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Book Review: Miss Lonelyhearts

miss lonelyhearts

Support Gallows Humor: Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Given that I can’t quit reading, following booklists, and pestering people for recommendations, I have no idea how I made it this far without ever having heard of Nathanael West’s book Miss Lonelyhearts. I’ve usually at least heard of the books that you are “supposed” to read, the ones that Harold Bloom insists are part of the canon.

Not this time. It was actually during an audiobook of Bloom’s How To Read And Why that I first heard of Lonelyhearts. I had forced my annoyance at most of what Bloom says into the background when I checked out the book, because I wanted to hear what he had to say about Blood Meridian. But I wound up listening to the entire book.

He mentions Miss Lonelyhearts throughout before examining it thoroughly in the American novelists section. He goes so far as to say that he considers it, along with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which I also love, so maybe I should change my name to Harold Bloom Jr.), one of his favorite novels. And apparently Flannery O’Connor said the same thing, and that’s was really got me interested, because good old Flannery is about my favorite writer in the world.

So what was it? Why would these two figures obsess over a 58 page book?

Summary of Miss Lonelyhearts

I’m going to need to read it again. This is a book where I feel that no words are wasted. That everything means something.

The titular character is a man who writes a newspaper column that also goes by the same name. People in pain write him letters and he responds with words of comfort and advice. Within the first few pages he has read a letter from a poor girl with no nose who tells him that her mother cries every time she looks at her, and wonders if she’ll ever get to go on any dates.

He also goes out drinking, gets a chair smashed over his head, and fools around with his bosses’ wife.

He works for a man named Shrike. Shrike’s main function is to belittle him in a deadpan tone while tossing out cynical, brutal apothegms that make Lord Henry from Dorian Gray sound like the very definition of altruism.

ML goes to the country with his fiance. He gets fan letters. He struggles to hold on to a faith he doesn’t even have. He meets one of the letters’ authors and sleeps with her. He meets her husband, a crippled man who writes him a letter detailing his lack of formal learning,  at a dinner at their house.

This probably doesn’t sound funny at all, but I laughed on every single page, even though I wished I didn’t find it funny. If you like dark comedies, this is the darkest and the briefest I know of.

Every line is brutal. Every line is bogged down with cynicism, misery, violence, frustration, and nihilism. Here’s a typical sentence about grass and summer:

It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt.

I read that and I laughed. It’s brilliant and it’s awful and it summarizes the entire book in that sentence. And this is where my admiration lies: I could say that about so many sentences in the short book. Sentences which teach you how to read and view the book, and render all summaries from people like me completely inadequate.

I’m able to admire many books the first time through without really understanding the point, what the author is getting at. Understanding usually comes with rereadings.

I suspect I’ll read this book every couple of years until I die, and still won’t feel like I understand it all.

A fantastic surprise. Absolutely brilliant. Even though it made me agree with Harold Bloom about something.

If you don’t mind reading on a screen, here’s a link to the text of Miss Lonelyhearts from Project Gutenberg.

Josh

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  • Will June 28, 2011, 5:49 am

    Josh,
    Thanks for this. Novellas/short stories that serve as a break from something longer, which i may be reading, are necessary for me sometimes. Two, to three times a year this happens.

    Here is an idea for a post, if you have not already covered it in the last 12 months [or ever?]: Most potent stories/books you have read in one day. I would say “under 100 pages”, but that sounds too prescribed. I know that my boy read “Hearts Of Darkness” in two hours and spent twice as much time that telling me about it.

    Cheers,
    Will

  • Sarah June 28, 2011, 11:13 am

    I think I need to read it when I’m not at work, cuz I sped through it and didn’t catch any humor at all…I just ended up depressed! That being said, I still thought it was great. I just missed the comedy aspect, dark or not.