Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

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. -- Shrike

I was compelled to re-read Miss Lonelyhearts like a child is compelled to put his fingers in a light socket.  He knows it will be painful, yes, but it will also be exhilarating.  And perhaps--let's take this metaphor as far as it will go--for a brief second it will put him in communion with the most elemental forces of the world, to know their power.

Why is Miss Lonelyhearts so shocking?  I think it is because it successfully combines a gritty realism with the imaginative capability of good horror fiction.  That might seem silly, but I keep going back to the awful image of the girl who writes to Miss Lonelyhearts, advice columnist, lamenting that "I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose--although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes."  Is there anything in the pantheon of H. P. Lovecraft even a fraction as horrific?  Or perhaps it is that, like horror and fantasy, the roots of Miss Lonelyhearts can be traced to apocalyptic visions like Daniel or Revelation?

Miss Lonelyhearts is an apocalyptic vision made more horrible by its insistence that it reflects reality.  "The Miss Lonelyhearts," the demonic editor Shrike tells us, "are the priests of America."  But West's America is desolate and spiritually barren, populated by suffering millions who turn to the advice columnist to explain and ameliorate their suffering.  Miss Lonelyhearts is the perfect priest for this society, because he too is desolate and spiritually barren, agonizing over the letters he receives, clawing desperately for real advice, which cannot and will not be found.  I love this vision he has while trying to write his column:

A desert, he was thinking, not of sand, but of rust and body dirt, surrounded by a back-yard fence on which are posters describing the events of the day.  Mother slays five with ax, slays seven, slays nine... Babe slams two, slams three... Inside the fence Desperate, Broken-hearted, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest were gravely forming the letters MISS LONELYHEARTS out of white-washed clam shells, as if decorating the lawn of a rural depot.

(By the way, how great is that detail stuck in there: "Babe slams two, slams three?"  At first, it seems to conjure up an image of a baby lashing out at its tormentors, or itself being "slammed" against something--but it's just old Babe Ruth, "slamming" runs.  The implication is that American culture itself is composed of suffering and violence.)

I love also Shrike, the editor, who torments Miss Lonelyhearts by making jokes and stirring his messiah complex.  The book opens with Shrike's prayer:

"Soul of Miss L, glorify me.
Body of Miss L, nourish me.
Blood of Miss L, intoxicate me.
Tears of Miss L, wash me.
Oh good Miss L, excuse my plea,
And hide me in your heart,
And defend me from mine enemies.
Help me, Miss L, help me, help me.
In saecula saeculorum.  Amen."

I am having a hard time describing what is so frightening about this prayer, and about Shrike (whose shenanigans are all along these lines).  One facet of it, I think, is that while Miss Lonelyhearts agonizes over fashioning words that will provide meaning or comfort, Shrike knows that the task is impossible and the trick is to say precisely what you do not know to be true.  I am reluctant to say that Shrike is a devil-figure, because I don't think that Miss Lonelyhearts allows for the legitimacy of such an archetype, but perhaps he is the ironist, the thoroughly modern soul, monopolizing the language of religion because he knows that it can be good only for parody.

Here's Brent's review; here's mine from a few years ago.

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