I read a lot in the bathtub.
This isn’t because I’m particularly drawn to cleanliness, but because I’m drawn to the readerly space that a hot tub of water can create. The stillness of a full bathtub—that sporadic spigot drip, the lazy drawdown of heat, the tiles’ passionless whiteness—spins a hive of deep focus for me. I can’t think of anywhere else quite like it, a space where I can sit so completely uninterrupted, fixated even (I do a lot of rereading in the bathtub too), with a piece of language.
Also, the internet can’t come in there, and it’s ridiculous what that does to my ability to concentrate.
I’ve made my way through everything from US Weekly to Ulysses while steeping in bathwater, but a full catalog of my tub reading would no doubt show that my tastes tend more toward the tight and the claustrophobic. My bath time reading favors those books with strange rhythms, those already intense books that get somehow amplified further by heat and stillness. One summer I read almost all of Kafka exclusively in the tub; Letters to Milena came and went in one long overnight stretch. Much of Beckett I read with my ears submerged; I think I wanted the words to burrow into my head without having a way out. Blake Butler’s got some great bathtub books. Brian Evenson, too.
And so does Nathanael West, whose 1933 novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, I read most recently—you guessed it—in the bathtub. Miss Lonelyhearts is an extremely thin book (my copy clocks in under 60 pages), and I got into the bath thinking I would knock it out in an hour. But even with the novel’s vignette structure and straight-edged sentences, West’s little novel that June afternoon began reading like a book that was much longer than it actually was. The action got sluggish and oppressive quick. A gross uncanniness began to seep in. West’s sentences were looking light and easy on the page, but reading them was like walking through piles of compost.
On page thirty, I got to the line—“You’re still pretty,’ he said without knowing why, except that he was frightened”—and I had to put the book down.
Somehow I was feeling dirtier than when I got into the water. And inexplicably, like Miss Lonelyhearts, I was feeling a little frightened too.
If you haven’t read it, Miss Lonelyhearts fixes an almost vertiginous close up on a burnt-out advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. Every morning, the title character, who’s really a man, comes face to face with an inbox swollen with his readers’ afflictions. “Desperate,” a teenage girl who was “born without a nose,” seeks solace for her crippling deformity. “I have a big hole in the middle of my face that scares people even myself,” she writes. She ends by asking Miss Lonelyhearts if she should kill herself. In another letter, the fifteen year old “Harold S.” deals with the fallout of seeing his deaf and dumb sister get molested on a rooftop: “If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awful because I am the only one who loves her and last time when she tore her dress they locked her in the closet for 2 days.”
Advice columns tend to be palpable when the stakes are relatively low: I’ve been invited to two weddings on the same day, what now!? How do I convince my wife that her mother doesn’t need to come on every single family vacation? For any number of Dear Abbys and Prudences, questions like these are the wheelhouse of syndicated advice giving. But the letters Miss Lonelyhearts gets—syntactically broken, utterly ill-equipped—are of a different ilk entirely. They traffic in real, deep-seated suffering and blistering pain. And the fact that these people have only an anonymous advice columnist to turn to just deepens the acuteness of their desperation.
Miss Lonelyhearts is tasked with being the Christ-like salve to all these wounded souls. Understandably, the journalistic platitudes he has in the tank—life is worthwhile, seek out art’s consoling power, etc.—can’t even begin to sandbag his readers’ overflowing shit creek. How, with a tight deadline, a strict word count, and a demanding readership, can he possibly muster a sufficient response to “Sick-of-it-all,” a pregnant mother of seven with acute kidney pain, whose physical ailments really reflect an unanswerable cosmic, metaphysical problem: “I cry all the time it hurts so much and I dont know what to do”?
The city Miss Lonelyhearts encounters outside his daily column only deepens his feelings of helplessness. Most days, West’s hero half-drunkenly traces a purgatorial circle between his office and the neighborhood speakeasy, where his colleagues suggest that all women writers would be better off with a “good rape.” His closest friend is his feature editor, Shrike, and he’s no friend at all. A blasphemous, shrieking, hyper-misogynous prick (he shares his name with a bird of prey whose Latin name means “butcher”), Shrike spends most of the novel belittling Miss Lonelyhearts’ misery and half-heartedly trying to catch the columnist in an affair with his wife.
At night, Miss Lonelyhearts retreats to his apartment that’s decorated sparsely with an ivory crucifix. The cross has been removed, leaving only Christ’s body awkwardly impaled on the wall with nails. He fitfully dreams about bleeding doorknobs and butchered lambs, about swastikas, dicks, and crosses that he sculpts from junk he’s found at a pawn shop.
From the novel’s beginning, West fudges the boundaries between Miss Lonelyhearts’ fevered dreaming and his day-to-day life. All of New York is nothing but confused sex, phallic architecture, and whiskey delirium; a town lacerated with surreal violence and less than zero moral code or causal logic. Miss Lonelyhearts sleeps with women, doesn’t sleep with women, yanks women’s nipples, sobs in front of women, or hits women. It’s all the same. One night, he runs into a man cruising a park for sex, takes him out for drinks and small talk, then twists the man’s arm until he screams in pain. None of it matters.
West’s world here is deadpan through and through, and, even as the action descends further into its particular brand of nightmarish foulness, it never once breaks from its chilling flattening of affect. For much of the time, as readers, we stand back and watch voyeuristically, distanced and a little nauseated, just another iteration of Miss Lonelyhearts scanning a distraught letter. But at the same time, the bald immediacy of West’s language, its relentlessness, its completely impassive grossness (it’s like all the action’s being shot through a fisheye lens), also somehow forces you right to the dead center of things. You become part and parcel of the book’s rotting heat. And as much as that might speak to West’s technical skill, it still doesn’t feel all that great.
Even more troubling (and this, I think is the unsettling genius of this little book) is how quickly you get acclimated to the callousness. West’s novel is a book so dead it deadens you, and when Miss Lonelyhearts, on the way to work, sees “a ragged woman with an enormous goiter pick a love story magazine out of a garbage can and seem very excited by her find,” the strangest thing about that image is that, by that point in the book, it seems like the most normal thing in the world.
That may be why I finally had to finish Miss Lonelyhearts while sitting outside. I think I needed the trees, the lighter air, maybe a squirrel, for counterweight.
Nathanael West died in a car crash when he was only 37, gone before anybody on America’s literary scene really knew he was there. More than one person has told me that he died driving to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral, that he was so heartbroken and unfocused behind the wheel that he blew through a stop sign. The more likely explanation, though, is that West blew through that stop sign and straight into a Pontiac sedan because he’d always been a notoriously fast and sloppy driver.
It’s the haphazardness of this wreck, West’s carelessness, that makes it a poetic fate for the author of a novel like Miss Lonelyhearts. It’s often difficult to wrap our head around the fact that human suffering might just be the result of haphazard chance. We prefer our narratives (and our lives) with clear causal connections. But in the back of our mind, we know, like West, that those connections may not be there after all. I cry all the time and I hurt so much and I dont know what to do.
And as we read through Miss Lonelyhearts, we pass by it as if we were witnessing an automobile accident. It’s jagged. It oozes surreality and daze. You rubberneck at the scene, and gawk in horror at the grotesqueness and chaos that the world can muster in an instant. But in the very same moment, you stare in wonderment (and maybe even dare to laugh) because for some reason you’ll never know, that mangled body in the wreckage isn’t you.
In Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts, a dual biography of West and his wife, Eileen McKenney, she mentions that when West’s body eventually made it to the funeral home, he didn’t have any money on him. Those involved guessed that a hospital attendant had rifled through his pockets after the accident.
And after reading Miss Lonelyhearts, this anecdote—a corpse being pickpocketed by a paramedic just a few days before Christmas—somehow seems like the most normal, human thing in the world.
Miss Lonelyhearts, help us all.