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The Way the Cookie Crumbles: Alienation and Violent Sameness in Modernist Treatments of the Grotesque

Nathanael West’s eponymous advice columnist, Miss Lone-lyhearts, opens his workday (and the novel) by sitting and staring at his desk in the New York Post-Dispatch office, stymied by the onslaught of mail from his help-seeking public and at a loss as to how to respond to their pleas; after all, “on most days, he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife.”1 From its first page, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) (as well as Miss Lonelyhearts) depicts not only the crushing repetitiveness of modern office work but also, and more curiously, the violent sameness of its human characters. For these assistance-seeking missives, depicting as they do the voices and personal histories of pseudonym-masked yet idiosyncratically described subjects, do not strike the advice columnist as unique expressions of particular, unfortunate circumstances. Rather than considering the tension at work between such widely signifying signatures as “Desperate,” “Sick-of-it-all,” or “Broad Shoulders” and the particularizing details contained within their epistles (Desperate’s birth without a nose; the particular medical, marital, and financial details of the marriages of Sick-of-it-all and Broad [End Page 57] Shoulders), Miss Lonelyhearts, crucially, sees in them only the broad, cookie-cutter stamp of suffering.

If there is a cosmology at work in West’s modernist novella, it seems an indiscriminate one. Life, from Miss Lonelyhearts’s perspective, consists of a singular joke, repeated ad nauseam, that, after “months on end” of said repetition, he “could not go on finding … funny” (1). But what, one might reasonably ask, is this joke? Critics have read West’s pointed humor as directed at any number of targets—from rhetorical religious posturing to sentimental, humanist responses to modern commodification.2 Part of the difficulty in naming the butt of the joke comes from, on one hand, West’s own complicated relationship to his role as a comic writer. For instance, Jonathan Greenberg notes that West’s letters document his struggle to move between his own sincere investments and his impulse to poke fun, claiming that “West employs the same satiric method in treating causes with which he claims sympathy as in treating ideologies he rejects.”3 On the other hand, sourcing Miss Lonelyhearts’s central joke is made more challenging by competing critical investments (in West’s brand of modernism, as well as in modernist literature more generally) regarding the ways in which we read texts that depict failures of community to assuage individual suffering.4 This critical argument often hinges on the question of whether we read Miss Lonelyhearts’s unfunny joke—the black comedic treatment of supposedly no-longer-yet-once-funny expressions of human suffering en masse linked with Miss Lonelyhearts’s failed project of taking this now nonjoke seriously—as a critique of modernity’s failure to achieve or failure to expel what Justus Nieland calls an impulse toward “sympathetic publicity—[the] desire to feel the pain” of others as a means to heal it (“West’s Deadpan,” 58).

I’m less interested, in this article, in contributing to one side over the other in this argument concerning West’s novella than I am in noting the way in which the material punch-line of the text’s opening joke—those cookie-cutter hearts cut from the “dough of suffering”—indexes a parallel critical argument within modernist studies: that surrounding the question of the political/ethical significance of grotesque representations of embodiment. For, when faced with West’s opening image of the mechanized stamp of human bodily sameness—and the serious humor attending such clone-like production of horror and suffering—what seems most important is not in fact that all these humans in West’s novella suffer; rather, what seems more significant is that they all suffer similarly. Due to a certain human bluntness, Miss Lonelyhearts seems to say, the forms of violence and violation that the advice column letters archive are indistinguishable as individual violations; the literal wounds inflicted on the “dough” of human bodies (as...

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