THE AMERICAN VICARIOUS
NATHANAEL WEST’S NOVELS PROPHESIED RONALD REAGAN, REALITY TV, AND OTHER FUTURE DOMESTIC DILEMMAS.
DISCUSSED: Humble Pleas for Moral Advice, Lightly Hard-boiled Surfaces, The Extension of Dada-Drunk Sophistication, Antagonist Editors Named Shrike, Cults, Idiomatic Violence, Unsympathetic Novels about Sympathy, Elevator Shafts, Desert Landscapes Littered with Arbitrary Architectural Monstrosities,The Inadvertent Death of Retail Clerks, F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Fetal Position
Halfway through Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West’s eponymous protagonist blurts out:
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.
The passage, so disconcertingly clean and direct that it could remind you of a Hollywood “treatment” (the mercenary form in which West would come to specialize, a few years later), perhaps represents the book West suspects he ought to have written, or the book he suspects his reader thinks he ought to have written. That’s to say, a coherently tragic narrative grounded, under an urbane, lightly hard-boiled surface, in comprehensible “values.” The story is the sort that might have been nicely handled by a novelist like Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might be considered a temperamental cousin to West’s, with its metaphor of the dance marathon forming a lucid indictment of the failure of popular imagination to encompass the Great Depression’s dismantling of the American Dream.
Certainly this embodies a part of West’s intention. Lonelyhearts was inspired by access West was given to real letters written to a real advice columnist, and its setting, a persuasively scoured and desperate early-’30s Manhattan, is rendered with the scalpel-precision that was West’s prose standard. No doubt, one measure of Nathanael West’s singular value is as a uniquely placed historical witness, a bridge between literary eras. His was a sensibility that extended the Paris-expatriate, Dada-drunk sophistication of ’20s literary culture to the material and milieu of Steinbeck, Tom Kromer, Edward Dahlberg, Daniel Fuchs, and other 1930s writers (some explicitly tagged as “proletarian”)—that is, to poverty’s social depredations, with all the accompanying lowered sights, deluded daydreams, and susceptibility to cults, fads, and games of chance.
Yet hardly anything in this context prepares us as readers for the plunge into the nihilistic, hysterical, grotesque-poetic frieze that is the fifty-eight-page “novel” we know as Miss Lonelyhearts. For what that inadequate synopsis implies (“for the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values.…”) is an approach to depicting fictional characters that West couldn’t ratify: psychologically rounded, and capable of making and recognizing a traditional “mistake,” of making a hero’s progress through a typical plot, even if it is to be a tragic one.