The Hipness Is All

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 10 1997 3:30 AM

The Hipness Is All

Nathanael West revisited.

Nathanael West: Novels and Other Writings

Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch

Library of America; 840 pages; $35

Illustration by Jenny Schmid

People make a mistake in supposing "hip" to mean "stylish." Hip is a self-consciousness. Nathanael West offered an example of it in his short novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell, by writing this:

An intelligent man finds it easy to laugh at himself, but his laughter is not sincere if it is thorough. If I could be Hamlet, or even a clown with a breaking heart 'neath his jester's motley, the role would be tolerable. But I always find it necessary to burlesque the mystery of feeling at its source; I must laugh at myself, and if the laugh is "bitter," I must laugh at the laugh.

But that's not all. He also laughed at the laugh at the laugh, and so on, unto eternity. The self-burlesquing quality in the truly hip is relentless, which means that hip is a tragic condition. From this point of view, life must have been hard for Nathanael West. But it is true that hip is amusing.

West wrote only four novels before dying in an auto crash at the age of 37, in 1940. The last of those novels, The Day of the Locust, was filmed in 1975, which makes it the most famous of his titles today. But the key to understanding him lies in the first of his novels, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, which took three years to write, from 1926 to 1929, and ended up 49 pages long. The Dream Life is wild. West's hero climbs into the anus of the wooden Trojan horse and goes wandering through its intestines, having adventures. He meets a little boy, who shows him his writings, and he meets his old writing teacher, Miss McGeeney, who shows him her writings. The little boy's writings turn out to be by Miss McGeeney, and the hero and Miss McGeeney end up having sex. And so forth--with the effect being, exactly as promised by the manifestoes of Surrealism, a work of total realism.

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For you feel, in The Dream Life, that West has filmed a jerky-camera record of his own dream life, and that each new, ridiculous scene represents a further unfolding of an altogether real and plausible personality. The personality is nervous, fearful, sexually frustrated to the point of hysteria, terrified of women, and perhaps mildly homosexual. But it is also too rigidly imprisoned in sardonic literary references, or in the movies, or in popular clichés, ever to penetrate its own deepest emotions--which, in any case, are too shameful to be acknowledged. The personality is not unlike Kafka's, except with less intellectual intensity, which is too bad, and with American inflections, which is wonderful. Perhaps there was something Jewish in the style--though West, who went to the trouble of changing his name from Weinstein (which in those days was a good idea from a career perspective, even in Hollywood, where he wrote his screenplays), might not have appreciated the ethnic emphasis.

Illustration by Jenny Schmid

The Dream Life of Balso Snell seems to have taught him the rudiments of literary form, and in his next two novels, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934), he funneled this half-hysterical personality of his into some reasonably disciplined yet fully grotesque story lines--in the case of Miss Lonelyhearts, the noir daily life of a cynical Christian advice columnist, and in the case of A Cool Million, the adventures of a Horatio Alger-type character. I suppose that Miss Lonelyhearts should count as West's masterpiece, due to the fantastic procession of importuning advice-hounds that traipses across its pages--a procession of battered wives, crippled cuckolded husbands, syphilitic children, rape victims, and deformed teen-agers whose sufferings could break your heart--except that West's demeanor makes the whole thing slightly funny, as in a sick joke. There's much to be said for the tone of comic-book violence: "He buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck."

But A Cool Million is, in its modest way, the most perfect of his books. The novel is strictly a sendup of American patriotic inspirational literature. A young hero sets out to earn his fortune and save his aged mother from eviction. He passes through every station of the uplift narratives: He meets a beneficent banker and patron, falls in love with the girl next door, traverses the United States. Every word in the novel plunks the tinkly piano keys of a dime novel. But the American land of opportunity that goes reeling by in the background turns out to be a nightmare of free-floating violence and organized fascism (brilliantly imagined, by the way), until the America of A Cool Million has outdone in scariness even the America of Kafka's Amerika. West's hero loses his thumb, his teeth, his leg, his scalp, and his nose; and the creepier his sufferings become, the funnier is the book, sad to say.

It's hard to imagine that West could ever have written a conventional novel with any success. He tried in The Day of the Locust (1939), with its more or less realistic story of Hollywood down and outs, but mostly he succeeded in placing a veneer of hard-boiled literary conventions over his manias about women and sex, which makes him seem just as crazy as in his other books, but less aware of it, therefore less entertaining. The Library of America edition of his writings, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, includes, in a spirit of thoroughness, random essays and stories that the author never finished; some screenplays; and a few letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, and other literary figures. These have their points of interest. "My dear Mr. Fitzgerald, You have been kind enough to say that you liked my novel, Miss Lonelyhearts. I am applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship."

But those first three novels show us everything that is appealing about West. He had the kind of neurotic, sardonic, satiric, manic, and generally -ic personality that I imagine was not so common 60 years ago (for who else was like him in American letters? I can't think of anyone), only to become mandatory today. So he was prophetic, too. The test of time has never been an accurate gauge of literary genius. Greater writers than West have been doomed to fade with the years. Time does tell us something, though. In the case of Nathanael West, it tells us that earnestness ages and hip is ever fresh.

Paul Berman is a regular contributor to Slate.

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