04 December 2011

Somewhere West of Life

It's an allusion. Brian Aldiss' 1994 novel Somewhere East of Life is a strange and terrifying book, and its images still haunt me. My notes (I've kept a log of my reading since 1990) tell me I finished it in 2000. I recently added Mr. Aldiss' Forgotten Life (1988) to my pile, I suppose I'll have to tackle that next. But this is not about his excellent work, but rather that of another writer, an American named Nathanael West. In the 1930s he wrote two short novels, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, that were ultimately made into Hollywood movies. I salvaged a Nathanael West anthology from a discard pile (he published only two other short novels) and powered my way through both dark and twisted stories. I suppose they aren't stories so much as plots. Weird guy hangs around other weird people who all go crazy and shit happens and it's all fucked up at the end. I don't mean that as a criticism, just an observation. You read these stories because these crazy people are all real and recognizable. They lie beneath our surfaces, lurking, ready to burst out when the veil of middle class respectability finally splits from the tension of accumulated injustices. None of us like to believe we have the savage beast within our breasts, but Mr. West says emphatically that we do, and we'd be fools not to accept that fact. Mostly the two tales are about the failed American Dream. Everywhere West looked he saw phonies, hucksters, con artists, bullshitters, and storytellers. And he saw the Great Depression, which shattered a lot of dreams and surely influenced a generation of writers and artists. He died in a car accident three years short of forty.

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