Year with Short Novels: The Nihilism of Nathanael West
By Nathanael West
Published in 1933 and 1939
In print through New Directions, Modern Library, & others
This article is the last installment of Open Letters’ “Year with Short Novels,” which throughout 2010 delved into a series of short novels, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here, while the entire series can be found here. To pass along praise or condemnation, write ingridnorton[at]live[dot]com.
In The Day of the Locust Tod Hackett, idealistic-art student-turned-set-designer, stalks Hollywood’s sun-drenched boulevards, ever on the alert for people from Middle America who seek opportunity or health in Hollywood but who in all reality “come to California to die.” He recognizes them by their “somber and badly cut clothing” from mail order catalogues, the hopeless and hateful way they return his gaze. He fantasizes about sketching their faces into his brilliant unpainted masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” He imagines them turning against their artificial world, a mob scene of fury and fire. Meeting people, he habitually sorts between those who would be torchbearers and those who would simply scream encouragement and run alongside the ones brandishing fire. Much of the thwarted violence, however, turns out to be his own.
In Miss Lonelyhearts from 1933, a New York writer does the hack work of answering imploring “Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you” letters for a newspaper. Each envelope arrives on his desk containing a whole universe of suffering and despair. But the more feverishly he contorts himself to feel empathy and offer solace, the more hysterical he becomes. His fitful attempts at compassion warp into disgust and resentment. At a dreary bar he and his friend Ned Gates josh a sad and probably homosexual old man who followed them in. But for the columnist, the joking gets serious as he exhorts the old man to tell him his life story. “I have no story,” the old man pitiably tells him:
“You must have. Everyone has a life story.”
The old man began to sob.
“Yes, I know your tale is a sad one. Tell it, damn you, tell it.”
When the old man still remained silent, he took his arm and twisted it. Gates tried to tear him away, but he refused to let go. He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, the broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent…
The old man began to scream.
This is the lurid world of Nathanael West, as unremitting as it is unforgettable. Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust are his masterful expressions of stunted dreams. The novels unfold between the two American centers of opportunity and, West suggests, illusion: Miss Lonelyhearts in a dreary, relentless New York City; The Day of the Locust in a monstrously garish and overgrown Los Angeles. Both are populated by hacks and has-beens, cynics and dupes, failures and oddballs lurking at the urban margins. Central figures include cowboys, dwarves, prostitutes, misogynistic newspapermen, and callow would-be starlets. A cripple growls like a dog to placate his wife. In Miss Lonelyhearts, a family of Eskimos comes to Hollywood to serve as extras in a film, decide to stay, and is seen in The Day of the Locust elbowing their way to the front of a viewing to see the corpse of an withered vaudevillian. In Miss Lonelyhearts, faults and inner contradictions are mercilessly exposed, while the characters in The Day of the Locust are grotesques, creating what F. Scott Fitzgerald called an “uncanny almost Medieval feeling.” But they remain embedded in their surroundings, full-scale products of the slangy street culture of the 30s.
The two short novels remain odd and ugly foster children of 20th century American literature. When West died in a car accident at 37 (he ran a stop sign on his way to Fitzgerald’s funeral), his work was barely known. Originally from New York, West had come to California to live on screenwriting at a B-movie studio (which Fitzgerald was also in Hollywood to do). Fitzgerald’s death of course overshadowed West’s, just as the release of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 had eclipsed the publication of The Day of the Locust a few weeks later.
Over the last sixty years West’s work has slowly climbed from obscurity to acclaim, heralded for prescience in its depiction of the underbelly of American optimism. Miss Lonelyhearts is a devastatingly concise novel of ideas as its protagonist tries—and fails—to find meaning amid relentless agony. The Day of the Locust, with its eponymous suggestion of biblical destruction, takes place in a vivid fever-dream, its characters sunk too deeply in lust, despair, and illusion to notice their insignificance. Instead, they emerge at violent cross-purposes with one another. W.H. Auden famously coined the term “West’s disease” to describe the problem afflicting the novels’ hucksters and naïfs: the destructive refusal to be what you are. Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust stand as masterpieces, intense and lyrical and hard to swallow.
Of the two novels, Miss Lonelyhearts reaches deeper. The contrast between the real, humbled pain of advice-seekers and the contrived newspaperman’s responses allows West to create a philosophical parable. As the columnist (who is the son of a Baptist preacher) tries to find an answer to his suffering correspondents, he cycles through and deflates all possible sources of meaning—God, compassion, romance, art, alcohol, violence. The reason for his fierce desire to find answers is more selfish than compassionate. His belief in the power of a forgiving Christ has corroded and he seeks recourse from the meaninglessness and contempt that gnaw at him. In a narrative masterstroke West emasculates his anguished protagonist by withholding his name, referring to him as Miss Lonelyhearts throughout the novel, as in, “The whisky burned Miss Lonelyhearts’ cut lip,” and “Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair.” Each brief chapter is headed in the glib fashion of children’s book: “Miss Lonelyhearts in the Country,” “Miss Lonelyhearts has a Religious Experience.”
There is black humor in the narrative device. But Miss Lonelyhearts’ moral thrashings are given real weight by the letters he is supposed to answer. West had used as source material real advice letters sent to the “Susan Chester Heart-to-Heart” column in the Brooklyn Daily Times: one night his friend Quentin Reynolds, temporarily stuck on the “Heart-to-Heart” beat, passed around a bunch of letters considered too disturbing for publication. West pocketed them. As they appear in Miss Lonelyhearts, they are wrenching. One woman writes:
I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operatored on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice as he said I might die but when I got back from the hospital he broke his promise and now I am going to have a baby and I don’t think I can stand it my kidneys hurts so much. I am so sick and scared because I cant have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do.
A 16 year old girl born without a nose has a father who buys her pretty dresses to compensate while her mother cries when she looks at her. She pines for a boyfriend but knows she’ll never have one. Gazing at the big hole in the middle of her face in the mirror, the girl is repulsed. She asks if she should commit suicide.
A 15 year old boy named Harold has a deaf and dumb sister named Grace, 13, who “aint very smart.” He writes because “Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her”:
I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby and I listened to her stomach last night for a long time to see if I could hear the baby but I couldn’t. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awfull because I am the only one who loves her and last time when she tore her dress they loked her in the closet for 2 days and if the boys on the blok hear about it they will say dirty things like they did on Peewee Conors sister the time she got caught in the lots. So please what would you do if the same happened in your family.
The coarse, ungrammatical entreaties are in marked contrast to the smooth metaphors that dominate the rest of the narrative. This reinforces their rawness, and the fact that Miss Lonelyhearts can’t explain them away.
His editor Shrike and upbeat girlfriend Betty add to his misery. Shrike gleefully dismantles his writer’s attempts at substance. Miss Lonelyhearts wishes he could “be like Christ, then adultery would be a sin, then everything would be simple, and the letters extremely easy to answer.” But the voice of Shrike, chiding him for having a residual belief in “the First Church of Christ Dentist, where He is worshipped as Preventer of Decay,” rings in his ears. When Miss Lonelyhearts writes a column recommending suicide to try to get fired, Shrike jovially tells him, “Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose.”
Shrike’s cynicism feeds Miss Lonelyhearts’ growing rage almost as much as his girlfriend Betty’s optimism. Ever-hopeful, Betty believes his funk can be cured with a trip to the country, or a bowl of chicken soup if he is sick. Her wide-eyed amiability inflames his existential crisis. Miss Lonelyhearts mocks her by calling her “Betty the Buddha” and consoles himself by criticizing her naïve buoyancy. “Her world was not the world and could never include the readers of his column. Her sureness was based on the power to limit experience arbitrarily. Moreover, his confusion was significant, while her order was not.” He is only at ease with her toward the novel’s end when she is miserable, and therefore vulnerable: he gets her pregnant.
Miss Lonelyhearts is a short novel, perhaps because it has to be: its layering of bleakness, the way it admits no recourse, would otherwise be difficult to bear. “No doubt it is always our wish somehow to turn hate into love, pessimism into optimism, suffering into wisdom,” writes essayist Robert Wexelblatt of the book.. Nathanael West’s genius is the way that he subverts our desire for resolution or even hope, writing “deliberately, even rather gaily, against the grain of this wish.”
The Day of the Locust proves still more nihilistic because it takes place in a world that is not only meaningless, but that lacks self-awareness. Miss Lonelyhearts struggles, however futilely, to scramble back up the precipice of existentialism. In The Day of the Locust, the overall absurdity is keener and more pervasive. Its Los Angeles is awash in outsize props and animal desires – Hollywood as a gaudy tilt-o-whirl, propelled by the duped and the malicious. Religion isn’t pined for—tinseltown has replaced it, and can fuel more pagan needs. “The police force would have to be doubled when the stars started to arrive,” West writes of a mobbed movie premiere. “At the sight of their heroes and heroines, the crowd would turn demonic.”
The novel expands outward from the Tod Hackett, the painter manqué and set designer, who lives in a building called the San Bernardino Arms, or the “San Berdoo.” There, he covets Faye Greener, a would-be starlet with platinum blonde hair and ruthless but completely ungrounded ambitions. He lusts over a photograph from a “two-reel farce” where Faye was an extra. In it, she wears harem clothes and clutches a beer bottle:
She was supposed to look drunk and she did, but not with alcohol. She lay stretched out on the divan with her arms and legs spread, as though welcoming a lover, and her lips were parted in a heavy, sullen smile. She was supposed to look inviting, but the invitation wasn’t to pleasure.
Tod lit a cigarette and inhaled with a nervous gasp. He started to fool with his tie again, but had to go back to the photograph.
Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes.
They way the photograph pulls Tod back, as though his fantasy of lust muffled by sharp violence were a compass-North, forms a miniature of the novel’s theme, in which people are impaled by their own desires and inclinations. This is most wrenchingly true for Homer Simpson (yes, namesake of the other), a middle-aged hotel bookkeeper from Wayneville, Iowa who is in Los Angeles to improve his shaky health. He too falls hopelessly in love with Faye. But while her symmetrical and impenetrable beauty fills Tod with aggression, Faye consumes and then drains Simpson’s unquestioning good nature. She takes advantage, and grows to loathe him. “His servility was like that of a cringing, clumsy dog who is always anticipating a blow, welcoming it even, and in a way that makes overwhelming the desire to strike him.”
Other figures include Faye’s father Harry, a retired and failed Vaudevillian reduced to selling door-to-door silver polish which he makes in his bathroom “out of chalk, soap and yellow axle grease.” He overacts and self-dramatizes at every second, cackling, groaning, and wincing to draw others around him to his moods. When he finally drops dead, Faye pays for his funeral by prostituting herself. She shows up in “a new, very tight black dress” and black straw sailor hat. She has never looked more beautiful, and watching her, all Tod can think is “that she had earned the money for her outfit on her back.” Wheels keep falling off the narrative as it speeds toward its vicious end. In the chaotic final scene, Tod gets to enact his fantasy of “The Burning of Los Angeles,” and not how he first imagined.
Set together Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust create a grimly complete picture of violent self-delusion, absurd as Harry and Homer but also as pathetically real. Elizabeth Hardwick writes that West’s novels are stunning, and distinctly American, “rooted in our transmogrifying soil. Morality plays they are, classified as comedies. They are indeed often funny. Funny as a crutch.”
Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.