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Miss Lonelyhearts / the Day of the Locust


  Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust

  Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust

  NATHANAEL WEST

  Introduction by Jonathan Lethem

  Afterword by John Sanford

  A New Directions Book

  Copyright © 1933 by Nathanael West

  Copyright © 1939 by The Estate of Nathanael West

  Copyright © 1962 by New Directions Publishing Corporation

  Copyright © 1997 by John Sanford

  Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Lethem

  All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher.

  John Sanford’s afterword appeared originally in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 3, 1997.

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  First published as a New Directions Paperbook (N D P125) in 1962. Reset edition 1969

  Reissued “with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem and an afterword by John Sanford” as a New Directions Paperbook (N D P1151) in 2009

  Miss Lonelyhearts was first published by New Directions in the New Classics series, 1946.

  The Day of the Locust was first published by New Directions in the New Classic series, 1950.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  West, Nathanael, 1903–1940.

  [Miss Lonelyhearts]

  Miss Lonelyhearts & The day of the locust / Nathanael West;

  Introduction by Jonathan Lethem; afterword by John Sanford

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-0-8112-1822-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)

  I. West, Nathanael, 1903-1940. Day of the locust. II. Title.

  PS3545.E8334M5 2009

  813'.52—dc22

  2009010505

  New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin

  by New Directions Publishing Corporation,

  80 Eighth Avenue, New York 10011

  CONTENTS

  “The American Vicarious: An Introduction to Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust” by Jonathan Lethem

  Miss Lonelyhearts

  The Day of the Locust

  Afterword by John Sanford

  “The American Vicarious: An Introduction to Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust”

  by Jonathan Lethem

  1.

  Halfway through Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West’s eponymous protagonist blurts out:

  “Perhaps I can make you understand. Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.”

  The passage, so disconcertingly clean and direct that it could remind you of a Hollywood “treatment” (the mercenary form in which West would come to specialize, a few years later), perhaps represents the book West suspects he ought to have written, or the book he suspects his reader thinks he ought to have written. That’s to say, a coherently tragic narrative grounded, under an urbane, lightly hard-boiled surface, in comprehensible “values.” The story is the sort that might have been nicely handled by a novelist like Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might be considered a temperamental cousin to West’s, with its metaphor of the dance marathon forming a lucid indictment of the failure of popular imagination to encompass the Great Depression’s dismantling of the American Dream.

  Certainly this embodies a part of West’s intention. Lonelyhearts was inspired by access West was given to real letters written to a real advice columnist, and its setting, a persuasively scoured and desperate early-’30’s Manhattan, is rendered with the scalpel-precision that was West’s prose standard. No doubt, one measure of Nathanael West’s singular value is as a uniquely placed historical witness, a bridge between literary eras. His was a sensibility that extended the Paris-expatriate, Dada-drunk sophistication of ’20’s literary culture to the material and milieu of Steinbeck, Tom Kromer, Edward Dahlberg, Daniel Fuchs, and other 1930’s writers (some explicitly tagged as “proletarian”)—that is, to poverty’s social depredations, with all the accompanying lowered sights, deluded daydreams, and susceptibility to cults, fads, and games of chance.

  Yet hardly anything in this context prepares us as readers for the plunge into the nihilistic, hysterical, grotesque-poetic frieze that is the fifty-eight-page “novel” we know as Miss Lonelyhearts. For what that inadequate synopsis implies (“for the first time in his life he is forced to examine the values…”) is an approach to depicting fictional characters that West couldn’t ratify: psychologically rounded, and capable of making and recognizing a traditional “mistake,” of making a hero’s progress through a typical plot, even if it is to be a tragic one. This isn’t West’s way. The journalist known to us only as “Miss Lonelyhearts,” like his antagonist-editor Shrike, indeed, like every human creature he encounters (including those “profoundly humble” authors of the advice-seeking letters) is a species of chimera, in many ways a mystery to him- or herself. If West’s characters are human, it is only unfortunately so: trapped in a grossly prominent physical form, a creature lusting and suffering in bewildering simultaneity. As far as their “values,” or personalities, these are glimpsed only fleetingly against a screaming sky full of borrowed and inadequate languages and attitudes—commercial, religious, existentialist, therapeutic, criminal.

  West’s characters mostly don’t engage in conversation. In its place they toss blocks of rhetoric, of elegant mockery or despair, at one another like George Herriman’s Ignatz Mouse chucking a brick at Krazy Kat’s head. The comparison of Lonelyhearts’ form to a comic strip isn’t mine, but West’s, who intuited that for all his grounding in Dostoyevsky and T.S. Eliot he needed to find some version of vernacular form to embody his insight that “violence in America is idiomatic.” The novel’s short, sardonically titled chapters persistently end in morbid slapstick and cumulatively take on a slanted, compacted quality, like crashed cars exhibited bumper-to-bumper. Dislodged on the very first page from traditional identification with the travails of Lonelyhearts’ protagonist—in one ear by the horrific chorus of the advice-seeking letters themselves, in the other by the preemptive mockery of Shrike—the reader finds any possibility of redemptive self-pity brilliantly undermined. (A critic explained—or complained: “Violence is not only West’s subject, it is his method.”) Nathanael West’s masterpiece is a mercilessly unsympathetic novel on the theme of sympathy.

  2.

  New York is vertical, Los Angeles horizontal, as well as three thousand miles further from any grounding in European historical consciousness. The difference between West’s New York novel and The Day of the Locust, his Hollywood apocalypse, mimics these contrasts of cultural geography and form. Lonelyhearts is defined by stairwells and elevator shafts and basement speakeasies, Locust by the littering of a desert landscape with arbitrary architectural monstrosities, with random and flimsy quotations of varied building styles, wheth
er for use as temporary movie sets or (barely more permanent) dwellings. Lizards scurry across this baked ground. In place of Lonelyhearts’ claustrophobic compression, in Locust West’s savage attention flits from character to character, leaving more oxygen and sunlight between the tragicomically lumpen human operators—though eventually they’ll crowd together and swarm this landscape like lemmings. Acutely conscious of the double-edged myths of Progress and Manifest Destiny (the diffident Jew Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein converted himself to the imperially urbane “Nathanael West” because, he joked, he’d heard Horace Greeley’s call to “go West, young man”), West explicitly defines Los Angeles as the place where the American (Egalitarian) Dream has ended up, first to replicate itself in the synesthetic cartoons of the motion picture industry, and then, under the exposing glare of sunlight, to die.

  Of course it is also six years deeper into the Depression, and no one in Locust would bother, as does Shrike in Lonelyhearts, to puncture unattainable fantasies of luxurious Bohemian escape. The inadvertent Californians in Locust have made their last, weary migration, and in this zone of shoddy historical facsimiles history itself seems to have ground to an end. The aspiring painter Tod Hackett, the book’s best hope for reader-surrogate (and West’s best shot at such a thing, in any of his four books), a protagonist-watcher who dares both to dream of love and to attempt an artistic encapsulation of what’s before him, can only plan a canvas depicting the gleeful burning of Los Angeles by its cheated residents: in destruction, they might make it their own.

  West depicts the film industry from its margins, the lame cast-off vaudevillians and extras, the aspirants and show-biz parents, grasping intuitively that these figures articulate the brief continuum between manufacturing and merchandising bogus dreams, and lining up to buy them. The pathetically wishful movie scenarios dreamed up by the wannabe-starlet Faye Greener, Tod Hackett’s tormenting love-object, are hardly less viable than the sorts of films that West himself ended up dashing off during his stints as a studio writer—the point seems to be not simply that anyone could dream such stuff up, but that everyone did, simultaneously. Most were buyers, not sellers.

  West’s diagnosis of The American Vicarious anticipates both reality television (where Andy Warhol’s quip about everyone gaining fifteen minutes of fame became a drab processional) and the overturning of the “Death Tax” (where politicians aroused a righteous populist indignation in favor of the inheritance of fortunes, just on the chance every American would acquire their rightful own). West wouldn’t have wondered what’s the matter with Kansas; he knew the problem wasn’t limited to Kansas, or Los Angeles, or the 1930’s. In a 1967 article on West, Gilbert Sorrentino discerned that The Day of The Locust predicted Ronald Reagan’s future presidency, and this book, a sun-blazed Polaroid of its moment, seems permanently oracular.

  3.

  West’s ultimate subject is the challenge (the low odds, he might insist) of negotiating between, on the one hand, the ground-zero imperatives and agonies of the body and, on the other, the commoditized rhetorics of persuasion, fear, envy, guilt, acquisition, and sacrifice (those voices that George Saunders has nicknamed “The Braindead Megaphone” of Late Capitalism), in hopes of locating an intimate ground of operation from which an authentic loving gesture might be launched. That he identified this as a baseline twentieth-century American dilemma as early as he did granted West a superb relevance to the future of American literature—its ongoing future, I’d say.

  In the weeks while I’ve been rereading his novels, the unfolding of a global financial collapse has many speaking of a “second Great Depression,” the public mechanics of which will certainly be subject to the same forces of transference, denial, and fantasy that West made his obsessive motifs. Last month in suburban Long Island, on the day nicknamed “Black Friday” for its hopes of pushing retail accounts into the black of profit, a tide of bargain-fevered shoppers trampled to death a retail clerk attempting to manage their entry into his store. The newspaper business has almost dissolved beneath a willful tide of “authentic” voices demanding to be heard; its response is nearly as neurotic as Miss Lonelyhearts’. Which of West’s contemporaries can we imagine weighing in intelligibly on blogging, or American Idol? (Picture Ernest Hemingway’s thousand-yard stare—and he lived a quarter-century longer than West—or F. Scott Fitzgerald in a fetal position.) By applying the magpie aesthetics of Surrealism and T.S. Eliot to the “American Grain,” by delving into the popular culture and emerging not with surrender or refusal but a razor-cool critique, West became the great precursor to Heller, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, and so much else, likely including Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” West died at thirty-seven, with his wife, in a automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico. His biographer Jay Martin gives evidence of the many books West had sketched out to write after Locust, surely the greatest shadow oeuvre in American fiction.

  Miss Lonelyhearts

  Miss Lonelyhearts, Help me, Help Me

  The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. On it a prayer had been printed by Shrike, the feature editor.

  “Soul of Miss L, glorify me.

  Body of Miss L, nourish me.

  Blood of Miss L, intoxicate me.

  Tears of Miss L, wash me.

  Oh good Miss L, excuse my plea,

  And hide me in your heart,

  And defend me from mine enemies.

  Help me, Miss L, help me, help me.

  In sæcula sæculorum. Amen.”

  Although the deadline was less than a quarter of an hour away, he was still working on his leader. He had gone as far as: “Life is worth while, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.” But he found it impossible to continue. The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.

  On his desk were piled those he had received this morning. He started through them again, searching for some clue to a sincere answer.

  Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—

  I am in such pain I dont know what to do sometimes I think I will kill myself my kidneys hurt so much. My husband thinks no woman can be a good catholic and not have children irregardless of the pain. I was married honorable from our church but I never knew what married life meant as I never was told about man and wife. My grandmother never told me and she was the only mother I had but made a big mistake by not telling me as it dont pay to be inocent and is only a big disappointment. 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.

  Yours respectfully

  Sick-of-it-all

  Miss Lonelyhearts threw the letter into an open drawer and lit a cigarette.

  Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—

  I am sixteen years old now and I dont know what to do and would appreciate it if you could tell me what to do. When I was a little girl it was not so bad because I got used to the kids on the block makeing fun of me, but now I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose—although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes.

  I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face t
hat scares people even myself so I cant blame the boys for not wanting to take me out. My mother loves me, but she crys terrible when she looks at me.

  What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?

  Sincerely yours,

  Desperate

  The cigarette was imperfect and refused to draw. Miss Lonelyhearts took it out of his mouth and stared at it furiously. He fought himself quiet, then lit another one.

  Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—

  I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull hapened to her and I am afraid to tell mother about it. I am 15 years old and Gracie is 13 and we live in Brooklyn. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb. She plays on the roof of our house and dont go to school except to deaf and dumb school twice a week on tuesdays and thursdays. Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She to’d me about it and I dont know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby and I listened to her stomack 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 awfu’l 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 hapened in your family.

 
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