Nathanael West – Miss Lonelyheats/The Day of the Locust

I’m reading these almost entirely because it was mentioned a few times in Y The Last Man, which I read over a period of two days a few weeks ago.  The other reason I pushed it to the front of my vertiginous queue is that a very close friend of mine is moving to L.A. soon, which is what The Day of the Locust is about, and I thought it would be nice to send it to him as a both-of-us-are-going-away present, but thought it wise to read part of it first.

I still haven’t gotten a thank you or any kind of acknowledgment, but I hope he reads it notwithstanding.

Miss Lonelyhearts is evidently West’s most celebrated piece from his short career, though I don’t much see the appeal.  It seemed to me to be a fairly straightforward early symbolist morality play.  The premise is intriguing—a man is hired for a large paper to write the “Miss Lonelyhearts” section, which everyone considers a joke, but finds that the letters are truly poignant expressions of basic human pain and helplessness and as a result takes on some of their suffering when trying to write empty advice columns.

But Miss Lonelyhearts takes a puzzling turn by resorting to showing the protagonist—who is never named beyond “Miss Lonelyhearts”—having both religious and sexual epiphanies before ending with an expected unexpected ending.  The character Shrike, the city editor, drives the religious side by dubiously quoting scripture.  The characters Mrs. Faye Doyle (the “Mrs.” is more important)—a reader that writes in specifically to sleep with “Miss” Lonelyhearts—, Mary Shrike—Shrike’s wife who dates but does not sleep with other men—, and Betty—a girl that Miss Lonelyhearts eventually seduces and plans to marry.  A point of note is that Miss Lonelyhearts shows the protagonist failing to find answers in sex, subverting the classic male fantasy.

Miss Lonelyhearts seems to me to take the Heart of Darkness-style identification of people with their occupations and extends it to the early Great Depression and, like Marlow and even Kurtz, shows a protagonist desperately seeking answers and coming up short.

Witty but ultimately empty.

The Day of the Locust is more promising.  I am not yet finished, but I find West’s pre-Pynchon post-surrealism to have a place describing and parodying L.A. culture.  Tod Hackett feels like a version of the author.  The characters are cartoonish and flatly sketched, but the effect is rather like seeing a beautiful wood graving.  The other dimensions are not missed.

Lines criticizing Los Angelites like “A great many of the people wore sports clothes which were not really sports clothes” abound, parodying the people of the city by simply describing them.  Mentalities are also critiqued—see when Faye Greener is too busy checking her appearance and playing out a tired old routine from her childhood to discover that her father is dead on the couch.

Characters like Homer Simpson—60 years before the Groening cartoon—and Abe Kusich are as intriguing as they are bizarre.  I thought that Earle Shoop’s passage fell a little flat, both in the attempt to contrast the old West culture with L.A. while simultaneously showing how it’s been incorporated and corrupted, as well as in entertainment value.

I read the description of filming and the chaotic set-byproducts in chapter 18 this afternoon.  Truly excellent descriptions of the filming of a movie, a trip through a set junkyard, and a battle scene are all present in this chapter.  Especially interesting was the description of the filming of the hypothetical movie Waterloo, where the movements of extras and people leading them during the filming is compared to and taken as a surrogate for the historical troop movements of Napoleon and Wellington:

This time the same mistake had a different outcome.  Waterloo instead of being the end of the Grand Army, resulted in a draw.  Neither side won, and it would have to be fought over again the next day.  Big losses, however, were sustained by the insurance company in workmen’s compensation.  The man in the checked cap [who had previously led extras/troops where they were not to go] was sent to the dog house by Mr. Grotensein [the producer] just as Napoleon was sent to St. Helena.

Only time will tell how the novel ends, but I find it to be promising so far.

Update: Part 2 here.

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