Sunday, September 13, 2015

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

We never actually learn the name of the journalist who has been assigned the Miss Lonelyhearts column in Nathanael West's strange and very short novel. He is referred to only as "Miss Lonelyhearts" and thus even the narrator participates in the constant ridicule he is subjected to. It's the deepest part of the Depression and Miss Lonelyhearts just needs a job, so he has taken the gig. But he suffers sympathetically with the suffering in the letters that pour into the newspaper for him daily. That's all. He prowls the hard streets of New York City, that most modern of all metropolises, not quite yet dragging himself through Allen Ginsberg's negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, but that's where he's headed. He has to take what he can get for employment, a young man trying to establish himself, and what he gets is a basketful of pain. He suffers, not least from being the fortunate one in a sea of misery, the miserable one who knows he is fortunate. As comedy, as intended, the fundamental situation never changes. Doing nothing is impossible—Miss Lonelyhearts is too naïve and idealistic still, too young and callow—but doing anything only makes everything worse. And so it goes, occasionally "relieved" by passages from the letters he receives, reads, responds to, and ultimately flirts with oblivion to get away from. The letters bring news of humanity's sad wellsprings ongoing. Going on today still, 80+ years and counting, as they no doubt will be in 800+ years and counting, if humanity can survive its follies, which presently looks doubtful. I like the compressions of West best of all. This novel moves so quickly and at such acute angles it's easy to miss the fathomless depths it sits atop. In that way it reads to me more of a piece with the invention of pulp noir that was then taking place, with the work of William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett, combining formal structural experiments with a pebbly hard narrative stream of headlong momentum. James M. Cain did not just come out of nowhere, of course. At the same time, no one else seemed even close to West's ability to look into the abyss, suffer the psychological damage, and attempt to report back, the witness to "victims burnt at the stake, signaling through flames." Overall, the recourse to Antonin Artaud is not inapt for this dark little funny book.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Inspired by your reviews of "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust" back in September, I dug out my old New Directions paperback containing both titles, and re-read them for the first time in 30 years or more. I don't remember how I rated the two novels originally, but "Miss Lonelyhearts" was my favorite this time, as West's conceit of always calling the protagonist only by his advice column's byline remains just too perfect, and the letters written by Mrs. Doyle and her "cripple" of a husband to the columnist are unbelievably funny and truly sad at the same time. Speaking of Mrs. Doyle, the book is also much more sexually graphic than I recalled; as it was published in 1933, it must have been a "pre-code" novel.

    On re-reading "Day of the Locust", I'll grant that it probably is West's supreme literary achievement, even if I like "Lonelyhearts" a bit better. I was bothered in "Locust" this time by the cockfight (Hemingwayesque macho bluster, probably already a cliche' in the '30s)) and by Tod's repeated desire to put Faye in her place by "raping" her, which of course grates on our (relatively) enlightened 21st-Century souls -- as with the other car that ended his life, West didn't see that one coming. But his portrait of Homer Simpson (the Elder) is brilliant, especially the concept of Homer's hands as autonomous agents within his body, which recalls a similar character in Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio".

    Still eager for more West novellas after my double date above, I visited Half Price Books and scored a used Penguin paperback of "The Dream Life of Balso Snell", which pairs it with "Day of the Locust"(!) -- I guess even a Hollywoodian apocalypse could stand a re-take now & then. Tod would know.

    Dreamed life, Richard Riegel

  2. Thanks Richard! That's a great connection with the Anderson story "Hands." Let me know what you think of Balso Snell, I've never read any further with West.

  3. Brief follow-up here, as I did get "The Dream Life of Balso Snell" read recently. It was West's first book (1931), and is much more surrealist than his later novels, though also more episodic, without the kind of coherent plot that distinguishes both "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "Day of the Locust". Parts of "Balso Snell" are very funny, while others just seem bitter if mordantly surreal. Worth a read in any case. Snell tested, Richard R.