Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts

This Jesus Business:

Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts

Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page

Near the end of Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, Allen’s character, Isaac, lies on a couch and dictates an idea for a short story into a tape recorder, and in his loneliness and his search for any sense of positivity, he lists a number of things that make life worth living. Somewhat similarly, in his introduction to the 1987 collection Modern Critical Interpretations: Thomas Pynchon, critic Harold Bloom lists a small canon of what he calls the “twentieth-century American Sublime.” Perhaps not coincidentally, both Isaac and Bloom prominently mention the Marx Brothers, a few specific jazz recordings, and, of course, a number of great works of literature. Isaac lists Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, and, among others, Bloom lists William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Wallace Stevens’ Auroras of Autumn, and the “Byron the Light Bulb” episode from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. But the book that Bloom significantly lists first is Nathanael West’s great 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts.

I’ve been haunted by Miss Lonelyhearts ever since reading it nearly two decades ago—and have been greatly disappointed by West’s other works, including the interesting but poorly written The Day of the Locust, his last novel, from 1939—and as I reread his one great, astonishing, horrifying novel this past week, I was simply shaken to the core by how relentlessly it assaulted all sense of stable meaning in the modern world. Somewhat influenced by the struggle between decadence and dedication in The Great Gatsby (West later became F. Scott Fitzgerald’s neighbor in Hollywood and coincidentally died one day after Fitzgerald in 1940) and perhaps more than a little influenced by the anarchic humor of S. J. Perelman (who cowrote most of the Marx Brothers’ best films and who, before marrying West’s sister, Laura, was West’s classmate at Brown University), Miss Lonelyhearts takes leaps beyond the audacity of any of its influences and enters a realm only achieved in writing by the maddest of medieval mystics.

Never referred to by any other name, Miss Lonelyhearts is a man who writes an advice column for a New York newspaper, and after months of writing replies to the most heartbreaking and unnerving letters, with the novel’s text incorporating many of these letters’ inarticulate and naked desperation into its texture—or perhaps displaying them to the reader like stigmata—he begins to lose the grounding that he’d already been struggling to keep beneath and inside of himself. He’s the son of a New England preacher, and he’s struggled all his life to maintain some kind of belief in a living and vital Christ without unleashing his lurking inner hysteria—“a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on the semblance of life.” He tells himself that Christ is the answer to these people’s problems, but he knows that he can’t take his newspaper column in that direction, in part because he can’t fully go in that direction himself.

The job began as a kind of circulation stunt, and although the rest of the staff—especially the newspaper’s feature editor, Shrike—still treats it as a joke, Miss Lonelyhearts, with his susceptibility to taking on others’ pain, has lost his ability to laugh. Making light (and darkness) of his employee’s growing despair, the gleefully satanic Shrike becomes Miss Lonelyhearts’ personal tempter and tormentor, taunting him with the most astounding blasphemies and goading him with his incisively erudite demi-sermons ever more dangerously into the domain of what Miss Lonelyhearts refers to in his head as “this Christ business.”

 From Gabrielle Gamboa’s comic-book
adaptation of this tragicomic novel
Miss Lonelyhearts is himself no saint at all, and as the novel says, “even if Shrike had not made a sane view of this Christ business impossible, there would be little use in his fooling himself.” Miss Lonelyhearts drinks and carouses violently, treats women abominably, and often wakes up not remembering who he’d beaten or who had beaten him. But no matter how much he abuses himself into oblivion, he can’t forget the letters.

West was a famous parodist and impersonator—in real life as well as in fiction—and Miss Lonelyhearts is a masterpiece of contrasting and intertwining styles. Each letter to Miss Lonelyhearts is a terrifying descent into the singular despair (and language, and thought) of just one individually tortured soul, and West creates these letters with as much conviction as he does Miss Lonelyhearts’ inner monologues, his friends’ and coworkers’ cruel vitriol, and Shrike’s irreverent (and brilliantly pseudo-reverent) abuse. Between Miss Lonelyhearts’ inner and outer transformations and Shrike’s warped mirror of these transformations, West displays a profound knowledge of Biblical and religious language and thought, and his pitch-perfect mastery of the common street-talk of his time is equally stunning. Rereading this book, I wondered how many jokes and nuances I’d missed the first time through, and although its Christ-themes are meant to be quite clear, I found deep and meaningful (and disturbing) resonances that only years of religious study allowed me to discern in full. I was also glad that I’d watched so many old films in the intervening years, especially the randy pre-Code films of Miss Lonelyhearts’ time, so I could parse some of this book’s more profane passages.

In a revolting but truly moving parody of the kind of pious metamorphoses found in Dostoyevsky, who he is reading, Miss Lonelyhearts slowly becomes dangerously identified with his reader/correspondents and subsequently becomes dangerously involved with one of them. It probably could have been any one of his correspondents who takes him on his final steps downward (or upward, depending on whether you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor), but the sordid series of events that follows his sick entanglement achieves a level of beatific grotesquery that may be unmatched in all of creative literature.

From Gabrielle Gamboa’s comic-book 
adaptation of this tragicomic novel
With Miss Lonelyhearts as its masthead, Harold Bloom’s conception of the “twentieth-century American Sublime” leaves me searching for a much more expansive sense of the word “sublime.” With the exception of the book’s last chapter, which too rapidly and clumsily narrates its shocking events while forgetting to maintain its soaring and sophisticated technical artistry (like an action or horror film that pretends to be an art film before things come to a head), Miss Lonelyhearts is a work of nearly divine artistic perfection, yet its endless cruelty—to the reader even more than to any of its characters—adds deep thorns of sadism and masochism to its sublimity. Perhaps this piercing journey through the inseparable hells, purgatories, and heavens of human experience unites not just Miss Lonelyhearts with all of humanity’s lost souls, but also, by extension, unites us to them through him. Maybe the dual descent/ascent of both Miss Lonelyhearts and the readers of Miss Lonelyhearts encompasses the fullest possible spectrum of the sublime. Or maybe it’s all just a very sick joke, which adds yet another possible layer to its sublimity. Whatever your reading of this masterpiece, it will surely transform your experience of life. As in the sad and desperate search for meaning at the end of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, its diverse forms of sublimity may end up adding to your list of things that make life worth living.

—David Wiley

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