- American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s
In American Superrealism, Jonathan Veitch pursues multiple aims. He undertakes a critical analysis of Nathanael West’s four novels as well as West’s brief but productive co-editorship of Contact with William Carlos Williams. He examines the formal and ideological problems posed and exposed by the effort to adapt two of West’s novels to the Hollywood screen. And he returns to view an overlooked moment of synthesis in American cultural history for which West serves as the primary literary representative. This is the moment of “Superrealism,” the term first used to translate European surréalisme into the American context. Unlike the later, more familiar translation, Veitch argues that “Superrealism” did not yet refer to a depoliticized aestheticism in which formal experiment was divorced from social commentary. He further proposes that it was West’s “peculiar accomplishment” as the leading Superrealist “to discover a way of adapting an avant-garde style of writing to a native social criticism.”
Veitch locates both the peculiarity and the value of West’s project in his early recognition of the textual nature of reality under capitalism. This recognition stems from the “loss of wholeness and with it the loss of the capacity to represent the social totality” which accompanied the Great Depression. In West’s fiction, “reality reveals itself to be thoroughly and inescapably coded or written,” and yet it cannot be read. In one of the book’s most powerful arguments, Veitch compares West to other Leftists who sought refuge from the inscrutability of the present disaster in works of pastoral realism grounded in “a reactionary quest for innocence.” In contrast, West bypasses innocence for a mode of knowingness that attends equally to the discursive forms that reality takes and to the power unjustly invested in those forms.
Thus, for Veitch, West knows better than to seek social redemption in some outside space of “pure presence” and undivided plenitude. He recognizes the cultural origins of the unconscious, sees that the unconscious is, in fact, composed of ready-mades. He rejects the Left’s faith in “the people” as a repository of truth. And he is attentive “to the strategies by which the past is constituted, appropriated, and exhibited.” For West, appeals to all three outsides—the unconscious, [End Page 996] the people, and the past—risk sowing the seeds of a homegrown, American fascism.
Instead of seeking a way out, West keeps his eye on the top, the bottom, and the middle of things. Inhabiting the grotesque discourses of high and low in his fiction, he sees “the assignation of those hierarchies as a function of power” as well as the privileged site through which that power is naturalized. He also targets contemporary discourses of mediation, ruthlessly satirizing the cash-and-carry blandishments of the new “therapeutic culture,” the culture industry, and commodity fetishism.
In his conclusion, Veitch argues for West’s prophetic status, pointing to the many commentators who invoked West while covering Los Angeles’s tumultuous recent history. It is here that a weakness running through Veitch’s otherwise strong book becomes pronounced. For Veitch, the signature events marking the Westian spirit of contemporary life, California-style, are the theft of Madonna’s bustier from Frederick’s of Hollywood during the Los Angeles uprisings and O. J. Simpson’s televised, low-speed chase. Veitch confesses that “West had almost nothing to say on the vexed question of race which was, of course, at the root of the uprisings.” This may be truer of West’s critics than of West himself. Veitch’s own argument reveals West’s ongoing attention and opposition to the fascist and racist underpinnings of American nativism. West also regularly recycles the racial allegories of Hollywood in his work, to more ambiguous political effect. Recalling films like Broken Blossoms or The Sheik—and, perhaps, anticipating the national fascination with O. J. and Nicole—he repeatedly blows the cover on American innocence by pairing pure white American girls with...