Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Frustrated Resurrection of 'Miss Lonelyhearts'

I’m a reporter, but I never saw a newsroom like the one depicted in Nathanael West’s classic. Oh, I got a whiff of it and I talked to enough reporters who remembered it that way – teletypes going at all hours, with bells to ring the alerts; loud phones ringing incessantly; the ceaseless chimney-like smoke of a hundred cigarettes; the reporters with a flask in the desk and an expense account. But I get, in the barest details of “Miss Lonelyhearts” a hint of that world. Not in the details that I just enumerated, but in the exhausted cynicism of the newsroom that he inhabits.

We never know the name of the reporter who is referred to by our narrator as “Miss Lonelyhearts.” He is the very male reporter assigned to the traditional advice column in the newspaper. The letters he receives from readers are either those who are lonely, or those who are looking for meaning in life. Either way, the writers feel trapped enough to unburden themselves to a complete stranger, hoping that an answer can be found for the price of the latest edition.

In “Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney,” we learn that West spent a while working on the novel, trying to arrange and collect the various scenes that make up this very brief but satisfying novel. The very loose plot allows us to accompany our eponymous hero as he copes with the emotional and physical demands of his work.

First, think on the name. Addressing him only as “Miss Lonelyhearts” is very obviously a comic device. It emasculates him. He is a man being addressed as a woman, and as a woman of a very pathetic chorus – the lonely. “Miss Lonelyhearts” was published in 1933, when calling a man by that name would have been grounds for a fight, with an obvious homosexual reference. Men aren’t supposed to care – about anything. Applying the melodramatic, pathetic aura of a newspaper advice column to a man flies in the face of the hard-boiled time the novel sprang from. When the book was turned into a play and movie, the reporter is addressed as “Adam” – making him the representative man, sharing his name with the Biblical first man.

But Miss Lonelyhearts fills a need in society, which is where the novel’s action largely concerns itself. In the Biblical creation story, Adam is created in the image of God. When Adam falls into sin, he upsets the God-ordained role of the man – to glorify the Almighty. And because God created man in His image, man finds he needs God to fill his innermost longings. Consider Paul’s address to the people of Athens: “God wanted them to look for him and perhaps search all around for him and find him, though he is not far from any of us.” (Acts 17:27 NCV)

Miss Lonelyhearts feels that himself. As Alan Ross wrote, “The newspaper background, the alternation of self-pity, ineffectual love-making, clinical disgust, and the hopeless efforts at a normal life, are contrived and pointed with a bare passion that charges the whole book with a hallucinatory fever.” Miss Lonelyhearts finds himself overwhelmed by the misery around him, the misery that longs for solutions and absolutions. At the height of Great Depression-era misery, the nation’s plight is encapsulated in the soul of a cynical reporter who suddenly grows a soul.

Another writer might have latched onto the image of the priest hearing confessions. No, not here, in this coal black satire. Instead, Miss Lonelyhearts identifies himself with Christ. He is not a believer that we can tell, though he has a church background. He detaches the figure of Christ from a crucifix and nails it to his wall. He recognizes that, even from an early age, he has felt something stir inside him at the name of Jesus. “He had played with this thing, but had never allowed it to come alive.” But now he finds himself in a congregation of bitter, disillusioned people who once believed in the great concepts of Western thought until they were forced to document Western civilization at a moment of great decline. Salvation is something they no longer aspire to. As one letter in Miss Lonelyhearts’ pile asks, “How can I believe, how can I have faith in this day and age?”

Consider his own explanation:

“He too considers the job a joke, but after several months of it, the jokes begin to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble please for moral and spiritual advice, 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 he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.”

The problem of Miss Lonelyhearts is that only Christ can be Christ. The constant, daily pressure of the misery he sees in these misspelled letters eats away at his newborn soul. The weight of their iniquity crushes him, as does his own. Human history is a junkyard of fallen idols who have been destroyed by the merciless needs and ambitions of their acolytes, but only God bears up that weight and casts it off. Miss Lonelyhearts is just a man. “By avoiding God, he had failed to tap the force in his heart and had merely written a column for his paper.”

One other aspect of the novel: Most of the letters Miss Lonelyhearts receives are from women. Women frustrated by societal standards of beauty, by abuse, but lack of attention. Women needing emotional fulfillment in homes that are often cold. Women who expected more out of life than a siege of disappointments. We see, as the novel unfolds, that there is something sexually alluring about someone who will just listen. Miss Lonelyhearts isn’t a moral man in the strictest sense, but his conscience is assaulted each time he makes love to another woman. Though he is an amoral man, he feels the guilt of morality crushing him.

This mixes with the Christ image in Miss Lonelyhearts’ eventual destruction. Instead of a redemptive death, our hero dies at the hand of a cuckolded husband. This comes at the moment of his “accepting Christ,” accepting his mission as Miss Lonelyhearts. There is something funny, pathetic, fitting and unsatisfying in this, which is what West intended. His satires tend to unmask the meaninglessness of life which prefigures the existentialists of a generation later. But by giving us this ending, he unintentionally confirms the thesis that was the target of his satire:

Only One can carry the weight of the Cross, because the weight is real. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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