Monday, May 1, 2023

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Source of book: I own this.


This is one of the darkest books I have read, although it is a comedy in its own way. The level of despair and hopelessness is almost painful. This is not to imply it is not worth reading - it definitely is. 

 Those 1930s mustaches, from Groucho Marx on down...

But first, a bit about Nathanael West. West was one of those authors who was fairly unknown during his short lifetime, but gained in reputation afterward. He was part of a group of authors during the 1930s, who were all connected by friendship (and in some cases by family ties), including William Carlos Williams, Edmund Wilson, Dashiell Hammett, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh, and also S. J. Perelman, who married West’s sister. 


West is primarily known for two novels, The Day of the Locust, and this one, Miss Lonelyhearts. He also wrote screenplays, mostly for forgettable B movies. This and the slow sales of his novels meant he was in constant financial difficulty. Ironically, his novels became successful movies later. 


Miss Lonelyhearts was adapted to the screen three times. The first, in 1933, was a very loose adaptation, seeming to borrow the name and idea but not the plot. The 1958 version, starring Montgomory Clift, also changed a lot, including the ending. Sigh. But it sold. The 1983 TV movie version was apparently so unmemorable as to warrant a mere sentence of description. There was also a Broadway play that didn’t go anywhere, and an opera commissioned by Julliard, of all things. 


The book is a brief novella, consisting of a series of episodes in the life of the titular character. Miss Lonelyhearts is a man who writes a newspaper column by that name, and expected to give helpful (or at least acceptable) advice to his readers when they write in. 


The problem is that the letters are so incredibly sad, and the dilemmas so unsolvable, that Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself depressed and in despair. The woman who has had 12 children and is in ill health, but whose husband forces himself on her anyway. The teen whose disabled sister has been raped. The teen girl who is bullied for being ugly. And so on. This leads to a mental health crisis, and a spiral into increasing hopelessness. 


Miss Lonelyhearts tries different approaches to feeling better. He attempts to recapture the religion of his youth, but finds that he cannot believe in a god who allows such incredible suffering to happen to innocent people. He spends the weekend in the country with his supportive (but puzzled) girlfriend. While nature makes her feel better, he feels nothing from it. He has an affair with his boss’ wife, and then with a married reader. But he feels nothing and ends up striking out violently instead. Nothing works. 


At the end, with his girlfriend pregnant, he seems almost resigned to marry her and find a job that isn’t killing his soul, but the husband of the woman he slept with shows up with a gun, and…


Well, actually, that is the ending that the movies couldn’t handle. The result is ambiguous. Who dies? Miss Lonelyhearts? The husband? Both? Neither? We never know, but are left with the existential despair that pervades the narrative. 


There is a cutting, vicious, black sort of humor throughout. Everything is a bit over the top, and sometimes you want to laugh but also look away, because it is so horrible. 


For example, in the opening scene, Miss Lonelyhearts is trying hard to come up with a socially acceptable reply to a letter. 


“Life is worthwhile, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstacy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.” 


I mean, that is both hilarious and sad at the same time. It is an exaggeration of the cheap platitudes so often offered in the face of suffering, isn’t it? ML is just better at it than average. 


The newspaper editor, Shrike, is a rather vulgar, unpleasant sort, but he has a weird kind of insight into the culture. Here is my favorite of his lines:


“The Susan Chesters, the Beatrice Fairfaxes and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America.” 


The problem for Miss Lonelyhearts, though, is that he is a priest who cannot get a response from God. He explains the problem to his sympathetic girlfriend.


“Perhaps I can make you understand. Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.”


I was struck by that particular line, that one has to examine the values by which one lives. I was significantly changed by the two years I spent working at Legal Aid early in my career. You start to see things, that there is a lot of undeserved suffering, often made worse by heartless political policies. It is also a lot harder to just believe that God will somehow fix all of it.  


Miss Lonelyhearts went home in a taxi. He lived by himself in a room that was as full as an old steel engraving. It held a bed, a table, and two chairs. The walls were bare except for an ivory Christ that hung opposite the foot of the bed. He had removed the figure from the cross to which it had been fastened, and had nailed it to the wall with large spikes. But the desired effect had not been obtained. Instead of writhing, the Christ remained calmly decorative. 


Dark humor for sure. Another example of that is a scene in a bar, where a bunch of guys are complaining about women writers. And the fact they all seem to have three names. It goes badly downhill from there. 


Then someone started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape. 


The stories themselves are almost certainly not true, but they are the kind of “gee I wish all the uppity women got gang raped” sort of nastiness. I wish I could say this has gone away, but there seem to be men like this still. Miss Lonelyhearts doesn’t partake in this, but essentially dissociates and gets drunk. 


It is hard to know entirely what to make of Shrike. He appears to know that his wife is sleeping around on him, and it doesn’t really bother him. Not that he likes her much anyway, but he has no interest in dumping her either. 


“She’s selfish. She’s a damned selfish bitch. She was a virgin when I married her and has been fighting ever since to remain one. Sleeping with her is like sleeping with a knife in one’s groin.”


As far as that goes, the affairs she has are implied to stop just short of sex. Miss Lonelyhearts’ other affair is no better. He is unable to numb his pain, and instead ends up sick for a few weeks. In his delirium, he imagines being in a pawn shop. 


He found himself in the window of a pawnshop full of fur coats, diamond rings, watches, shotguns, fishing tackle, mandolins. All these things were the paraphernalia of suffering. A tortured high light twisted on the blade of a gift knife, a battered horn grunting with pain.


I’ll mention one last thing in this book. There are the occasional racial slurs, as you tend to find often in books from this era. However, West isn’t the one using them. The characters are the ones using them, and I don’t mean Miss Lonelyhearts. The boors in the bar use the n word because that is a way of making a gang rape even more humiliating. Or, the guy working the gas station out in the country says that it isn’t the hunters who drove the deer from the woods, but the Jewish people. (Insert a racial slur for Jewish people…) How this was supposed to happen, he never explains. I imagine that for West, of Jewish heritage himself, with the original surname of Weinstein, this was part of the senselessness of American society, just another example of its incurable stupidity and cruelty. 


Ultimately, Miss Lonelyhearts faces the same dilemma all of us compassionate sorts have had to wrestle with:


There are no personal solutions to what are systemic problems in our society. There is nothing I personally can do to end school shootings, for example. My vote in a blue state means little. The Supreme Court has been packed with extremists from the Federalist Society, so change seems unlikely to come in my lifetime. And God isn’t sending any thunderbolts to strike down Alito and Trump. And so West puts Miss Lonelyhearts into a surreal world, with no solutions, and nowhere to turn for answers. 


As a footnote to the book, West himself died young and tragically, although not, like so many of his contemporaries, of alcoholism. Rather, he and his wife were killed in a car accident the day after Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. Both were younger than I am now. 


I am curious if all of West’s writings are as pessimistic and dark as this one, but I do intend to read the others in my collection eventually. 


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