Book review: Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust
Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. Highly recommended.
Miss Lonelyhearts, set on the East Coast in New York City, and The Day of the Locust, set on the West Coast in Hollywood, are the two grim but brilliant gems of Nathanael West’s too-brief writing career.
In Miss Lonelyhearts, the title character — who has no other name to either the reader or the book’s characters — is an advice columnist subsumed by the countless letters of despair he reads every day. His editor is named Shrike, appropriately, for the species of bird that impales its victims on thorns. While he seeks escape from “Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband”: in the idealism of Religion, Art, Sex, and Nature, Shrike is always there to puncture his every attempt.
Miss Lonelyhearts’ trouble precedes his career, however. During his college years, he tries to participate in a ritual sacrifice of a symbolic lamb (Religion) that is transformed into a cruel butchery and finally into a mercy killing. Later, Miss Lonelyhearts returns again and again to the image and idea of Christ, “the answer,” whose figure he has removed from its cross and nailed to the wall at the foot of his bed (taking over the sacrifice from Romans and history and making it his own).
For sex, he tries (unsuccessfully) to subdue the “virginity” of Shrike’s wife (named Mary); takes on the offering of “an admirer,” Fay Doyle, “unhappily married [sacrificed] to a cripple”; and finally sacrifices the real virginity of Betty, whose order and sureness were “based on the power to limit experience arbitrarily.” Until she encounters him, she is not a candidate for a Miss Lonelyhearts column, but he and his “sickness” make her likely to become one. Throughout, Shrike is there to tell him, “Soul of Miss L., glorify me. Body of Miss L., save me . . .” In the end, Miss Lonelyhearts finds humility and calls on Christ, not in his illness, “but in the shape of his joy.” When he is happy “and the rock had been thoroughly tested and been found perfect,” when he gives up his humanity for Christ-like beatitude and detachment, he sacrifices himself.
In The Day of the Locust, set designer Tod Hackett has entered the world of Hollywood, where nothing is real, where even everyday clothes consist of personality-altering costumes (“the man in the Norfolk jacket and Tyrolean hat was returning, not from a mountain, but an insurance office”). Here, the slopes of the canyon are lined with “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles.” Two types of people populate this set: the “masquerades” and those who “had come to California to die,” whose “eyes filled with hatred.”
Tod himself leads an unreal life as an unwanted extra in the love life of Faye [fairy — unreal] Greener, daughter of Harry Greener, who manages to make his own death seem no more than an act — and not always a good one.
After Harry’s death, Tod and Faye’s lives connect through two men who can be considered “masquerades”: Earl the cowboy with his two-dimensional face and Miguel the Mexican, as well as Homer Simpson, a man who thinks he has come to California to recover his health and who doesn’t realise he has come here to die.
Faye teases Earl, lusts after Miguel, and holds Tod at bay while living with Homer in a nonsexual business arrangement designed to keep her clothed, fed, and living well until she gets her big acting break, which, like all else in Hollywood, is an act and an illusion.
As Homer falls for Faye, she resents both his simplicity and his sincerity. Only when Homer finds her with Miguel (after mistaking her moaning for sickness) does he realise the truth of what Tod has told him: “She’s a whore!” Like the Hollywood she wants to be part of, she is empty and bored — an illusion that cannot last. Even when Earl fights Miguel over her, the conflict is less real than that between two of Miguel’s cocks, during which the weaker bird dies a harrowing, bloody, and genuine death that evokes more compassion and sympathy than Harry’s final act.
Throughout, Tod sees the masses finally turning to apocalyptic violence, which he portrays in his painting-in-progress, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Faye, naked and smiling, chased by the mob, is a bird released and in flight.
The violence comes, however, when a nearly catatonic Homer attempts to leave this never-never land and to return to Wayneville, Iowa, on a night when the crowd has gathered for a movie premiere. Finding himself under attack by a bored neighbor child, he finally strikes back in a murderous rage, giving the crowd the impetus it seeks.
It is not “The Burning of Los Angeles,” but rather a fusion of Art, Sex, Religion, and Violence. Here, West returns to Miss Lonelyhearts and the attempted ideals of Art, Sex, and Religion ending in violence; he says of the womb: “Better by far than Religion or Art or the South Sea Islands” — an exact parallel to the idealist scenarios Shrike creates for Miss Lonelyhearts, only to puncture them with the fury of his cold, emotional violence.
Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust are short, beautifully crafted masterpieces in which nothing is wasted. West captures Hollywood perfectly, where, in 1939, there were already New Age cults like that of the “raw-foodists”: “We eat only raw [vegetables]. Death comes from eating dead things.” In today’s world, where millions turn to the Dear Abby columns and to Oprah, and where the cult of the celebrity is built on movies featuring easy sex and special-effects violence, Nathanael West might feel right at home — in time and place.
6 October 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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