Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is a short, bleak book, and while I can appreciate aspects of its art, I’m glad to be away from it and on to other things. I read Day of the Locust in high school and have some recollection of it being bleak as well, but somehow it felt less so. The introduction to the edition of Miss Lonelyhearts that I listened to compared the two and argued the atmosphere of each reflected the geography of the setting–with Miss Lonelyhearts somewhat claustrophobic and Day of the Locust more like arid desert. If so, then I think I prefer my depressing experiences to be out in the air and under the sky.
Here are my reflections on the book, and some comparisons with other works I’ve recently read.
Miss Lonelyhearts is the tale of a male advice columnist in Depression Era New York City. Though the column is intended to be fluff, and is seen as such by the editor to whom Lonelyhearts reports, for the people who write seeking advice, it is serious. The columnist finds himself overwhelmed by the many versions of tragedy that he must respond to, becomes depressed, and turns, on one hand, to drink, fights, and affairs, and on the other to a Christianity he deeply believes in, but which is mocked by those around him. Lonelyhearts himself is an ethicist’s nightmare, violating boundaries with those who write to him for advice. This novel paints a bleak picture of Depression Era New York, and does so in crisp clear language. Little empathy is generated for the protagonist, and there is no hopeful vision of a functional alternative to either the ineffective religious fervor or the empty hedonism portrayed.
It is hard not to see parallels to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [reviewed here]. Both portray protagonists who are affected by the bleak letters to advice columns, both present unrewarding sexual relationships as the norm, and neither offer much hope to counteract the critiques of the societies they portray. On the other hand, stylistically they are vastly different. Nathanael West‘s prose is spare, and he does little to deepen his characters or create emotional connection to them. Doris Lessing, by contrast, builds a rich, sometimes even lush, world, lingering over details and creating both beauty and depth, despite the similarly pessimistic overall viewpoint. Lessing encourages the reader to engage deeply with her themes, whereas there is something almost aggressive, and therefore off-putting, in West’s approach to the reader. It is not simply the spare masculinity in the style of West that has this effect, since Ernest Hemingway‘s prose has those qualities, and yet, at least for me, Hemingway uses the style to create profound connection and meaning.
Many appear to find this book brilliant and darkly funny, but I came away cold. If you want dark and funny, I’d go with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. He provides an angry, funny critique of a society, but builds firm connections to characters, and provides a sense of hope that makes for a much more enjoyable experience.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars