Miss Lonelyhearts
Nathanael West
(New Directions)
This new edition has been published with the book's original cover. It was first published by Horace Liveright ... which promptly went into bankruptcy.

We may never know how it got published at all, back there in the spring of 1933, in the very worst of the Depression. If you needed further depression in the early 1930s, West's novel was the ticket. I found it in my sister's bookshelf a few years later.

The print was large, the book short, and I --- beginning my new adult career as a reader --- thought it to be just right for me. A strange book on an even weirder subject: agony writer meets his destiny. I got to read and learn (really!) how to be depressed

It was 1946. We had just gone through an exhilarating war and I was edging into flowering, full of piss and vinegar ... and I remember wondering how a writer could give a novel the name of a woman who was in truth a man working at a job in a newspaper where every day he got inundated with letters like the one from a girl who "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 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.

She asks her father why she had "such a terrible bad fate" and he says he doesn't know but

    maybe I did something in the other world before I as 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?

And it is signed "Sincerely yours, Desperate." And I remember being fascinated by the wonderful awful letters in Miss Lonelyhearts with the columnist reading them and trying at the same time to light a cigarette: "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."

§   §   §

West created a perfect novel, as perfect as three of his peers: Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio; Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby; William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. Like these, West's book is perfect and perfectly sad and profoundly strange, peopled by the lonelyhearts, the thousands of suffering puzzled wondering wounded who find agony enough to seek him out, thinking somehow with his newspaper wisdom they can be cured, or at least become eased and tempered, made to understand how in the world a god (we suppose) or if not at least humanity (we hope) and maybe even with just words we can somehow find an answer. Miss Lonelyhearts even looked the part, for "even without a beard no one could fail to recognize the New England puritan."The letters are unremitting. Harold S. writes about his sister Gracie who is "deaf and dumb, not very smart"

    and last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She told me about it and I don't 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 couldnt...

At first Miss Lonelyhearts thought his job was a joke but then 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." In other words, he is in the paradoxical position of needing his own Miss Lonelyhearts to help him with the pain of being a helper in a world in which there is no help at all for Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband.

The art here is in the letters --- each of them a small, perfect poem of pain. Juxtaposed is Miss Lonelyhearts and his jagged, poisoned, merciless days and nights of misery (both spiritual and secular. With his final cross to bear, Shrike.)

Shrike has the "Dead Pan," is the one who gave him his column and the wisdom that goes along with it ... and lives in perfect counterpoint to him (and his readers). Miss Lonelyhearts tries to hide ... but Shrike always finds him out, even gives a party where selected agony letters are handed out as favors and the guests challenged to write responses. "From your answers, Miss Lonelyhearts will diagnose your moral ills. Afterwards he will lead you in the way of attainment."

Miss Lonelyhearts disappears, hides in his room but Shrike --- as always --- visits to compose, on the spot, several poems of possible escape --- poems as fine as any in this book. For instance, he says that Miss L can dedicate his future life to "pleasure," "knowing that your body is a pleasure machine;" or he can take on the life of an artist ("When you are cold, warm yourself before the flaming tints of Titian"); or, lastly, he could consider going to the South Seas, where he "could live in a thatch hut with the daughter of the king, a slim young maiden in whose eyes is an ancient wisdom. Her breasts are golden speckled pears, her belly a melon, and her odor is like nothing so much as a jungle fern."

    In the evening, on the blue lagoon, under the silvery moon, to your love you croon in the soft sylabelew and vocabelew of her langorour tongorour. Your body is golden brown like hers, and tourists have need of the indignant finger of the missionary to point you out. They envy you your breech clout and carefree laugh and little brown bride and fingers instead of forks.

"But you don't return their envy, and when a beautiful society girl comes to your hut in the night, seeking to learn the secret of your happiness, you send her back to her yacht that hangs on the horizon like a nervous racehorse. And so you dream away the days, fishing, hunting, dancing, swimming, kissing, and picking flowers to twine in your hair." What the author has done here is to create a Miss Lonelyhearts for the Miss Lonelyhearts, and we know that the editor, like the columnist (like the author) is a poet for at that time when the words turn impossible, as they always must (especially for those who are paid for their words), they devolve into doggerel: "blue lagoon ... moon ... your love you croon" ... and then further into the vocabulary of impossible nonsense nonwords: the soft sylabelew and vocabelew of her langorour tongorour.

In his thirty-seven years of life, Nathanael West wrote several plays and novels, but none of these even begins to match Miss Lonelyhearts. It is an Odyssean poem, an adventure taking us deep into the center of all our agony souls. The divine appears throughout, not only as Lonelyhearts' love "Betty the Buddha," but with Shrike's invocation on the wall, taped above his desk,

Help me, Miss L, help me, help me,
In sæcula sæculorum. Amen.

But the Christ is nailed (with real nails in hands and feet) on the wall of his bedroom; and appears only in the final passion in the dark stairwell where Miss Lonelyhearts falls, failing to succor disillusioned, hopeless, broken-hearted with his love, spinning downwards in the embrace of a man who must crucify him in despair and no-love.

--- L. W. Milam
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