Friday, August 25, 2023

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

I think I read Day of the Locust some time in the '90s. I'd have to dig through my reading notebook to prove or disprove that, and I don't care that much: so take that as an unreliable narrator.

That's my primary knowledge of Nathanael West: I think I read something else by him, several decades ago. I know his name. He turned up as a background character in Stewart O'Nan's novel West of Sunset, which I read recently. And I had a Library of America book of his - Novels & Other Writings, which is the kind of title LoA gives a "OK, you're famous enough to get one book, and this is it" volume.

So I hit the shelf that book was on, and decided to read Miss Lonelyhearts: it's short, it's funny in a very dark way, so why not?

It's a novella rather than a novel, told episodically. It was published in 1933, and takes place about that time, in the depths of Depression-era New York City. Prohibition is in full swing, though the characters have no trouble getting and drinking epic quantities of alcohol. 

The main character is the male writer of an advice column for the fictional Post-Dispatch; he is only referred to as "Miss Lonelyhearts." He went to some relatively ritzy but unnamed college, got a good education. He's not worried about employment; it's not that kind of Depression-era story. Miss L and his fellow newspaper scribblers seem to believe, correctly, that they will always have work, in their current industry or advertising or something else. They're not worried about finding food or drink or keeping a roof over their heads.

The letters coming into the Miss Lonelyhearts column, though, are from people in different situations. Some potted descriptions I've read about the book online connect this to the Depression, but I didn't get that sense. The letter-writers are nearly all women, all poorly educated, all in bad situations, mostly because of men and fate and bad luck. (Mostly men, with the fate and bad luck caused by men. My reading of Miss Lonelyhearts may be solidly feminist, but I think it's all there blatantly in the text.) They're pregnant and unwed or sickly from having too many children or desperately poor with a no-good husband or raped and abandoned or a mixture of all of those things. They write in hoping for solace more than answers; they don't seem to think their situations can be changed, but, maybe, they can find a way to think about their lives to make it all less crushing.

Meanwhile, all of those letters are crushing "Miss Lonelyhearts." Look, West explains the theme, in the words of his main character, on p.94:

"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."

From my point of view, almost a century later, I see a different problem than Miss Lonelyhearts does. He sees this as a spiritual crisis, and wants to be able to present a vision of Christian love and a welcoming afterlife, so these people will have something to look forward to when their inevitably short, horrible lives end unpleasantly.

I think that's bullshit, and that a wide social problem requires a wide social solution. Miss Lonelyhearts can't fix any of this. He could, in best Jacob Riis manner, highlight the horrible things happening to his readers and advocate - I may mean agitate - for systemic change. I doubt the Post-Dispatch would want that, of course, and it would be a very different book. But that's the answer to the problem he's faced with: not his own sad grappling with "Christ" and personal faith, but immediate change in the world to make lives better, in the way that the historical Christ actually did and advocated.

Instead, Miss Lonelyhearts drinks too much and tries to get laid - the first is much more successful than the second; even when he gets his leg over, it's not good for him. (Again, there's a lot of room for a strong feminist interpretation of this book: he's not happy in his relationships with women because he's embedded in a horrible patriarchal society and stuck in the role of  the oppressor, and on some level he knows it.)

The book is the story of how he falls apart, more or less - here a bit, there a bit, until his actions come to hit him in the end. Again, I found the god-bothering too much and focused the wrong way - it's all American Protestant "your reward will be in the next world," more Buddy Christ than anything I'd consider authentic. But that's who he is, that's the religion he was brought up with, that's the only way he can conceive the world.

And a story like that, about a character trapped by his own perceptions of the world, with no way out, is what we call a tragedy. Despite the bits that annoyed me, Miss Lonelyhearts is a good one, shot through with fine writing and crystalline moments and a darkly funny core of self-loathing from its hero.

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