Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

I first read this short work by Nathanael West when I was at university, but have just re-read it. The novel is based in Depression-era New York, where there is a heavy cloud of disillusionment overhanging the people. The male journalist employed to answer the letters sent in to the “Miss Lonelyhearts” column becomes deeply troubled by all of the evil and heartache that he sees all around him and desperately wants to offer some solution. At times he thinks he has some real truth to offer – that maybe his boss spoke truer than he meant when he mockingly suggested that “the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America” – but then again, his attempts to help never seem to go as planned.

This is an interesting novella, exploring some key themes, such as the role of religion in modern society. I would definitely say that it is worth a read, however when the novella ended (after just eighty pages) I was left wishing that West had written more and also that he had added greater depth to the story, as everything is portrayed as a grotesque caricature, which I think loses some of its impact after a while.  A memorable read, none the less.