that. It was her completeness, her egglike self-sufficiency, that made him want to crush her.
And here is how Faye thinks of Homer:
His servility was like that of a cringing, clumsy dog, who is always anticipating a blow, welcoming it even, and in a way that makes overwhelming the desire to strike him. His generosity was still more irritating. It was so helpless and unselfish that it made her feel mean and cruel, no matter how hard she tried to be kind.
This is impressively penetrating psychology, but West really outdoes himself in his descriptions of Hollywood, a kind of artificial paradise where viciously bored Americans have “come to die.” In one bravura chapter, Tod seeks Faye throughout a sequence of film sets, moving through all the adjacent faked epochs they represent, until a recreation of Waterloo ends in real destruction when the set collapses. The scenic descriptions in the opening chapter sound this theme:
He reached the end of Vine Street and began the climb into Pinyon Canyon. Night had started to fall.
The edges of the trees burned with a pale violet light and their centers gradually turned from deep purple to black. The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, hump-backed hills and they were almost beautiful.
But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.
When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used. Steel, stone and brick curb a builder’s fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.
On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights. Again he was charitable. Both houses were comic, but he didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless.
It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.
This is satire, but more than satire: it is also sympathy. Our “need” has brought us to such a pass as the creation of Hollywood. Made of paper, it will easily burn, but the artist—Tod, West—is there to mark its passing, even if there is no other agency of redemption.