Tuesday, March 29, 2011
A Cool Million by Nathanael West
In 1939 Nathanael West wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘My books meet no needs except my own, their circulation is practically private and I'm lucky to be published.’ This was no great exaggeration: to be frank, in his own (short) lifetime he was barely read. And yet, in response to one of my reviews of an earlier West novel, Jim H commented that West is an extremely influential novelist. And that's absolutely true. The more one reads West, the more one realises exactly how influential he has been on writers for the past sixty plus years. It is a remarkable turnaround.
The time when West was writing was one of depression but one, also, of clearly approaching turbulence, especially from Europe. It was, too, a time when the European novel was in the ascendancy and, with it, a different mood was being fostered in the arts: broadly speaking, we might be considering the late flowering of high modernism, with all its studied seriousness. And, at the same time, this was increasingly a political era. In that context, West’s peculiar novels were overlooked, their deceptive simplicity and barbed naivety not given the recognition they deserved, their political meaning underestimated. The existential theatre of the absurd, as depicted by Camus or Mann or Hesse, was an intellectual environment; its satire was concomitantly elevated, focused more on social criticism than comic technique. The 1930s depression occasioned much soul-searching in American society, saw lurches both left-ward and right-ward. It promulgated a social-realist approach to literature and, at the same time, a retreat into the pastoral. Such an environment was not conducive to sly, formally inventive prose like West’s. It wasn’t until after the second world war, with the emergence of the 1950s anti-war novels – Vonnegut, Heller etc, the peak of the southern grotesque, Cold War standoffs that led Philip Roth to protest the death of the novel because novelists couldn’t compete with reality, the Civil Rights movement and the birth of 1960s counterculture, that satire took on (once again) the slapstick, wise-cracking, anti-establishment dimensions that we encounter so strongly in the work of Nathanael West.
So there’s a pleasing circularity to it, a curious symbiosis. West influenced those who came after – Vonnegut, Pynchon, Hawkes, Purdy, Barthelme etc – but it was they who permitted West’s work to be understood for what it is. The successors opened the way for better understanding of the master.
A Cool Million is a political novel, in the sense that it targets a political establishment which is corrupt and racist, bullying and philistine, but its strangeness left the political movement largely nonplussed. It is a novel of the end of the American dream. It is Candide recast for twentieth-century America, the destruction of an innocent by a system he simply cannot comprehend. Lem Pitkin is a simple, if not simple-minded, boy who is torn apart – literally so, he is systematically divested of body parts – teeth, eye, thumb, scalp, leg – with painful regularity as he seeks to make his fortune and lay claim to that mythical, tarnished dream of American wealth and happiness. In doing this, West explains, his intention was to ‘rewrit[e] the Horatio Alger myth – from barge boy to president of from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in one generation.’
It is hard to tell whether one likes or dislikes this novel. It is a peculiar, hallucinatory experience. The cartoonish humour is, at once, wickedly funny and horridly cliched, bluntly didactic and acutely observant. One either rides with its eccentricity or is made sea-sick by it. I think, in the end, its success revolves around the extent to which you think West is offering the reader any sense of hope; indeed, whether it can be inferred that West himself possessed any of that virtue.
The relentlessness with which Lem’s picaresque life unfolds in succeeding disastrous set-pieces does become wearying, and before long what initially seemed like highly effective satire-dressed-as-whimsy loses both its humour and its impact. In that, it's a bit like Vonnegut when he's off-form. Lem is a construct, completely empty, devoid of any emotion or knowledge or feeling other than the quest for the American dream. He is completely passive. His life happens to him. He dies. From that point of view, A Cool Million is probably the least successful of West's novels.
By the end of the novel, Lem is embroiled in a Fascist organisation which is taking over America under the charismatic leadership of Shagpoke Whipple. Inevitably, he dies and, as a final ignominy, is resurrected posthumously as a hero of the fascist state. Thus, as David Galloway noted in 1964, West is warning that the inevitable result of the rupture of the American dream is a descent into fascism. Civil and labour unrest, dissatisfaction with the the system – ‘Wall Street and the international bankers’ – would announce itself through extremism and violence.
The difficulty in this is that it is unclear where the alternative lies. West gives us an array of characters of varying degrees of awfulness, but nowhere is there someone on whom we may affix some sense of moral responsibility. I do not like critics who dismiss books on the grounds that ‘there are no likeable characters’: such analyses are trite and pointless. And yet, in this case, it does present an issue with the novel: where is there any alternative to the dismal fascism that West portends? One might expect, at the very least, such an alternative should be observable through its absence, but it is difficult to argue even that with A Cool Million. Once you satirise everything, the point of the satire is lost (Percival Everett take note). Nonetheless, you may argue, a warning is still a warning, and it is not the role of the Cassandra to suggest a solution to the problem, only to warn of its impending genesis. Maybe. But remember here that the problem West warned against – the rise of American fascism – didn’t materialise.
Not yet, the ghost of Nathanael West may perhaps be whispering. Not yet.