- Recreating Genre:Structure, Language, and Citation in Nathanael West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell
Though much has been written on Nathanael West’s corpus, very little critical work exists on West’s first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a strange, 62-page novella composed of a series of seemingly disjunctive narrative vignettes. As a critical survey of the novel reveals, critics tend to view the novel as an inferior work in a developing writer’s canon—or an interesting, if not derivative, exercise in surrealistic and Dadaist montage. As a result, the novel is rarely considered a site for serious inquiry, and the text as a whole is often overlooked in favor of West’s later novels, Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust. Recently, however, a number of critics have begun to take note of The Dream Life of Balso Snell’s formal ingenuity. As Deborah Wyrick observes, “Surprisingly, the question of structure in West’s first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, has been largely ignored. Instead, critics agree that it is formless, chaotic, a juvenile pastiche of bathroom jokes, college magazine parody, and borrowings from contemporary avant-garde authors” (156). As Wyrick argues, Balso Snell is not simply a juvenile exercise in pastiche; in fact, a closer look at the form of the novel raises resoundingly complex questions of structure, imitation, and appropriation. Indeed, Balso Snell possesses a dizzying narrative structure, one in which a seemingly interminable number of episodic narrative vignettes emerge only to recede into the background of the text. The complexity of form in the novel, then, is momentously important to understanding West’s aesthetic, and should thus be considered more deeply. My goal in this essay, however, is not simply to rescue West’s work from its critical detractors, but to further the emerging discussion of form in the novel. To that end, I want to consider the extent to which West’s novel can be reconsidered in relation to genre studies—that is, I want to expose how West’s novella reveals a compelling examination of genre in the age of modernism. [End Page 159] Building off Wyrick’s analysis, this essay argues that form functions in West’s novel as a means to examine the limits of genre. In other words, I read formal experimentation in Balso Snell as West’s attempt to self-reflexively rethink and rewrite stagnant generic conventions.
Accordingly, I choose to consider the novel not in terms of plot; instead, I suggest that each of the novel’s many vignettes reveal a confrontation with an array of disparate genres. These vignettes reveal a critical examination of literary and generic conventions. Indeed, West’s text incorporates and explores linguistic and textual instabilities through a structure that blends, weaves, and collapses several literary styles and conventions into one another. Throughout the novel, West introduces a multitude of literary genres solely to debilitate and dismantle them. Literary biography, epistolary narration, journalism, and the crime novel all appear in the text—and are all subsequently dismantled and reconfigured. Readers are therefore instigated to reconsider the manner in which we perceive literary conventions by rethinking and reconceiving the boundaries that separate differing genres. Thus, I read West’s novel as a self-reflexive, critical exegesis of conflicting ideologies of genre. By further considering the novel’s formal complexity, we can begin to understand how West’s work interprets the function and conventions of genre in the modern novel. Moreover, as I will show, The Dream Life of Balso Snell confronts the relevancy and longevity of seemingly antiquated genres and, in doing so, reveals a need to rethink the contemporaneity of an array of disparate genres—and the critical practices through which we confront them.
Genre, Myth, and Citation
West’s novel begins with an immediate citation of the epic as a site of generic play. In a parodic allusion to the epic of the Trojan War, Balso Snell, the novel’s protagonist, comes across the dilapidated ruins of the Trojan horse. In this way, West opens his novel with an overt confrontation of genre. Snell discovers a physical embodiment of the epic and because...