Friday, March 9, 2012

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

   At a newspaper column in 1930s New York City, letters arrive every day seeking the advice of "Miss Lonelyhearts."  While some people are looking for relationship advice ("but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose"), and others need birth control tips ("I have 7 children in 12 years"), they all have one thing in common - they are all miserable and hoping that Miss Lonelyhearts can offer sound advice to solve their problems for good.  But what most of the public doesn't know is that "Miss Lonelyhearts" is really just a bored young man who is just as unhappy as they are.  The rest of the novella follows Miss Lonelyhearts as he explores various paths to fulfillment, namely sex, alcohol, and religion.  But unfortunately, these attempts only lead him to varying degrees of more misery and unhappiness.

   Published in 1933, Miss Lonelyhearts is a bleak satirical commentary on the increasing level of social and personal disillusionment in post-depression America.  Despite living in New York City with an ongoing connection to and dialogue with the public through his newspaper job, Miss Lonelyhearts feels increasingly isolated and detached from the city that so desperately seeks his advice.  Determined to make one final attempt at human connection, he reaches out to an unlikely companion and learns a moment too late that his sense of social responsibility has only led him down a path of self-destruction.

   Nathanael West died when he was just 37, but spent most of his writing career exploring his cynical perspective on American culture, which he is famous for today.  Coming of age during wartime and writing during the Great Depression, West's bleak view of America was certainly justified and is exemplified through Miss Lonelyhearts.  The novella is less than 100 pages, so it can be read in one sitting, but it feels much more epic than its length suggests.  West's book is both hilarious and devastating, embodying the dichotomy of his America - a place of endless pleasure to distract us from our fate of lifelong misery.  I know.  It sounds awfully whiny and broody, but when you think about all the desolation and suffering West witnessed in his short 37 years (WWI, The Great Depression, the beginning of WWII), his perspective of America was understandably tarnished.

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