Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

A review of the literary black comedy novel Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.

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Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West was borne out of one of the darkest periods of America’s history, a time of economic turmoil in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash. Published in 1933, this black comedy focuses on a male news reporter—the eponymous ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’—who is responsible for writing an advice column for the troubled inhabitants of New York City. With millions unemployed, the morale of the nation was in the gutter, crippled with rage and suffering.

Assuming the role of an agony aunt, the daily deluge of such distraught letters drives Miss Lonelyhearts to drink and depression. Referred to by his female persona throughout the novel, he still clings onto his faith in God to give him solace, though many of his friends are openly scornful of such views. Feeling his religious beliefs are the last vestige of virtue in a world of moral decay, Miss Lonelyhearts develops a Christ complex and even goes on to commit acts of indecency—such as embarking on an affair with the editor’s wife—all in the vain hope his actions are somehow imbued with some kind of higher spiritual purpose.

Needless to say, despite being incredibly short, Miss Lonelyhearts takes a simple but compelling premise and uses it as a vehicle to condemn the illusory nature of the American dream and presents the reader with a critique of religious mania. More a novella than a novel per se, West’s tale is a parable of Depression-era martyrdom with allegorical nods to the mythic traditions which underpin Western civilisation. Much like his contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos, West was sceptical of religion as well as the decline of contemporary morals, using his writing as a means of expressing his deep-rooted sense of cultural pessimism. Though frequently humorous, West’s work is also often desperately sad and cynical, yet deeply incisive about human nature, no matter how dark it may stoop.

Where West is truly unique, however, is how controversial and edgy a writer he really was for his time. His characters swear often, they debase and women are misogynistic, they speak in shocking terms about rape, and even discuss homosexuality at a time when ‘sodomy’ was illegal. It’s quite astonishing West had the nerve to be so brazen with the written word. In fact, it’s almost hard to believe Miss Lonelyhearts was written as long ago as it was, and released several years before the outbreak of the Second World War.

A writer seemingly years ahead of his time, Nathanael West’s bold vision seems much more akin to J.D. Salinger and the Beat generation, particularly in how it readily courts controversy and challenges the social conventions of his time. His work becomes all the more thought-provoking in light of the fact that West died aged 37 in a car crash while he was rushing to attend the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also died at a young age.

If you’re unfamiliar with the incomparable output of Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (along with his 1939 classic The Day of the Locust) exemplifies his darkly satirical style better than any other. The fact that both books remain eminently readable to modern eyes is a testament to West’s literary foresight. Clearly he knew the way society was heading, he had a progressive lens on the world as he saw it, and it was never going to be a pleasant path for anyone to tread. Thankfully, to this day, his stories remain pleasant ones to read about at least.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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