Jan Rice's Reviews > Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
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bookshelves: fiction, literature-classic, bibliotrauma

A popular notion that makes the rounds on Facebook goes something like this: Life doesn't come with a remote. If you don't like something, get up off your (couch) and change it.

Last Sunday's Prickly City comic strip expressed it this way:
"I was wondering: Why do you let bad things happen?"
"Why do you let bad things happen"
Prickly City, August 9, 2015

But, what if one is confronted with horrific circumstances way beyond one's pay grade? And really believes it's one's personal responsibility to fix them? ...And, by the way, the ground under one's own feet isn't all that solid....

The set-up is that a young man has signed on as a newspaper's "Miss Lonelyhearts," responding in his column to missives from lovelorn and unhappy readers (predominantly women). For the newspaper this is a publicity gambit to increase the circulation, but the suffering conveyed to Miss Lonelyhearts through the letters is real. For the columnist, known throughout the book as "Miss Lonelyhearts," this presents an intolerable dilemma.

As it so happens I recently reread a 2011 article from The New Yorker on the history of birth control that impressed on me the reality of the sort of letters Miss LH was getting (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201... ). I expect the author didn't have to make up those letters. Just to get the idea across: a letter from a woman who'd already had seven babies in twelve years and whose kidneys are now failing, but from whom duty demanded more of the same. She wrote in pitiful semi-literacy that the doctor told them another pregnancy would be the death of her. Her husband said okay--until they got home. That's not much of a spoiler since it appears on p. 2.

Not only that, but the protagonist is a minister's son, already with a tendency toward hyperreligiosity.

Not only that, but his readers/fans/clientele live in the same 'hood and patronize the same speakeasy. There are no boundaries. They know he's a male.

Not only that, but his friends are hard-drinking, misogynistic, homophobic characters given to verbal and sometimes physical expression of those attitudes:

At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men.

These were hard-boiled times, but unlike detective stories described by that adjective, there's nary a hero in sight. If the protagonist is not quite part and parcel of the surrounding corruption, neither can he extricate himself from it.

Not only that, but his supervisor is a cynical provocateur, egging him on.

Sometimes our antihero takes it out on those seeking succor. After all, is it not they who have put him in this position?

The common wisdom is that this is an allegorical tragicomedy, but there was nothing funny about it. The author supposedly had communist leanings, so common in those pre-Stalinist times, that he kept from being explicit in his work. I'm guessing he was writing between-the-lines, writing under the guise of allegory and comedy in order to speak out. These are not just allegorical figures. The author has gone quite a way toward making them people.

And that's the answer, really, to the question I posed at the beginning of this review: try and tell the truth.

To the extent there is humor, and if, once upon a time, it was dark, it's now sick humor.

What service does Miss LH thinks he should perform for his supplicants? Sometimes he aims to tell them that by their suffering they are participating in divinity. But that trope won't hunt, so he's seeking a lock on a love that heals...but what sort of miracle could restore them, engulfed in a sick society?

My edition included an afterword from the '60s by Stanley Edgar Hyman, a critic and contributor to The New Yorker who was well known at the time. He explained the allegorical aspects in ways that were helpful without being interpretations with which one would necessarily agree now, for example, with a lot of Freudian analysis. He also contributed a lot of biographical material on the author, fuller but generally consistent with what I could find easily on the Internet and sometimes including aspects that wouldn't be considered politically correct now. If that afterword is available online, I couldn't find it. I may come back and enlarge this section later. For now, suffice it to say that if F. Scott Fitzgerald died without knowing he'd later be considered great, so much the more so for Nathanael West.

Incidentally, I came across an interview with Judy Blume at the beginning of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 in which she said:

I once spent three years putting together a book of letters: (Letters to Judy: What Kids Wish They Could Tell You) from my readers. It was emotionally draining, not just because I tried to tie them together with autobiographical material, but because of the letters themselves. At one point I had to go to a therapist to find out how I could keep writing fiction while being responsible (and responsive) to my readers. I was so involved with a couple of kids (I wanted to save them) that the therapist had to teach me how to step back while still being there for them. Over the years there have been seven kids who started to write to me at age twelve--kids with tough lives--who still write to me today and they're in their twenties and thirties now. Most of them are okay. Some are parents. I still try to answer the really serious letters myself.

Life imitating art...imitating life....
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Reading Progress

August 6, 2015 – Started Reading
August 6, 2015 – Shelved
August 6, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction
August 6, 2015 – Shelved as: literature-classic
August 10, 2015 – Shelved as: bibliotrauma
August 10, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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Vipassana Excellent take on this, especially that last line.

message 2: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Rice Thanks for your generous comment, Vipassana. Still struggling with this one!

message 3: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Rice Along similar lines as in my review, here is an editorial by a young doctor protesting that her hospital can't do it all. http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Oliv...

I worked in public mental health at an outpatient clinic in a rough area of town 1981-1998. First impulse is to do the "social work" thing: link individuals up with agencies and services that are supposed to provide relief in the area needed. You learn pretty quick that it doesn't work like that. Seemed logical but you're up against something deep and ingrained and complicated.

message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve Terrific review, Jan. I really liked the context you provided here to color your analysis. West died in 1940 in a car wreck at the age of 37, I remember reading. It makes me wonder if his outlook would have brightened had he lived past WWII in happier times.

message 5: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Rice Thank you, Steve. I'm glad you liked the frame within which I saw the novel.

It would be nice to imagine Nathanael West could have lived and been happier. From the biographical notes by Hyman, though, it seemed West was set to embark on happiness when he fell in love and married in 1940. His job prospects were also looking up, but he didn't make it through a year before the wreck. Hyman described him as a poor driver who drove through a stop sign, but other Goodreads reviewers say he was drunk.

I also got interested in the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who wrote the afterword. He was quite a character himself. Just finished reading something on him that I found when I googled. Among other things, his wife was Shirley Jackson. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2010/0...

message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve That was quite an interesting link, Jan. "Thank you. I learned something."

message 7: by Jan (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jan Rice "The response I hope to get from anything I write!"

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