Nathanael West is a tragic figure of American letters. He published four novels before his death in an automobile accident in 1940, and these novels did not meet with much acclaim during his lifetime. Subsequently, however, they were hailed as works of genius. West’s vision of America is one of darkly comic absurdity. His early death robbed American letters of a great talent.
West’s accidental death by modern, mechanical means has eerie echoes of his fiction. In his books, the modern world wrecks its inhabitants with a chilling indifference. Traditional orders of society have broken down, norms have vanished. West was criticized by his contemporaries; it was said that his books suffered for want of some “normal” characters to round out the absurd world West’s fictions present. In West’s fiction, a Murphy’s law of human fate rules the roost.
West had a cartoonists’ eye that exaggerated human tics, flaws, and failings. His writing is brilliantly focused and his vision intense. West appears to have been a prophet of post-World War II anomie and terror. No doubt this is why he was not appreciated until the 1950’s.
West depicts a world made absurd by the disappearance of traditional orders. The paradox of reading West is that one has so much fun while dealing with insoluble miseries and repulsive sufferings. The letters that Miss Lonelyhearts receives are, amazingly, funny. They are also repulsive, depressing, and profound. West thus creates great complexity of feeling in a simple, almost cartoonlike, narrative. His characters, for example, have been termed two-dimensional by detractors. His characters are sketches of human beings, distorted by simplification, and his technique highlights exactly those qualities...
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