Nathanael West died in 1940 so, with copyright in the EU lasting for 70 years after death, his work is now in the public domain. You can tell West is considered a minor writer because when Joyce, Woolf or Fitzgerald went out of copyright in the last couple of years, new editions of their works sprang up like summer daisies. West was last in print in the UK a dozen years ago, and now Vintage Classics has done the decent thing: or the half-decent thing anyway. West wrote just four short books in his lifetime (he died in a car crash at the age of 37), and here we have two of them.
The Day of the Locust (1939) is West’s last, and most famous, book. I had been disappointed when I first read it, but this time I found it, perhaps inevitably, better than I remembered. The executive summary for The Day of the Locust is ‘Hollywood novel’ (emhasised in the cover design for this new edition), but there’s not much tinseltown action here. The most direct evidence we get – an efficient scene-setting – is when an army on foot passes by the office of the main character Tod Hackett. He works as an artist for a film studio, having come close to exhausting his interest in painting at art school. “The pleasures he received from the problems of composition and colour had decreased as his facility had increased and he realised that he was going the way of all his classmates, toward illustration or mere handsomeness.” Working in Hollywood, expecting to lose interest altogether, instead he becomes fascinated with depicting the terrible people there: we get a clue to what his proposed paintings might look like from his stated influence (Goya) and the working title (‘The Burning of Los Angeles’).
In fact the people Tod encounters are more pitiable than contemptible. They are the flotsam of society, rich and poor, drifting on tides they do not comprehend and winding up in the most meretricious place of all. Hollywood is relevant, then, as a representation of a particular circle of hell. Near the centre is Faye Greener, aspiring actress and the object of Tod’s affection (“she was taut and vibrant. She was as shiny as a new spoon”), though he has a rival in Homer Simpson (Matt Groening cites the book as an inspiration). Homer is a dullard – “Whether he was happy or not it is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither” – and in Tod’s view, he is “an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die.” Homer has had trouble before in coping with forward women (“he hurriedly labelled his excitement disgust”), and Faye doesn’t seem likely to present him with that problem. On top of this we have Faye’s father, Harry Greener, the tragicomic centre of the novel, with his desperate capering either to sell goods door-to-door or to recall his “forty years in vaudeville and burlesque.” The highlight of the book for me was the scene where Harry knocks on Homer Simpson’s door, and establishes that pity is almost as good a way to get your way as charm, even if you’re not quite in control of which one comes out on top.
When Harry had first begun his stage career, he had probably restricted his clowning to the boards, but now he clowned continuously. It was his sole method of defence. Most people, he had discovered, won’t go out of their way to punish a clown.
His pitch to Homer also introduces his daughter Faye, which sets the characters in motion, and the pace picks up further when another suitor, Earle Shoop, a cowboy, rides onto the page. They are all characters to whom happiness is impossible if not invisible, not least because the opposite seems so available just where they are. Homer, for example, “was impatient and so began to prod at his sadness, hoping to make it acute and so still more pleasant.” They are like Richard Yates characters with jokes. Yet West’s gift for bitter wit exceeds his storytelling ability: there is something bitty and skittish about the way the novel proceeds, and an inchoate feel to the whole, despite the culmination of all its sadness, of which more later. Perhaps that is appropriate for a novel set in a world where nothing is really real.
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) for me was always West’s finest work. So, just to balance my previous response out, this one disappointed me a little this time around. The concept is best summarised by the title character himself:
A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, and that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.
What more is there to say? This time, the apt comparison might be Kurt Vonnegut without the whimsy. Miss Lonelyhearts really is a strikingly bleak book, wedging a lot of blackness into its 75 pages. Miss Lonelyhearts (he is referred to only by that name) unwillingly adopts the role of a god to his readers, while struggling for grace himself. “The walls [of his room] were bare except for an ivory Christ that hung on the wall opposite the bed. He had removed the figure from the cross to which it had been fastened and had nailed it to the wall with large spikes. But the desired effect had not been obtained. Instead of writhing, the Christ remained calmly decorative.” He develops “an almost insane sensitiveness to order,” exerting control over everything he can, since he can’t do anything for his desperate readers. He labours under a monstrous boss, Shrike, with whose wife Miss Lonelyhearts wishes to become close.
Once he had tried to get fired by recommending suicide in his column. All Shrike had said was, “Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose.”
The outcome is, perhaps, inevitable, and as with The Day of the Locust, if the journey there is somewhat uneven, the ending itself compromises nothing. The book is a product of Depression-era America, and depression and anxiety are threaded through it. The consolations of art, companionship, love are all proved inadequate. Miss Lonelyhearts wonders at one point “what had happened to his great understanding heart.” West’s answer seems to be, what do you think?
W.H. Auden called West’s books “parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.” Near the end of The Day of the Locust, a warning sign to the reader of terrible things to come is given when Homer is described as displaying “lunatic calm.” With Tod, it is when, altogether casually, he wishes “he had the courage to wait for [Faye] some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” All their desires, so long frustrated in every direction, are aimed at one woman, whose status as the object – target – of their wishes makes her no less unfortunate than them. But everyone there, says West, is like this, where “boredom” is “terrible”, and “nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies.” It foresees what Joseph Heller would write about 35 years later in his masterpiece Something Happened; and come to that, it looks even more familiar today.