Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust (part 2)

Okay, time to finish the entry from yesterday now that I’ve finished the book.

Several things leap out from the final fifty pages of the novel: first is Homer Simpson’s inevitable downfall.  A man who “lack[s] malleability” (136) is forced to change his life when Faye unexpectedly moves into his home in a cold “business arrangement.”  Both Faye and Homer agree to the arrangement, though Faye seems not at all enthusiastic about recruiting a lawyer to “have papers drawn up” (137)—note the passive voice—to make things official, and Homer seems content to leave the plan to find a lawyer as a plan.  Only Tod sees through it, sarcastically asking Homer when they’re getting married.  Homer fails to see the joke.

Ultimately Homer’s lack of experience with the world is the cause of his downfall, as he fails to understand Faye’s lust, even after catching her having sex with the Mexican Miguel.  When she moves out abruptly the next day, Homer descends into a true kind of madness, speaking to Tod in a way described as “lunatic calm” (168) and insisting on going home to Wayneville.  Though Homer’s fate is left uncertain, he looses control and savagely beats the young boy Adore Loomis who’s just struck him with a rock, before being descended upon by a riot of entertainment seekers.

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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.

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