Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Books: Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

Not knowing anything about West, and retrospectively appreciative of the biographical synopses we were assigned as high school and then undergraduate students (oh, Norton anthologies, let me thumb your fragile pages) I poked about his wikipedia entry after reading this brilliant, heartrending twofer—a veritable exposition on the concept of "poignancy"—in one 24-hour period (really, it's far too good to put down). I found out that he was Jewish, Lithuanian, and a inhabitant of New York's Upper West Side; he and I are a match on all three accounts (though he grew up in New York and moved to California, whereas I did quite the opposite), but I've never trusted superficialities like that to bind readers to writers.

The magic is, as usual, in his delivery (despair's deadpan: think Godot); the best prose beats the pants off poetry with the poet's own tools—rhythm, diction, imagery—and West has it all up his sleeve. Miss Lonelyhearts is an alcoholic young man shuddering under the weight of the world's sorrows, which pour into his heart through his mind from the stacks of mail he reads at work, paragons of poor grammar and poor spirit. West provides us with a sampling of these missives, and we empathize. Miss Lonelyhearts has pryed a collapsing Christ off his crucifix and nailed the sculpted body directly onto his bedroom wall, but it hasn't helped. Eventually, he meets a married woman whose copious flesh feels all-encompassing. He has sex. He dies with an errant gunshot. The story is over. It's the best story you've read in a long time. Day of the Locust isn't as good (and there's no locust, just a lizard that an isolated man watches day after day, until a beautiful young starlet moves herself into his house, and her cowboy admirer, her Mexican lover, and their cock-fighting chickens into his garage), but it still is good—higher in drama if lower in pathos. Life, it seems, is a beautiful, miserable thing.

1 comment:

b said...

miss lonelyhearts doesn't hold up as well on a second reading, although the scene where 'miss lonelyhearts' and a drunken comrade harass a bum in a public bathroom while pretending to be sex psychologists Havelock Ellis and Kraft-Ebbing is hilarious.