Miss Lonelyhearts, the anti-hero of Nathanael West’s novella, is a man who writes an agony-aunt column for an American newspaper. Most days he receives more than thirty letters all ‘stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife’. These bleak, unpolished notes come from the downtrodden and damaged. To give you a feel for the nature of these letters, here’s a passage from one. Its author, a sixteen-year-old girl, was born without a nose:
I sit and look at myself all day and cry. I have a big hole in the middle of my face that 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 didn’t do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesn’t 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 don’t believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide? (pg. 173)
The advice column started out as a bit of a joke, a circulation stunt for the newspaper. But after months of answering painful letters from desperate readers, Lonelyhearts is feeling worn down by it all. He realises that his readers take the column seriously, that they genuinely believe Miss Lonelyhearts will provide guidance – a potential solution to their problems.
What follows is a horrific descent into nightmare territory as Lonelyhearts struggles to find a sense of meaning and order amidst the pain and desperation. He is taunted by his editor, Shrike. He loses all grip on reality and begins to behave abusively to friends and strangers alike. In one particularly distressing scene, Lonelyhearts and his friend frighten an old man in a park – they grab the man and drag him to a bar. Seized by a feeling of rage, Lonelyhearts seems determined to elicit the man’s life story. It’s as if he sees the old man as the human embodiment of his faceless correspondents, the tortured souls of the city:
‘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, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.
The old man began to scream. Somebody hit Miss Lonelyhearts from behind with a chair. (pg. 193)
The figure of Christ and religious imagery feature heavily in this story. Ever since he was a child, Lonelyhearts has had a difficult relationship with Christ. As a young boy, the son of a Baptist Minister, an overwhelming force had stirred within him whenever he shouted Christ’s name. ‘He had played with this thing but had never allowed it to come in.’ As he considers his current life as a columnist, Lonelyhearts realises what this thing was – it’s an explanation that goes some way to explaining but not excusing his behaviour:
‘—hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life.’ (pg. 181)
I’ll be honest here – I struggled to connect with Miss Lonelyhearts. I think it’s fair to say that I’m probably not on the right wavelength for this novella. I found it overwhelmingly warped and twisted and fractured, too dark for my personal tastes (and I usually like ‘dark’). It’s a satire, a rather brutal one at times. The vulnerable and defenceless seem to get a raw deal, and I think that’s one of the reasons why this story didn’t sit well with me. It appears to offer little hope for redemption, perhaps a faint glimmer towards the end, but it’s still pretty bleak.
At times, West’s prose is rather oblique (and I found it difficult to connect with this aspect too). That said, he could certainly write – the story contains some wonderful lines, turns of phrase that convey clear and vivid images:
…after a third drink, just as he was settling into the warm mud of alcoholic gloom. (pg. 177)
…the gray sky looked as if it had been rubbed with a soiled eraser. (pg. 176)
Only a newspaper struggled in the air like a kite with a broken spine. (pg. 176)
Miss Lonelyhearts was first published in 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression, and I can see how it would be possible to read it as a parable. It seems like the antithesis of the American Dream. Lonelyhearts knows this Dream is a deception, a deluded fantasy, and he’s railing against it. In this scene, he is thinking about his girlfriend, Betty:
More than two months had passed since he had sat with her on this same couch and had asked her to marry him. Then she had accepted him and they had planned their life after marriage, his job and her gingham apron, his slippers beside the fireplace and her ability to cook. He had avoided her since. He did not feel guilty; he was merely annoyed at having been fooled into thinking that such a solution was possible. (pg. 185-186)
I read Miss Lonelyhearts with Seamus at Vapour Trails – we’re posting our thoughts today, the anniversary of the novella’s publication. It’s a reread for Seamus, and I know he rates it very highly. (I wanted to love it too but couldn’t for the reasons I’ve tried to convey – it pains me to write this piece.) All this leaves me eager to read his review as I’m sure it will give me a better appreciation of Miss Lonelyhearts.
Miss Lonelyhearts is published in the UK by Vintage Books (the story starts on pg. 171 of my edition). Source: personal copy. Book 17/20 in my #TBR20.