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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

02/24/10

I reread Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and was astounded. The central thesis of the book, it seems to me, is that compassion without Christ's mediation turns toxic. If we are to take upon ourselves the burden of humanity, we must lay it at the feet of Christ, or else succumb to that burden.

Miss Lonelyhearts (West will call him nothing else) writes the agony column of a newspaper. As the narrative unfolds, his rage builds in an alarming crescendo. He begins to hate people for their pain and for their helplessness in the midst of it. He hates them because of his own impotence to better it, or to conquer it. Consider this sentence: "She was like a kitten whose soft helplessness makes one ache to hurt it." West seems to make the same demands of his prose that we have come to expect from poetry, packing as much meaning, humor and irony into a single phrase as is humanly possible. As Harold Bloom has remarked, nearly every sentence counts.

For me, the book's value lies in West's assumption that altruism itself turns into moral autism without a higher power intervening. I have no clue whether West was a Christian, but I do know that his Christ-haunted narrative was a huge source of inspiration for Flannery O'Connor. She ranked Miss Lonelyhearts and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying in her top ten American novels.

Here, West does what Camus was attempting with The Fall and does it better. Where Camus can only give us a man caught up in his elliptical and selfish motives, West shares a deeply metaphysical drama that is, despite its comic underpinnings, as grave as Lear. The letters he answers daily which began as a joke, now begin to systematically unravel his vision of reality. A teenage girl born without a nose, a boy whose deaf and mute sister has been raped and will receive severe retribution if the mother finds out, a women whose husband insists on children despite her failing kidneys. All written in illiterate and highly believable broken prose. The letters will not let him rest and drive the novel toward its apocalyptic conclusion.

On a different note, I finished Updike's A Month of Sundays.

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