Miss Lonelyhearts is the tale of a male advice columnist in Depression Era New York City. Though the column is intended to be fluff, and is seen as such by the editor to whom Lonelyhearts reports, for the people who write seeking advice, it is serious. The columnist finds himself overwhelmed by the many versions of tragedy that he must respond to, becomes depressed, and turns, on one hand, to drink, fights, and affairs, and on the other to a Christianity he deeply believes in, but which is mocked by those around him. Lonelyhearts himself is an ethicist's nightmare, violating boundaries with those who write to him for advice. This novel paints a bleak picture of Depression Era New York, and does so in crisp clear language. Little empathy is generated for the protagonist, and there is no hopeful vision of a functional alternative to either the ineffective religious fervor or the empty hedonism portrayed.
It is hard not to see parallels to The Golden Notebook: Perennial Classics edition which I recently read and reviewed. Both portray protagonists who are affected by the bleak letters to advice columns, both present unrewarding sexual relationships as the norm, and neither offer much hope to counteract the critiques of the societies they portray. On the other hand stylistically, they are vastly different. Nathanael West's prose is spare and he does little to deepen his characters and create emotional connection to them. Doris Lessing, by contrast, builds a rich, sometimes even lush, world, lingering over details, creating beauty and depth, despite the similarly pessimistic overall viewpoint. Lessing encourages the reader to engage deeply with her themes, whereas there is something almost aggressive in West's approach to the reader. It is not simply the spare masculinity in the style of West that has this effect, since Ernest Hemingway's prose has those qualities, and yet, at least for me, Hemingway uses the style to create profound connection and meaning.
Many appear to find this book brilliant and darkly funny, but I came away cold. If you want dark and funny, I'd go with Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger. He provides an angry, funny critique of a society, but builds firm connections to characters, and provides a sense of hope that makes for a much more enjoyable experience.