Sunday, November 27, 2005

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West

In all these years of reading Great American Books, how did I miss N. West? Turns out I love Miss Lonelyhearts. Almost every one of the passages is funny, and even though some of them are perhaps a bit overwrought, I think he means for them to be so, and from that excess of feeling derives much of the humor. In case you haven’t read Miss Lonelyhearts, it is about a newspaper reporter who, at the bottom of the proverbial writing totem pole, is assigned to write an advice column (thus the title). At first, he’s cynical about the whole prospect, but the experience of having to write the column turns him into a humbler sort of fellow. That synopsis makes the story sound overly sincere to the point of being trite—but believe me when I say that it isn’t. The tone of the story is anything but syrupy.

For a sense of the tone, the reader must listen to a few descriptions from early on in the story. One of the first times the narrator allows us to see Miss Lonelyhearts at work (we know the writer by his pen name), the narrator explains that Miss Lonelyhearts can hardly face his subjects. He wants to turn instead to:

the imagined desert where desperate, broken-hearted, and the others [are] still building his name. They [...] run out of sea shells and [are] using faded photographs, soiled fans, time-tables, playing cards, broken toys, imitation jewelry [...]. He killed his great understanding heart by laughing. (26)

So by listing the squalor he sees around him. Miss L. is maybe for the first time in the literature (1930s) describing some of the squalor he sees around him—but for entertainment.

One of the interesting parts of the narrative, for me, is the protagonist’s name. Clearly, we are to snicker a bit each time at his being called “Miss Lonelyhearts”— all the other characters also call him that. Of course, that raises the issue of an entire gender-crossing subtext; one could read this book productively from the perspective of queer theory, questioning the way Miss Lonelyhearts feels distant from (and moves closer to) Jesus Christ as a possible metaphor for the distance from the church a transgendered male feels from the church. Textual evidence abounds that would support such an argument. At one point, for instance, when Miss Lonelyhearts ponders his distance from Christ, he decides that he can “find no support for either his eyes or his feelings” (39). The narrator doesn’t explain, but the reader can infer from the passage the sense of distance.

But from the standpoint of a researcher of comedy, to call the male character Miss Lonelyhearts is to destabilize him, to create an incongruity about his obvious masculinity, and that is humorous.

Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s boss and sinister seeming editor, seems to have several purposes. Lonelyhearts smiles at him “as the saints are supposed to have smiled at those about to martyr them” (44). We are to gather a religious feeling about Shrike—and about Lonelyhearts himself, who the narrator often compares to a priest who hears confession in reading and answering the letters. But the comedy comes from his smart-ass responses to the letters. When he can’t write a heart-felt response, the snide answers are comical. Lonelyhearts’s inability to feel makes fun of the sentimental response that we’re expecting.

The climax of the novella happens when Miss Lonelyhearts agrees to go home with the disabled Mr. Doyle, husband of Mrs. Doyle who he has been sleeping with (after reading her letter about being lonely in the presence of her “crippled” husband). It’s a terrible scene, in which Lonelyhearts agrees to go with Mr. Doyle, fully knowing what awaits him in the room with Mrs. Doyle, and indeed it happens that she tries to play footsies under the table. Only this time, Miss L. “only [breaks] his beatific smile to drink” (48). He has decided in this case to take the high road, and he’s waiting, it seems, for some sort of communication from God. The narrator explains that he’s not afraid of silence because he’s “busy trying to find a message” and that when he does “speak it [will] have to be in the form of a message” (48).

Finally, Mr. Doyle, the disabled man, apparently having observed his wife’s flirtations with Miss L., half-jokes “Ain’t I the pimp, to bring home a guy for my wife?” (48). Mrs. Doyle protests in a fury and they both laugh, but then fight, ending the tousle in tears. Finally, Miss L. says something:

Please don’t fight [...] He loves you, Mrs. Doyle; that’s why he acts like that. Be kind to him. [...] You have a big, strong body, Mrs. Doyle. Holding your husband in your arms, you can warm him and give him life. [...]He [carries] a heavy load of weariness and pain. You can substitute a dream of yourself for this load. [...] You can do this by letting him conquer you in your bed… (49)

But rather than stunning them with his brilliance, Miss Lonelyhearts merely confuses them. This “sage advice” turns out to be a bunch of silliness. Mrs. Doyle is “too astonished to laugh” and Mr. Doyle is “embarrassed” (49). Miss L. has “failed to tap the force in his heart and merely written a column for the paper” (49). This part is really clever, see, because West makes fun of the kind of sentimentality that everyone else writes by writing it himself—and then making fun of any reader who might have fallen for it!

So what can Miss L. do, then but try again. He becomes “hysterical” and screams “Christ is love,” which might at first sound like the ultimate trite ending, but listen to what else he says about that: “Christ is the black fruit that hangs on the crosstree. Man was lost by eating of the forbidden fruit. He shall be saved by eating of the bidden fruit. The black Christ-fruit, the love fruit. . . “ (49). It sounds like his own love poem to Christ, not someone else’s made up religion.

That would have made a good ending, but in fact what happens is bizarre, what is truly an end-of-the-twentieth century Hollywood ending, rather than a 1930s ending, for my money. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know. Miss L. is sick with a fever and hallucinating. He begins to hallucinate, looking at the crucifix on the wall across from his bed, seeing “a background of blood velvet, sprinkled with tiny nerve stars” (56). Then he realizes that “the room [is] full of grace” and hears the voice of God. The narrator says “his identification with God was complete” and “God approved of his every thought” (57). By a silly twist of events, Mr. Doyle has decided to kill Miss L. So in comes Mr. Doyle, and disguised behind a newspaper, of course, is a gun. Doyle and Lonelyhearts struggle over that gun.

The really great part of it is, though, that Betty (Miss L.’s other almost virginal, but now pregnant lover, who he has agreed to marry) enters the scene in time to stop the struggle. But when Doyle sees her getting in the way, he tries to drop the gun, which then goes off accidentally, shooting Miss L. anyway, who then takes Doyle down the stairs with him—the joke here is that the deaths are accidental/on purpose, the ultimate random end to the religious, no?

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