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West, Nathanael

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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Pseudonym of US screenwriter and author Nathan Weinstein (1903-1940), perhaps best known for the non-fantastic Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), active from the early 1920s. He adapted his mother's maiden name on at least one occasion to sign himself Nathan von Wallenstein Weinsten (he added the "von"), but his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931 chap), was signed Nathanael West, as was everything he wrote from this point. Balso Snell, much indebted to 1920s Surrealism (West had spent two years in Paris during this period), can be seen as an early attempt at Absurdist SF, but might be better thought of as a tour of the extravagances of early twentieth-century Fantastika; though the tale threatens to default into camp allegory, the moronic inferno it depicts remains literal enough to engage some contemporary readers. Literally, the tale traces the Fantastic Voyage of its eponym through the anus of a (or the) Trojan Horse up through its intestines and into other regions, where various daft mystagogues (see Religion) are encountered, and naked women. The tale climaxes in an orgasm.

In Hollywood, West scripted or co-scripted several films; the 53-minute version that survives of his collaboration with Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957) on It Could Happen to You (1937) directed by Phil Rosen seems to lead to a Near Future Fascist takeover of America. There is no evidence that this B-movie draws on his third novel, A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin (1934), a savage Rake's-Progress tale clearly meant to echo Voltaire's Candide (1759), and set in an unspecified but obvious Near Future America. The "comic" misadventures of the protagonist and his lover, both of whom suffer progressive psychic dismemberments (Pitkin is in fact reduced by successive amputations into a kind of grotesque automaton before he is shot to death), escalate relentlessly during the course of their travels across the desolate proscenium of their native land. As their hegiras sink into disaster, they are increasingly haunted by Shagpole Whipple, an ex-president of the United States and now a fascist demagogue, who turns the dead Pitkin into an emblem for his Leather Shirts movement; to the sounds of "The Lemuel Pitkin Song" he soon becomes dictator of America. The book is far more savage than Sinclair Lewis's almost exactly contemporaneous It Can't Happen Here (1935), and has lasted better.

The Day of the Locust (1939), West's last novel, is not literally fantastic, as the fire which engulfs Los Angeles at its climax is an imagined (though likely) prolepsis based on its protagonist's painting-in-progress, "The Burning of Los Angeles" (see Slingshot Ending); but in its refusal of mimetic platitudes it remains the most incisive (and best-written) pre-War anatomy of California in general, and Hollywood in particular (see Cinema). Unlike almost all novels written about Los Angeles and the film industry, it totally lacks self-pity or exoneration (West's own career as screenwriter was flourishing before his death in an automobile accident). Like puppets in a Weimar commedia dell'arte cabaret, the various figures in Locust revolve disjointedly around a ruthless teenage aspirational starlet who exudes Sex with fatal impersonality, and who herself revolves around a vacant dream of stardom. The most grotesque of her orbiters is Homer Simpson, a Frankenstein Monster figure who seems barely assembled ("He got out of bed in sections"), whose great hands are virtually self-controlling in their attempted predations, and whose apotheosis, after he has killed a child actor, echoes the climax of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931); he clearly prefigures the Homer Simpson featured in the animated Television series The Simpsons (1989-current): the link was deliberate. Like the other characters in the tale, and like the self-devouring mob whose depredations at the end hint strongly of apocalypse to come, he is essentially gutted of self: one of a million locusts hurled decorticate into the terminal moraine of California. [JC]

Nathan Weinstein

born New York: 17 October 1903

died near El Centro, California: 22 December 1940 [automobile accident]

works (posthumous editions selected)

about the author

  • Stanley Edgar Hyman. Nathanael West (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1962) [nonfiction: chap: pb/nonpictorial]


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