Lately, I’ve been reading Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, published in a neat omnibus with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem and stylized cover of black and white. While not exactly the “ideal” summer read, ending on the failures of American society at large, both books are comic in their overall defeatism and character studies.
Both novels were written in the 1930s, focusing on those who exist on the edges of society, whether through the advice letters they write to the eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts (not so secretly a burned-out male reporter), or through the glomming-ons of those attempting to attain the Hollywood stardom in The Day of the Locust.
While one could easily say that these novels represent both the desperation of the Depression Era or the lingering materialism of the Roaring-1920s, the characters perpetuate the “everyman” in their portrait of society. We get to see Miss Lonelyhearts weave his way through a couple of weeks as the letters he responds to further eat away at him; yet, it is unclear whether this is his own self-imposed burden feeling “humanity” as ardently as he does.
As the character Shrike states as he hands out the letters as a party game one night, “You are plunging into a world of misery and suffering, peopled by creatures who are strangers to everything but disease and policemen. Harried by one, they are hurried by the other…” (53).
However, Miss Lonelyhearts is not a sympathetic character; is it because we too read his plight as a party game? Something to read through in order to entertain ourselves? Or rather a means to laugh off the horrible lives buried within the letters?
Of course, Miss Lonelyhearts is trying to carry the world on his shoulders rather badly; his alcoholism and partying is rampant. His hangovers are perhaps the real reasons he can’t participate in the world or recognize that the world is offering consequences for his actions.
However, Nathanael West also plays around with his character, describing Miss Lonelyhearts’ (and later his heart) as a “rock” (51) and those around him, the crowd, as the force of water trying to get within. He describes his one “peaceful” sleep as “Without dreaming, he was aware of fireflies and the slop of oceans”; and later as everyone stands around at the party, “What goes on in the sea is of no interest to the rock” (53).
This image of the crowd as the sea also comes up in The Day of the Locust, which I’ll discuss in the next part. But one of the questions I was left with in thinking about the crowds in this book, is the focus on the idea of the lonely, as the title suggests. The letters are always full of people turning to Miss Lonelyhearts as the one person they can reach out to, and yet, Miss Lonelyhearts is always the impenetrable rock, only momentarily (if at all) quashing his own questionable loneliness.
However, the setting is also New York City, a place famous for its crowds and the modern concept of loneliness among millions. In his introduction, Lethem even comments on the book’s New York-ness (especially in contract to The Day of the Locust and it’s revelations on Hollywood). Yet, the book does not seem particularly “New York”; it could be replaced by almost any urban atmosphere and the fate of someone struggling and devolving. Are highballs and apartment parties then the quintessential details that make New York? Or is it the strange character of Miss Lonelyhearts?
West, Nathanael, and Nathanael West. Miss Lonelyhearts: &, the Day of the Locust. New York: New Directions, 2009. Print.