I had long wanted to read Miss Lonelyhearts by N. West. When Allie offered to host Modern March, I knew this would be a great opportunity to do so.
When I finished it, I was perplexed. Too many feelings, sometimes contradicting each other, left me wondering at the messages West was trying to get across. I couldn't say I didn't like it, but reading Miss Lonelyhearts certainly was not easy...
Dealing with religion is never easy. There's never a universally accepted manner in which to portray one's struggle with moral values and the contrast with modern life. Combined with a failed society, in the midst of an economic depression, one can feel the despair Miss Lonelyhearts experiences in his daily life.
Miss Lonelyhearts is an advice columnist, receiving lots of letters asking for a ray of hope. His conviction is that Christ is the answer for their ailments, but Shrike, his boss, thinks otherwise - they need this column to increase newspaper circulation, so art has to be used instead, because art is all about suffering...
The themes of personal conflict with one's own moral beliefs on the one hand and the conflict of working contrary to one's own ethics are, I believe, well depicted in this little novella. Written in epistolary form, in a series of short accounts of Miss Lonelyhearts life, we get to know him very well. I found it sometimes hard to keep on reading because of this struggle with Miss Lonelyhearts' convictions, because I could sympathise with the difficulties. Modern life is in a similar crisis as the one depicted in this book, and I can identify with several of the instances described. Values are at an all-time low and frustration in the employment market is an everyday occurence.
Miss Lonelyhearts occupies a post reserved for motherly-type women, qualities he does not possess. He realises that little by little he becomes cold, indifferent and even violent - which makes him even more frustrated with his job and consequently with his life. Again, this very much coincides with the situation observed nowadays, where we occupy a post, any post, so long as we get paid and we are not unemployed. The occasions when we get to do what we are good at and what we like become less and less frequent, with the result that we work like robots - just get the job done, with no interest in the quality delivered.
West also refers to the "business of dreams", which I suspect relates to the American Dream of everyone being able to move up financially in society. This was also possible in Europe until about 20 years ago, before people got slightly too greedy. And here we come back to the conflict with moral values. Just as Miss Lonelyhearts feels trapped because he does a job just for the sake of money, we find ourselves as well more and more trapped in jobs that mean little to us, that may even be against our aspirations. What are we to do? we pretend to be the perfect employees for the job just as Miss Lonelyhearts pretends to offer a shoulder for his readers to cry on.
Alienation ensues. Miss Lonelyhearts cannot connect with anyone around him, including Betty, his "Buddha". I found Betty the epitomy of naive order in this book, in contrast to Miss Lonelyhearts' disorder, and never seems to understand this frustration. As long as Miss Lonelyhearts just quit his job and work in an advertising agency, all will be fine. I honestly cannot think of situations being settled this easy and West does neither. Miss Lonelyhearts is doomed.
He gets feverish and remains sick for several days, coming close to dying. The fact that he is "resurrected" after 3 days, just like Christ, is the start of several analogies West makes: Miss Lonelyhearts also goes to a party that fairly resembles the Last Supper, with Shrike, depicted as Judas, and the other guests as disciples... Not very convicing, I might add. I would rather West had tried to find measures to regain one's faith and thus provide some hope for the future. Instead, we feel the emptiness this lack of faith towards ourselves as towards other people can lead to. The ending is sudden and sharp, which on the one hand I did not agree with but on the other hand I could not have thought of anything else. I suppose when one reaches rock bottom, there can only be drastic solutions at hand.
As I said, I read this book expecting tales of daily encounters with difficulty. What I found was a harsh description of reality - a reality so much of 1933 as of today.