I’ve always wondered how advice columnists keep doing their jobs. They hear so many awful things and are asked so many impossible questions. I wonder how they don’t burn out on reading so much real human misery. Nathanael West’s novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, tells the story of one such advice writer, who is having a spiritual and existential crisis. The otherwise unnamed narrator has read a trio of letters from women who have such agonizing problems that he completely loses the ability to write the kind of platitudes that have made his column a success. Who is he supposed to turn to for advice?
I was initially drawn to Miss Lonelyhearts by an article (that I have since lost track of) that enjoyed the dilemma of a character who doled out advice to all and sundry, yet was suffering himself. The article called Miss Lonelyhearts satire, but that’s not true at all. The article neglected to point out the sheer unpleasantness of the novella. As Miss Lonelyhearts wanders from his one room flat to bars to the homes of his putative girlfriend and homes of various advice seekers, there are frequent discussions of rape, cruel jokes, and fights. In the middle of it all is a narrator I had a hard time sympathizing with because he has lost all empathy for anyone else.
In spite of all this, I was interested in the moments where Miss Lonelyhearts would reflect on religion and his notion of an advice columnist as a modern, sometimes secular priest. There are a few times in the novella where the narrator is able to scrape up a bit of human kindness and comfort another person. These moments are what Miss Lonelyhearts seeks, where he feels that what he does actually makes a difference. Unfortunately for all of us, they are far too rare. Mostly, the narrator just feels helpless or angry or repelled by the people who come to him for advice. He has lost, for the most part, his tenuous faith because there is just so much pain and suffering in the world.
In the end, Miss Lonelyhearts didn’t teach me much about how advice columnists keep going. Instead, it showed me what they might suffer when they lose faith—in themselves and in their philosophy, whatever that might be. If one can get past how nasty people in this novel can be, this exploration of crisis is quite interesting.