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Monday, February 28, 2011

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts is often referred to as a novel despite its extreme brevity. At only 58 pages it is shorter than most novellas. This lack of length might seem enticing but in the end proves a befuddling decision. Mr. West's "novel" is a muddled mixture of bitter musings and pronoucements of pain. Its philosophy is impossible to discern, and its lack of compassion is alarming.

This is all a shame, because by anybody's estimation, the premise here is an absolute winner. Miss Lonelyhearts is the title character, but he is a he, not a she, and he's employed at a newspaper writing an advice column. It's all a little joke perpetrated on the paper's readers, orchestrated by the viciously cynical Shrike, who torments Miss Lonelyhearts with his mocking disregard for Christ and humanity.

Miss Lonelyhearts initially seems to be a sympathetic creature. In the novel's heartbreaking first few pages, he reads some of his mail as he struggles to say something meaningful in his columns. The letters are passionate pleas for help from the helpless, the abused, the trapped. Shrike mocks Miss Lonelyhearts by telling him to suggest these people take up hobbies such as art appreciation.

However, after the wonder that is the first five pages or so, West's novel bogs itself down in opaque inner dialogue about Christ. It is never made clear what Miss Lonelyhearts really wants or feels, and as he is shown to be a rather unsavory character himself, it is easy for the reader not to give a damn what happens to him.

It is almost an achievement in its own right that a novel so short can be so lacking in energy and momentum. What should be a rush to the conclusion is instead a slog.

There's just a lot missing in Miss Lonelyhearts, which is inexcusable in such a short work.

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