The relatively recent single volume republication of Nathanael West’s novels Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust aroused my attention not, as I imagine they didn’t particularly many other readers, because of what I’d heard were canny satires of Hollywood and the newspaper advice columns, but, as I imagine have too been the reason for many of the readers who have been similarly wooed by the lovely new New Directions paperback edition, because West has recently been much-fêted as something of a lost great American master, newly rediscovered in what now, in these disenchanting contemporary days, is truly his time. Now, so the current treatment of West’s place in the literary canon goes, the author’s once-untimely cynicism is merited, and now the unheralded master may be properly appreciated.
This all sounded great to me: I’d imagined a more caustic S.J. Perelman, someone whose disenchantment was matched by a jovial mockery of it all. When I began reading Miss Lonelyhearts, however, I found myself quite disenchanted, quite cynical about the whole literary branding process. Is West truly deserving of all this newfound acclaim, or has the excitement of a new rediscovery caused some, understandably, to be a bit hasty in their endorsement of his abilities? After a mere few pages of Miss Lonelyhearts, finding his ostensibly caustic treatment of the heartlessness with which advice columns dole out platitudes to truly hurting people less pointed than I felt I’d been led to believe it was, I turned, a bit hastily myself, to Jonathan Lethem’s lovely introduction. Lethem characterizes Miss Lonelyhearts in precisely the pithy way I’d imagined West to have expanded upon it: “Nathanael West’s masterpiece is a mercilessly unsympathetic novel on the theme of sympathy.” It’s a terrific conceit: using the advice column to explore how uncaring people can be. But it didn’t seem to me, in my hasty judgment, that West had capitalized on this idea, and his treatment of what I’d believe was his point felt mess, at once rushed and enervated. Lethem describes each of the variously miserable characters in the novel as being “a species of chimera, in many ways a mystery to him or herself.” He goes on: “If West’s characters are human, it is only unfortunately so” – another beautiful line; continuing: “trapped in a grossly prominent physical form, a creature lusting and suffering in bewildering simultaneity. As far as their ‘values’ or personalities, these are glimpsed only fleetingly against a screaming sky full of borrowed and inadequate languages and attitudes – commercial, religious, existentialist, therapeutic, criminal.” What a remarkable work Lethem is describing here; but is it Miss Lonelyhearts?
As it turns out, at least under Lethem’s illuminating guidance, it largely is. But one must be willing to immerse oneself in West’s uncomfortable and often clumsy prose, and dispel with the notion that his novels are works merely or even primarily of satire. The crowded discomfort I felt upon beginning Miss Lonelyhearts proved, if not essential, at least more immediate in getting the message across; indeed, his prose gets his message across long before his narrative does, surely the sign of an artful and thoughtful writer, if one a bit literal in matching form to function. But what struck me most upon reading Miss Lonelyhearts was not my response to the novel but my response to West: throughout, I was seeking validation for his new status as one of the 20th century’s American greats. I wanted to have a new master to fall in love with, and my fear that this master wouldn’t be West, after all my preparation and expectations, obscured my experience of the novel. This is nothing new: the author’s biography has a way of infringing upon and variously influencing his or her work, as too does the hype around the author. But the possibility of a rediscovery poses a unique kind of excitement: this isn’t someone new whom we can now follow, this is someone old whom we can catch up on; this is someone whom we, unlike his or her contemporaries, can understand; we can finally repay the debt the author was owed. That West seems to me something less than this brings up a more uncomfortable question: what do we do with the merely better-than-average writers who were overlooked in their own time? Are they deserving, too, of a belated acknowledgment of even their merely better-than-average abilities? Must one be truly remarkable to be worth rediscovering? Do the merely better-than-average only deserve to be recognized in their own time? And once this time passes, do later readers have any obligation to pay heed to this earlier generation’s since-forgotten better-than-average writer?
I don’t know that anyone has any such obligation, per se, but it’s, at the very least, certainly a nice thing to do. It is wonderful that West is being so widely rediscovered, and certainly I hope others are finding in him the kind of unique writer that I was largely unable to. I hope to continue to search for this West his other work. Ultimately, however, what the New Directions volume led me to believe, however hastily, is that, while West may not have been the unique and prescient writer that many are making him out to be, Lethem certainly is. For this confirmation alone, the West republications seem entirely worth it.