"Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst." So muses Miss Lonelyhearts, and the sentiment could stand as the motto for both of these exquisite short novels.
More powerfully perhaps than any other artist, Nathanael West argued through his fiction that imagination and fantasy had been commoditized and debased by the mass media (what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later call the "culture industry") and that people have consequently been stripped of their sympathies for one another. And just think: West never even saw television. Imagine how he would have felt about that.
Two Novels, One Ironic Worldview
West’s novels manage to be hilariously funny while remaining resolutely grim, in part due to his genius for stark and shocking violence and uncompromising exaggerations. The setup for Miss Lonelyhearts sounds like a hoot, but it turns into a nightmare: a young intellectual man takes a job, as a joke, as a newspaper’s advice columnist. Soon, though, "the joke begins to escape him"; the letters he receives "are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice … inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering." He hears from the ill and the abused, and he has no idea what advice to offer. The one answer that works reliably–Jesus–he’s not thrilled with, being a nonbeliever himself.
The Day of the Locust, meanwhile, takes on the mother of all dream-devouring industries: Hollywood. Tod Hackett, an artist wasting his talents as a scene painter, is the focal consciousness through which the excesses and revulsions of La-La Land are observed.
That prostitutes figure into this critique shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the raw violence against animals-quails getting their heads snapped off, a cockfight in which two birds tear each other to bloody pieces-ups the ante in terms of disaffection. The disorienting scene in which Tod strolls through a studio lot, passing in a few minutes lifelike sets of deserts and Paris and Greek temples and Napoleon’s Waterloo, the trappings of which will end up sooner or later on a garbage heap, is postmodernism avant la letter and a gorgeously self-contained exposition of how 20th-century culture grinds up all that is fine and grand from the past in its inexorable and insatiable jaws.
What does any of this have to do with the Jews? Quite a lot, actually. For one thing, West, the son of immigrants from Russia, was born Nathan Weinstein (he changed his name, legally, at the age of 23); it’s up for debate as to how West’s Jewishness inflected his literary perspective. For another thing, though, both before and after West’s time, Jews have been highly involved in both newspaper advice columns-not just the prominent Ann Landers, Dear Abby, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, but also Abraham Cahan, who penned the famed "Bintel Brief" advice column in the Yiddish Forward-and, of course, in the movies (for the story of Jews in early Hollywood, see Neal Gabler’s history, An Empire of Their Own, published in 1989).
In his short career–he died at the age of 37, having produced little enough fiction that it can all fit comfortably in a single volume–West took seriously the ways that the technological and cultural shifts of the 20th century changed the way we think and feel, and though his vision was unremittingly bleak, it has for that precise reason remained distressingly relevant for American Jews and for everyone else who lives in a media-saturated world.
Jay Martin’s biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life (1970), unearths the story behind the author’s career, while Critical Essays on Nathanael West (1994), edited by Ben Siegel, gathers dozens of varied responses to the published works. In several essays, including Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler also offers exemplary readings of West’s work. The grotesque dark comedy West refined became much more prevalent in the decades following his death; Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Flannery O’Connor are three major authors who in different ways owe stylistic debts to West.