Monday, March 07, 2011

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

The eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts is a young journalist employed to write the advice column for his newspaper, a task he is initially keen to undertake because ‘it might lead to a gossip column’, but one which comes to weigh heavily on him. He is a Christ-like figure of goodness and hope who is increasingly dragged into despair by the crises described by his correspondents. The travails with which he is confronted become increasingly tragic (not to mention bizarre), and Miss Lonelyhearts begins to feel helpless, even hopeless. As the novella progresses he attempts to find answers to the letters and, through them, to the questions they pose about humanity. Possessed of a ‘Christ complex’, he seeks answers through religion. He uses sex. He drinks. He fights. Still, he can find no answer. His despair deepens.

What we have, then, is essentially the existential crisis of Jesus Christ. Miss Lonelyhearts grows sick, the physical symptoms symbolic of the spiritual wasting that is afflicting him. His girlfriend, Betty, advises him to give up his job, since it is having such a profound effect on him. He can’t quit, he tells her, and even if he did ‘it wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t be able to forget the letters, no matter what I did.’

Whether Miss Lonelyhearts is intended to represent Christ, or is simply a fool with a Christ-complex, is the subject of much debate. James Light, for example, argues for the former, with Arthur Cohen arguing the latter. West, himself, describes Miss Lonelyheart as ‘a priest of our time who has a religious experience.’ A connection can also be made to that other Christ-like outsider, Bartleby the Scrivener, with Miss Lonelyhearts echoing Melville’s final line, ‘Ah humanity...’ when confronted by a springtime park which shows no signs of coming back to life. Whatever his underlying symbolism, Miss Lonelyhearts is surrounded by a world of pain and abuse, from which there appears to be no escape. This may sound like grim reading but, rest assured, Miss Lonelyhearts is a very funny black comedy. It is bizarre, a forerunner of Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon and the sixties postmodernists, while its stripped down, undemonstrative prose out-simplifies even Hemingway at his most recalcitrant. The overall mood is one of rising hysteria, a rage against the rage in society. Miss Lonelyhearts, with his Christ complex, believes he can remedy the ills of society, but in the end he finds that he (and we) are wholly unequipped to do so.


Jim H. said...

I enjoyed both your posts about West. He's long been a favorite of mine, and it's probably time for a re-read. He wrote so little but was so importantly influential.

I know we've chatted about Canetti: West's masterpiece, Day of the Locust, has a definitive portrayal of the sort of crowds & power behavior that Canetti spent a lifetime trying to sort out.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Jim. I'm working my way through West's work at the moment - half way through A Cool Million at the moment, great fun, like Candide in reverse. I thought I'd leave the Day of the Locust till last, since it's his most famous work. I'm looking forward to it.

Study of power behaviour is also a feature of a very different book, American Psycho. Ellis's refusal to allow any feelings of sympathy to emerge is similar to Canetti's, I think, although his use of Patrick Bateman's sense of humour is certainly different from anything in Auto Da Fe.

Jim H. said...

I need to re-view Amer.Psych. Wasn't it Bateman's first big role after playing the young boy in Empire of the Sun (based on the Ballard book?)

Never read the novel of the same name, tho'. So many lacunae, so little life...