Nathanael West Long Fiction Analysis
Although all of Nathanael West’s fiction is concerned with certain recurring themes, it gradually matures in tone, style, and subject. The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his first novel, has a clever but sarcastic and ugly adolescent tone. The Day of the Locust, his last novel, is also satiric and sarcastic, but its greater maturity and empathetic tone make it both disturbing and profoundly moving.
West’s Miss Lonelyhearts dreams that he is a magician who does tricks with doorknobs: He is able to make them speak, bleed, and flower. In a sense, this conceit explains all of West’s work. His protagonists travel across dead landscapes that they try to revivify. In The Dream Life of Balso Snell, the landscape is mechanical, wooden, purely farcical; in A Cool Million, West shows one American town after another, all equally corrupt. Miss Lonelyhearts is set in the dirt and concrete of New York City, and The Day of the Locust is set in the sordid but irresistible Southern California landscape.
West’s typical protagonist is a quester, intent on bringing life wherever he travels; Miss Lonelyhearts especially is obsessed with the challenges of a savior. The task of making a dead world bloom, however, seems hopeless. Life may surface in a moment of communication or lovemaking, but something is likely to go awry, as the moment reverses itself into an unnatural distortion. For example, as Miss Lonelyhearts tries to comfort an old man he meets in Central Park, he suddenly has the urge to crush and destroy him. Shrike, his employer at the newspaper office, compares making love to his wife with sleeping with a knife in his groin. This dichotomy is at the heart of West’s vision. Characters driven by benevolent ambitions are thwarted—by themselves, by those in need of their help, by cosmic and divine indifference—until they become grotesque parodies of their original selves. Innocence and success can be recalled only through dreams. At best, the world is passively dead; at worst, it is aggressively violent.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell
The quester of The Dream Life of Balso Snell does not take himself seriously, and the novel itself seems to be an extended literary joke. Balso Snell describes a dream in which he encounters the famous wooden horse of the Greeks in ancient Troy. A brash and distinctly modern tour guide leads him through the interiors of the horse, which quickly become the subject of numerous adolescent witticisms. The inside of the horse expands to a landscape that Balso explores for the rest of his dream. West’s purpose is humor and parody, which he accomplishes mercilessly although unpleasantly, beginning even with the title of this first book. Following his “path,” Balso meets a Catholic mystic, and West has the opportunity to mock the literary lives of saints. Then Balso meets a schoolboy who has just hidden his journal in the trunk of a nearby tree. Balso reads its entries, which serve as a parody of the nineteenth century Russian novel. Balso then meets the boy’s teacher, Miss McGeeny, who has been busily writing a biography of a biographer’s biographer; West parodies another literary genre.
The Dream Life of Balso Snell is not a significant work of fiction, but it is useful for readers to appreciate how quickly West’s style and perspective deepened. His later novels have the same piercing quality, and West never lost his tendency to satirize, but the later novels are finely and precisely directed. West’s later fiction also has the same motifs—quester, mechanical or obsessive journeys, dreams, and suffering humanity—but West examines them much more seriously in the later novels.
West is in superb control of his material in Miss Lonelyhearts, published only two years after The Dream Life of Balso Snell. The vituperative tone of the earlier work is balanced by greater development of plot and diversity of character. Following his preference for fast action and exaggeration, West uses comic-strip stereotypes: the meek husband and the bullying wife, Mr. and Mrs. Doyle; the bullish employer, Shrike, and his castrating wife, Mary; and Miss Lonelyhearts’s innocent but dumb girlfriend, Betty. Miss Lonelyhearts himself is only somewhat more developed, primarily because he is in almost every episode and because the third-person voice sardonically presents his private thoughts.
As in The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a central quester travels a barren landscape. Between the newspaper office and the local speakeasy is Central Park. As Miss Lonelyhearts walks across it, he realizes that there should be signs of spring but, in fact, there are none to be seen. Then he recalls that last year, new life seemed wrenched from the soil only in July. Miss Lonelyhearts’s job as a newspaper columnist thrusts him into the position of a quester, and he makes a highly unlikely candidate. Simultaneously attracted to and repelled by his mission to assuage the grief of his readers, he makes attempts to get close to some of them, such as Mr. and Mrs. Doyle, but he then suddenly feels a compulsion to keep separate from them. This dichotomy keeps him in motion, reeling him like a puppet from one person’s apartment to another, building a pressure that is released only when Miss Lonelyhearts has a final breakdown.
In each new location, the newspaperman tries to make a meaningful connection with another human being. Strict chronology becomes vague as the protagonist’s state of mind becomes increasingly disturbed. He reaches toward Betty when they are sitting on the couch in her apartment but suddenly has no interest in her. He does remain sexually interested in Mary Shrike, but she refuses his advances as long as they stay in her apartment, and in the restaurant she teases him sadistically. He telephones Mrs. Doyle, a letter writer, saying he will advise her in person. He exploits her unhappiness to satisfy his own need but, not surprisingly, is disappointed in the results....
(The entire section is 2494 words.)