The American Vicarious

Humble Pleas for Moral Advice, Lightly Hard-boiled Surfaces, The Extension of Dada-Drunk Sophistication, Antagonist Editors Named Shrike, Cults, Idiomatic Violence, Unsympathetic Novels about Sympathy, Elevator Shafts, Desert Landscapes Littered with Arbitrary Architectural Monstrosities,The Inadvertent Death of Retail Clerks, F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Fetal Position

The American Vicarious

Jonathan Lethem
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Halfway through Miss Lo­nely­hearts, Nathanael West’s eponymous pro­tagonist blurts out:

Perhaps I can make you understand. Let’s start from the beginning. 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, 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.

The passage, so disconcertingly clean and direct that it could remind you of a Hollywood “treatment” (the mercenary form in which West would come to specialize, a few years later), perhaps represents the book West suspects he ought to have written, or the book he suspects his reader thinks he ought to have written. That’s to say, a coherently tragic narrative grounded, under an urbane, lightly hard-boiled surface, in comprehensible “values.” The story is the sort that might have been nicely handled by a novelist like Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might be considered a temperamental cousin to West’s, with its metaphor of the dance marathon forming a lucid indictment of the failure of popular imagination to encompass the Great Depression’s dismantling of the American Dream.

Certainly this embodies a part of West’s intention. Lonelyhearts was inspired by access West was given to real letters written to a real advice columnist, and its setting, a persuasively scoured and desperate ­early-’30s Manhattan, is rendered with the scalpel-precision that was West’s prose standard. No doubt, one measure of Nathanael West’s singular value is as a uniquely placed historical witness, a bridge between literary eras. His was a sensibility that extended the Paris-expatriate, Dada-­drunk sophistication of ’20s literary culture to the material and milieu of Steinbeck, Tom Kromer, Edward Dahlberg, Daniel Fuchs, and other 1930s writers (some explicitly tagged as “proletarian”)—that is, to poverty’s social depredations, with all the accompanying lowered sights, deluded daydreams, and susceptibility to cults, fads, and games of chance.

Yet hardly anything in this context prepares us as readers for the plunge into the nihilistic, hysterical, grotesque-poetic frieze that is the fifty-eight-page “novel” we know as Miss Lonelyhearts. For what that inadequate synopsis implies (“for the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values.…”) is an approach to depicting fictional characters that West couldn’t ratify: psychologically rounded, and capable of making and recognizing a traditional “mistake,” of making a hero’s progress through a typical plot, even if it is to be a tragic one. This isn’t West’s way. The journalist known to us only as “Miss Lonelyhearts,” like his antagonist-­editor, Shrike, indeed, like every human creature he encounters (including those “profoundly humble” authors of the advice-seeking letters), is a species of chimera, in many ways a mystery to him- or herself. If West’s characters are human, it is only unfortunately so: trapped in a grossly prominent physical form, a creature lusting and suffering in bewildering simultaneity. As far as their “values,” or personalities, these are glimpsed only fleetingly against a screaming sky full of borrowed and inadequate languages and attitudes—commercial, religious, existentialist, therapeutic, criminal.

West’s characters mostly don’t engage in conversation. In its place they toss blocks of rhetoric, of elegant mockery or despair, at one another like George Herriman’s Ignatz Mouse chucking a brick at Krazy Kat’s head. The comparison of Lonelyhearts’s form to a comic strip isn’t mine, but West’s, who intuited that for all his grounding in Dostoyevsky and T. S. Eliot he needed to find some version of vernacular form to embody his insight that “in America violence is idiomatic.” The novel’s short, sardonically titled chapters persistently end in morbid slapstick and cumulatively take on a slanted, compacted quality, like crashed cars exhibited bumper-to-bumper. Dislodged on the very first page from traditional identification with the travails of Lonely­hearts’s protagonist—in one ear by the horrific chorus of the advice-seeking letters themselves, in the other by the preemptive mockery of Shrike—the reader finds any possibility of redemptive self-pity brilliantly undermined. (A critic explained—or complained: “Violence is not only his subject matter, but his technique.”) Nathanael West’s masterpiece is a mercilessly unsympathetic novel on the theme of sympathy.



New York is vertical, Los Angeles horizontal, as well as three thousand miles farther from any grounding in European historical consciousness. The difference between West’s New York novel and The Day of the Locust, his Hollywood apocalypse, mimics these contrasts of cultural geography and form. Lonelyhearts is defined by stairwells and elevator shafts and basement speakeasies, Locust by the littering of a desert landscape with arbitrary architectural monstrosities, with random and flimsy quotations of varied building styles, whether for use as temporary movie sets or (barely more permanent) dwellings. Lizards scurry across this baked ground. In place of Lonelyhearts’s claustrophobic compression, in Locust, West’s savage attention flits from character to character, leaving more oxygen and sunlight between the tragicomically lumpen human operators—though eventually they’ll crowd together and swarm this landscape like lemmings. Acutely conscious of the double-edged myths of Progress and Manifest Destiny (the diffident Jew Nathan Wallenstein Weinstein converted himself to the imperially urbane “Nathanael West” because, he joked, he’d heard Horace Greeley’s call to “go West, young man”), West defines Los Angeles as the place where the American (Egalitarian) Dream has ended up, first to replicate itself in the synesthetic cartoons of the motion-­picture industry, and then, under the exposing glare of sunlight, to die.

Of course it is also six years deeper into the Depression, and no one in Locust would bother, as does Shrike in Lonelyhearts, to puncture unattainable fantasies of luxurious Bohemian escape. The inadvertent Californians in Locust have made their last, weary migration, and in this zone of shoddy historical facsimiles history itself seems to have ground to an end. The aspiring painter Tod Hackett, the book’s best hope for reader-­surrogate (and West’s best shot at such a thing, in any of his four books), a protagonist-­watcher who dares both to dream of love and to attempt an artistic encapsulation of what’s before him, can only plan a canvas depicting the gleeful burning of Los Angeles by its cheated residents: in destruction, they might make it their own.

West depicts the film industry from its margins, the lame cast-off vaudevillians and extras, the aspirants and show-biz parents, grasping intuitively that these figures articulate the brief continuum between manufacturing and merchandising bogus dreams, and lining up to buy them. The pathetically wishful movie scenarios dreamed up by the wannabe-starlet Faye Greener, Tod Hackett’s tormenting love-object, are hardly less viable than the sorts of films that West himself ended up dashing off during his stints as a studio writer—the point seems to be not simply that anyone could dream such stuff up, but that everyone did, simultaneously. Most were buyers, not sellers.

West’s diagnosis of the American Vicarious anticipates both reality television (where Andy Warhol’s quip about everyone gaining fifteen minutes of fame became a drab processional) and the overturning of the “Death Tax” (where politicians aroused a righteous populist indignation in favor of the inheritance of fortunes, just on the chance ­every American would acquire his rightful own). West wouldn’t have wondered what’s the matter with Kansas; he knew the problem wasn’t limited to Kansas, or Los Angeles, or the 1930s. In a 1967 article on West, Gilbert Sorrentino discerned that The Day of the Locust predicted Ronald Reagan’s future presidency, and this book, a sun-blazed Polaroid of its moment, seems permanently oracular.



West’s ultimate subject is the challenge (the low odds, he might insist) of negotiating between, on the one hand, the ground-zero imperatives and agonies of the body and, on the other, the commoditized rhetorics of persuasion, fear, envy, guilt, acquisition, and sacrifice (those voices that George Saunders has nicknamed “The Braindead Megaphone” of late capitalism) in hopes of locating an intimate ground of operation from which an authentic loving gesture might be launched. That he identified this as a baseline twentieth-century American dilemma as early as he did granted West a superb relevance to the future of American literature—its ongoing future, I’d say.

In the weeks while I’ve been re-reading his novels, the unfolding of a global financial collapse has many speaking of a “second Great Depression,” the public mechanics of which will certainly be subject to the same forces of transference, denial, and fantasy that West made his obsessive motifs. Last year in suburban Long Island, on the day nicknamed “Black Friday” for its hopes of pushing retail accounts into the black of profit, a tide of bargain-­fevered shoppers trampled to death a retail clerk attempting to manage their entry into his store. The newspaper business has almost dissolved beneath a willful tide of “authentic” voices demanding to be heard; its response is nearly as neurotic as Miss Lonelyhearts’s. Which of West’s contemporaries can we imagine weighing in intelligibly on blogging, or American Idol? (Picture Ernest Hemingway’s thousand-yard stare—and he lived a quarter-century longer than West—or F. Scott Fitzgerald in a ­fetal position.) By applying the magpie aesthetics of surrealism and T. S. Eliot to the “American Grain,” by delving into the popular culture and emerging not with surrender or refusal but a razor-cool critique, West became the great precursor to Heller, Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, and so much else, likely including Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” West died at thirty-seven, with his wife, in an automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico. His biographer Jay Martin gives evidence of the many books West had sketched out to write after Locust, surely the greatest shadow oeuvre in American fiction. 

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