You know how most people dislike the sound of babies crying? It’s irritating, even to the most patient of people. Well, I was on a train some time ago and there was a baby on there too and it was laughing. All it was doing was giggling, being happy, and yet it annoyed me. I was sat there grinding my teeth and willing it to be quiet so that I could read my book undisturbed. So, yes, I hold my hands up, I can be a miserable bastard. However, even I have got nothing on Miss Lonelyhearts. Joy Division? Lou Reed’s Berlin? Thomas Bernhard? Requiem for a Dream? Bill Hicks at his ranting, most antipathetic? Pussycats. If this novel were a man he would be called Grim “I hate the world” McGrim. It is to novels what Mike Tyson was to heavyweight boxing: smaller than average but able to compensate for this slightness with an intimidating savagery.
Almost every character in Miss Lonelyhearts is hateful or hopeless or both; in fact, it is possible to sum up their interactions with each other as awful people behaving awfully towards other awful people. Reading about them is like watching a serial killer squash wasps, in that one finds it difficult to feel sympathy for any of the parties involved [although sympathy is certainly an understandable reaction to the letters Lonelyhearts receives, despite these too being awful]. You may be wondering just how hateful and hopeless can this book be. You want an example? How about this:
As far as he could discover, there were no signs of spring. The decay that covered the surface of the mottled ground was not the kind in which life generates. Last year, he remembered, May had failed to quicken these soiled fields. It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt. What the little park needed, even more than he did, was a drink. Neither alcohol nor rain would do. Tomorrow, in his column, he would ask Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest of his correspondents to come here and water the soil with their tears. Flowers would then spring up, flowers that smelled of feet.
Or what about the point in the novel where one of the characters casually tells an anecdote about how a ‘haughty’ young woman was gang-raped in order to bring her down a peg or two. It is told not as something lamentable, nor even with great glee, but in a matter-of-fact manner as though this kind of thing happens all the time and is, y’know, no big deal. This moment in the book is, let’s not dress this up, fucking horrible.
There is, in any case, something admirably committed about West’s refusal to counterbalance the darkness with even a little light. The only respite from misery is to be found in the [momentarily] amusing central idea of a man posing as a female agony aunt and in the author’s punchy, energetic, and perceptive prose, and sometimes witty imagery. Miss Lonelyhearts with its Dostoevskyan doom and gloom, its truckloads of anguish and pain, is undoubtedly a very powerful read, and passages from it have stayed with me.