[Book]“Miss Lonelyhearts” and “A Cool Million” by Nathanael West


This post is not about to review a book for I am not that confident to possess such an ability to make a nice-wrought review. Neither nor it be a reflection as I myself do not have any reflection linked to the current state of my life from these two captioned book titles. Then there comes the reason while I named the post as a book-related post or a post that relates two novels I have read recently.

I picked up “The Collected Works of Nathanael West” randomly a month ago on the occasion of the last “feel good” Friday of my Company (My Company has recently set up a policy named “Feel good Friday”, taking place in November and May every year from November 2015, which will permit its employees to work remotely from office. Generally, almost everybody would consider it a silent rule, committing to employing that afternoon as an opportunity to get out of the office for non-business related purposes.) After reading Mark Twain, I start to grow an interest in reading modern works by the American writers for its literature style seems to be more dynamic and realistic than that of the classic ones from the Old Continent. No offense here, I still admire the classic works from the Old Continent but I just decided to find some modern classics, of which the literature style is much more familiar. Then, on knowing Nathanael West was among the prominent figures of the early 20th century of the American literature by scanning the very first few pages of introduction, I was eager to pick up and pay for the books.

Here comes some information about Nathanael West. In short, West was born in 1903 as the first descendant of a German immigrant family. He was entitled to the very good schooling, from DeWitt Clinton High School to Tufts University and then “managed” to study in Brown University. The reason why the verb “managed” is put between double quotation marks is that West performed very poorly at Tufts and it was told that he obtained the transcript of another Nathan Weinstein (Nathan Weinstein is West’s real name) also studying Tufts and with a significantly better academic record than that of West to seek for admission to Brown University. We may temporarily forgive his dishonest education record for the sake of his works by skipping to the information in relation to his works. So far as I am concerned, he is generally known for his four novels, namely  “The Dream Life of Balso Snell” (1931), “Miss Lonelyhearts” (1933) , “A Cool Million” (1934), and “The Day of the Locust” (1939). These aforementioned novels are also the works that are included in the book I bought last month. I have already finished my reading with “Miss Lonelyhearts” and “A Cool Million” so far and I decided to suspend my reading with the remaining two works. The reason is that I cannot stand the tragedies depicted in the two novels by means of black comedy and I expect that the remaining two novels are by no means brighter. For ones curious about the story, as a piece of advice you might have been given from your literature classes dated back at secondary school, it is recommended to take a look at the published date of these four novels, identifying the history background wherein these novels were born. As you may aware, these four novels were written during the Great Depression of the US, one of the darkest periods in the US history that almost everyone does not attempt to recall. For the Vietnamese ones who cannot imagine the plight dooming the US in such period, the works of Nguyen Cong Hoan and Vu Trong Phung may be great cases in points for their styles resemble to that of the works of Nathanael West to a certain extent.

If Miss Lonelyhearts’s background is confined to very few settings of the anonymous columnist named “Miss Lonelyhearts”, the background of “A Cool Million” was extended significantly to depict a wider picture of America. If Miss Lonelyhearts’s tragedy may be partly blamed to Miss Lonelyhearts himself, the tragedy of Lemuel Pitkin could be blamed to different stakeholders of that society. In “Miss Lonelyhearts”, we find a young man, working as a columnist of a newspaper in which his task is to give pieces of advice to the heartbreak audiences who get stuck in their miseries, struggled to find the way to escape his own misery as well. There were few moments that he did find some purposes in his job and take pride in his mission of helping the others. However, I found him generally in the state of boredom, stuck in his circling thoughts and lacking a determination to escape. He then turned out to be “a rock”, getting used to the life boredom, taking the miseries described in the letters for granted and gradually becoming of ignorance to the real-life misery. “A Cool Million”, as its subtitle “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” may suggest, brought us to the dark period of the Great Depression where people get impoverished and victimized in both physical and mental ways. Lemuel Pitkin, a 17-year-old boy from a small town of Vermont, instilled with the idealism of the American Dream represented to him by the eloquent politician Mr Whipple, found his way to New York with a view to “making a fortune” to help his family out of the dire straits. It seems to me that he was harmed and abused by the whole society, namely the phony politician Whipple, the callous policemen who cared nothing but money, the lawyers, the merchants, the irrational crowd. He was deprived of his eye, his teeth, his thumb, his scalp then his leg. He was employed to be a clown to get money, a cheater in the merchant’s conspiracy against its competitor and even after his death, he was exploited as a martyr by the National Revolutionary Party’, a political organization led by Whipple. Pitkin’s birthday becomes a national holiday and American youths march down the streets singing songs in his honor. What makes me feel uneasy while reading “A Cool Million” is the optimistic atmosphere brought about by the phony politician every time when Lemuel was brutally struck by life events. But who or what should be the ultimate cause to be blamed in this novel? I have not much clue about it. Should it be the capitalism to be blamed? Should the plight depicted in the novel be caused by the dismantling of the American dream where people trampled each other and distorted the American values for ones’ own good sake? If ones read it without any reference to another source, the capitalism should be condemned right at the first place for capitalism is more than often associated with money mania, which equates money with power. As Marx once claimed, “Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.” Further, the resentment towards Marxism presented by one of the villains, Whipple may also strengthen our hatred towards capitalism. However, I decided not to give such a hurried judgment on the capitalism due to a small note at the end of the novel: “West has some involvement with the American Communist Party in the mid-1930s.” Then, should the involvement of West with the American Communist Party have anything to do with his depiction of the dilapidated capitalism society or his novel is contrived to downplay the capitalism society and promote the communism? For I even do not know exactly West’s political tendency, I then decided not to comment further in this regard. The only thing that I am certain is that it will take me a long time to visit the two remaining novels of West in the aforesaid book. However, I still recommend this book to ones who may tempt to know more about America during the Great Depression or get acquaintance to another prominent figure of America literature.


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