My friend Margaret put me onto Nathanael West, which is ironic because it was by virtue of her not having recognized his name in a discussion of literary masterpieces; she was relieved that I hadn’t heard of him either. Ignorance loves company, even more than misery in my experience.
But renowned he is, for both Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, and, as is so often case when you freshly discover a classic writer, I now wonder how we could NOT have known about his works.
Given my lack of familiarity, it’s easy to understand how my expectations of the novel were so skewed.
A newspaper man in New York City. The post of advice columnist. The culture of publishing. I morphed that into some kind of Edna Ferber tale, pictured a male version of Emma McChesney, tossed in my impressions of a black-and-white movie I saw with Katherine Hepburn as a 1930s newspaper report (was it “Adam’s Rib, maybe?) and settled into bed with it one evening.
That misconception lasted until page 6, shortly after our hero presses a concealed button to gain entrance into Delehanty’s speakeasy. “A blood-shot eye appeared, glowing like a ruby in an antique iron ring.”
And it was clear, from the conversation that Miss Lonelyhearts (so named because he writes the column) and Shrike (his feature editor) had over drinks there, that Miss Lonelyhearts was not good bedtime reading. Not for me, anyway: I like my black humour in the daylight, thanks all the same.
Sad and depressing stories are one thing. (Miss Lonelyhearts reads The Brothers Karamazov before he falls asleep.) And a novel set in the Depression years is bound to be filled with loss, deprivation, and struggle.
But there is a sharpness to Miss Lonelyhearts; Nathanael West is heaping despair on top of sadness, devastation on top of decrepitude, emptiness on top of weakness, but he doesn’t want readers to immerse themselves in all this, unthinking, he wants them to attend to every detail and come out of it with an edge.
Miss Lonelyhearts desperately wants to offer his supplicants useful advice and it’s easy to imagine Nathanael West’s tone, so direct, and his style, so solidly imagistic, writing responses to the letters of worriers and sufferers. But ultimately this slim novel is about asking questions, not offering answers. It’s jarring. It’s provocative. It’s the antithesis of bedtime reading.
A courting couple.
“When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.” (8)
A bystander, harrassed by Shrike needlessly.
“The old man drew himself up like a little girl making a muscle.” (17)
The sky over NYC.
“Still thinking of tents, he examined the sky and saw that it was canvas-colored and ill-stretched.” (27)
Miss Lonelyhearts, having written another useless reply.
“He felt like an empty bottle, shiny and sterile.” (50)
On a more optimistic note, Miss Lonelyhearts does bring me one book closer to completing the 1% Well-Read Challenge.