A 1933 novel by Nathanael West about a newspaper advice columnist. The protagonist, though a man, starts writing an agony aunt column under the name of Miss Lonelyhearts; initially treating it as a joke. However, he is overwhelmed by the misery of his readers (Seventeen-and-Desperate, Sick-Of-It-All, Pregnant Again, Broad Shoulders, and the rest), who seem to all lead pathetic lives of despair and pain, and he comes to view himself as a Christ-like figure. Miss Lonelyhearts is a very funny tragedy about a vain and deluded man. Although a very short novel (around 60 pages in some editions), it manages to cram a great deal of detail in, in contrast to West's other, longer masterpiece The Day of the Locust, which is sometimes rambling and diffuse.

The novel presents a cold and clinical portrait of growing mental illness. West based it on a case history in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, and has explained that his goal in writing was to get away from the vague psychologising of nineteenth century literature, and replace them with the facts of psychological research. West illustrates the title character's instability through a number of means, including the recounting of strange dreams in which he finds himself arranging the symbols of consumerism into a variety of shapes including a phallus and a crucifix; this is intended to represent a search for meaning while trapped in shallow capitalism. Another prominent symbol is that of the deadpan or "dead Pan", a reference to the Greek god of wild drunken revelry and sexual abandon; West sees modern society as sexually and emotionally repressed.

In addition to its psychological realism, the novel, set in the early 1930s, presents a vivid world of cynical newspapermen and speak-easies. It is set mainly in New York (although the setting is never officially named), with a brief pastoral escape in Connecticut before it returns to the grimness of the city.

The main characters in addition to Miss Lonelyhearts are Betty, who is in love with him and sticks by him through his increasing madness; Willy Shrike, the ultra-cynical newspaper proprietor who mocks the hero's growing conscience; Fay Doyle, an overweight correspondent of Miss Lonelyhearts; and Peter Doyle, her crippled husband.

Miss Lonelyhearts was filmed twice, first as Advice to the Lovelorn in 1933, which starred Toby Prentiss and was directed by Alfred L. Werker. Nathanael West worked briefly on the screenplay for this film, although he did not contribute greatly, and the film is not highly rated. It was remade with more fidelity to the book in 1983 as Miss Lonelyhearts, starring Eric Roberts in the title role, Arthur Hill as Shrike, and Martina Deignan as Betty, and directed by Michael Dinner.

Often when I am reading a book, I spend more time thinking about the context of the books' era than I do what is going on in front of me. This has apparently been one of the longest running battles in criticism, with a debate between those who want to look at only the text ("The New Criticism") versus those who believe a book can only be understood through its social milieu ("Death of the Author") with many other gradations in between. I am not professional enough to have a preference in this, but sometimes a book really jumps out at me one way or another.

"Miss Lonelyhearts" is a novella about a disaffected young man (referred only as "Miss Lonelyhearts") who writes an advice column in a newspaper. This assignment was given to him by his cynical editor and best friend as somewhat of a joke, but Miss Lonelyheart has begun to feel sympathy for the various pathetic people who write him letters. While these feelings of misery and religious sympathy grow in him, he continues to run around 1920s New York, drinking and fighting and indulging in the licentious, squalid side of life in the big city.

None of which is that surprising now. This book reminds me of Norman Mailer in his heyday. And it especially reminds me of Bright Lights, Big City: another novel about an unnamed young journalist in the big city with a cynical friend and self-destructive habits. The difference between Nathanel West and Norman Mailer and Jay McInnery is that he was living and writing a lot earlier than either one of them. And while writing a book where adultery, abortion and homosexuality are talked about openly might not be that big of a selling point in the 1980s, the raw tone of this book is pretty notable for being published in 1933. This is even more noticeable when I compare it to other works of literature from the early half of the century. Read the staid High School English classic "Ethan Frome", published in 1911, and compare it to "Miss Lonelyhearts", and see just how revolutionary the tone of "Miss Lonelyhearts" is.

So while this book might come up short for modern readers who have been spoiled by decades of gritty, it is important to remember just how raw and original the book was at the time of its first publishing.

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