A Cool Million
I hated A Cool Million. Absolutely hated it – I had to force myself to finish the last few painful chapters. But I didn’t hate it because I thought it was too depressing, or too negative; I’m perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating the art of satire and hyperbole. The problem I had with Nathanael West’s book is that it was just bad writing. Really bad writing.
For starters, its way too long and painfully redundant – though maybe that was on purpose, I’ll give him that. But beyond that, the hyperbole is so extreme and over-the-top that it made the book uninteresting. I didn’t care what happened to anyone – in fact, I was hoping Lem would die soon so I could put down the awful book already. It isn’t very funny, except for a handful of moments where I cracked a begrudging smile (it was more of a twitch at the corner of my mouth, really). Worst of all, it isn’t even original – West apparently lifted several passages directly from the pages of a few Horatio Alger novels (see these citations, one by Rachel Rubenstein and one from Wikipedia. I was unfortunately unable to access the articles cited). This fact is fairly widely acknowledged, making me wonder: since when is blatant plagiarism cause for literary praise? Sure, West’s ideas are great – I enjoy seeing The American Dream satirically ripped to shreds as much as the next cynical second-generation immigrant – but if he can’t even express them without heavily “borrowing” from one of his favorite authors, doesn’t that make him somewhat of a hack?
I also was not all too impressed with West’s treatment of female characters, nor of his overzealously stereotypical portrayal of racial and ethnic minorities. Far too much racism is passed as acceptable under the guise of “satire”: but if you’re simply repeating, with exuberance, racist tropes that we all already know and have heard over and over ad nauseum, then what clever point are you really making? At what point does enthusiastic ethnically-based slander stop being “satirical” or “funny” and be recognized as no more than your common, everyday racism? Maybe it’s a thin line to walk, but I’ve seen it done much more successfully, and I think West crossed it (and I’m sure it doesn’t need to be pointed out that West’s Jewish ancestry does not exempt him from being racist). And what point, exactly, is West trying to make by having Betty be repeatedly raped (and with an alarming nonchalance)? Sure, Lem is repeatedly injured and grotesquely disfigured, but for some reason West didn’t see fit to have Lem be raped repeatedly. Is the point, perhaps, that Lem’s disfigurements as a man are equivalent to Betty’s “disfigurements” as a woman – in other words, being raped as a woman is akin to losing various limbs and having your eye gouged out as a man? Or maybe that the worst possible misfortune West could conceive of for a woman is to be raped over and over (I’m sure rape survivors would really appreciate that). Or maybe it’s just a lack of imagination. I’m not quite sure what West was attempting to say here. But hey, if he couldn’t quite pull off satire, at least he succeeded quite well in pulling off misogyny.
I’ve heard A Cool Million be compared to Candide, and apparently West inspired later authors like Vladimir Nabokov (someone whose work I appreciate - I'm talking Pale Fire, though, not Lolita). But, legendary writer or no, I was not at all impressed. Maybe I would like some of West’s other works better, but after reading A Cool Million, I’m not all that enthused to give him another chance.
Examples of much better works of satire:
Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million reminded me a lot of Kafka’s Amerika: protagonist is beaten to a pulp by the new world he thought he could handle, with only enough relief in between to get our hopes up enough to have them become crushable again. What was satire and what was sincere was hard to discern, for me – there were some awful racist quotes up front, said in sincerity (within the book) but debatable insincerity (from the author possibly writing a satirical book.) The time period, I think, is what made this less discernable – I had to google “Nathaniel West + Racist” to find out for myself. West seems to take the opposite strategy of Kromer in his attempt to convey the truth: he spins a completely bizarre, over-the-top tragic and nearly slapstick tale that is just plausible enough to still have us emotionally involved. In a way, it is a reductio ad absurdum: reducing the depression and its events until it becomes absurd. But the absurdity of it is the depression’s true absurdity: it is actually there. I started feeling indignant, almost, at the way he treated his characters, and I believe that was his motivation: for us to want to demand that he stop this nonsense, let go of the necks of all his characters and leave them alone. The same could be said about the depression, about the police, about the swindlers, the corrupt, all those beating down the already beaten down. It also had the feeling of a sort of twisted, perverse fairy tale; the characters were idyllic, basic: beautiful girl, endlessly sacrificial young hero-lad, trusty “Indian” sidekick, blundering but useful old man. This served to make the narrative even more offensive when it was so unrelentingly brutal and base, and provided the basis for our suspension of disbelief – that it all would be okay in the end, because this is a fairy tale – being destroyed in the end because absolutely nothing was alright. There was no moral, no reward of the right, no punishing of the wrong as in a proper fable. I loved reading this, because its absurdity and the whimsical form it took served to make it all the more brutal and offensive. What a fun and horrifying way to make a point about the Depression.
Nathanael West's A Cool Million is not merely a Horatio Alger parody, but actually depicts the hapless protagonist, Lemuel Pitkin, as believing he is living a Horatio Alger story. It's a disturbing bit of social commentary—and also a bit pomo—in that Lem's wide-eyed, naïve understanding of how the world works is constructed out of such stories. The satire lies in the contrast of Lem's expectations—that of the nice mythic rags-to-riches tale that he thinks he's living—and reality, which West depicts as Hobbesian, insanely cruel and brutal, and especially exploitative of those who hold these kinds of rose-tinted beliefs. Lem blunders into becoming largely dismembered, murdered, and ultimately a posterchild for American fascism.
West gives us an important lesson, even if he does beat us over our heads with it in the process: your life isn't a story until it's over. Expectations of “what should happen” almost never pan out, and you usually don't get to choose what your own life story's about, in part because it's bigger than you, and also because whoever survives you can make that decision in your absence. West does a fairly good job of writing a story about how stories are deceptive, and he's largely able to do this through sheer force of blunt satire: it's very difficult to compose a nuanced and satisfying story about life being essentially devoid of reason or meaning, because the brutality and mindlessness in such stories has a strong tendency to undercut any degree of satisfaction. Still, a number of people have made excellent efforts in recent years; I would recommend David Mazzucchelli's comic Asterios Polyp or any of the most recent Coen bros. films.
The melodrama, sensationalism and stereotyped characters of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million tip their hats to a writing form popular in the days leading up to the novel’s publication in 1934: yellow journalism. I could almost hear the newsboys yelling while I read it, and the episodic nature of each chapter definitely made me wonder what headlines the New York Post would attribute to each blundering tale. “Pitkin Becomes Permanent Bonehead After Crazed Indian Massacre,” would work, perhaps, for the chapter when Lemuel’s bone becomes prominently displayed on his head. “Betsy Ross? More Like Betty Costs (But It’s Worth It)” for the passage recounting Betty’s kidnapping and forced prostitution. Yep, those papers would be flying from the presses straight to pedestrian hands.
Yellow journalism began in the late nineteenth century as an idea to make newspapers more entertaining and eye-catching to the general public. The term is associated with “muckrakers,” or investigative journalists who seek to expose corruption mainly in corporate America or government institutions. Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair are some of the first muckrakers in America, and their most notable publications include The Jungle, The History of the Standard Oil Compnay, and "Tweed Days in St. Louis." Many muckraker articles like these were published in McClure’s Magazine at the beginning of the twentieth century; the authors defamed the meat-packing industry, crooked politics, and corrupt economic practices.
A Cool Million contains many attributes of the journalistic style. Its characters are archetypal caricatures of real people: Lem, the stalwart American hero; Whipple, the persistent, determined patriot; and Betty, the beautiful, (at one point) virginal and pure American girl. Its tales are sensational, plunging in moments from the heights of Lem’s optimism (setting off with a solid almost $30) to the depths of tragedy and despair (getting robbed immediately and put in jail). This rollercoaster of exaggerated, unrealistic circumstances continues throughout the novel. Each chapter breaks with Lem’s spiraling bad luck or the comic-book like victory of the “bad guy.” Everything is seen in black and white, with Lem and his compatriots displaying the utmost “good” and characters like the man from Pike County, Wu Fong, and the fat Chesterfield-overcoat communist embodying the utmost evil. It’s enough to make you utter a guttural chuckle of, “Oh, ho ho,” while twisting the sides of your mustache.
The completely ridiculous sensational viewpoint brings the failures of the “American Dream” and West’s mocking of a particular American mindset into sharper focus. Everything in the novel is already polarized, and the characters often voice the most extreme views of a certain idea. Whipple, for instance, assures Lem, “I believe I once told you that you had an almost certain chance to succeed because you were born poor and on a farm…your chance is even better because you have been in prison” (West, 97). This satirical comment mocks the “American Dream” ideal of even the most disadvantaged members of society succeeding—it flips the sentiment to show that in Whipple’s extreme point of view, it is actually an advantage to be born impoverished. Lem’s incredibly annoying Boy Scout morals continually account for his guilt at receiving money he did not “earn.” He doesn’t want thousands of dollars for the diamond ring he procured; he wants thirty. He doesn’t want two dollars the store clerk gives him for discussing his mother’s decorating habits as he gazes at his old house in a storefront on Fifth Avenue; “he felt that he had not earned it” (103).
Well I say, for goodness’ sake Lem, take the damn money. West’s yellow journalism tale muck-rakes the scum of hypocrisy and dated ideals and throws it into the shining, pure face of Lemuel Pitkin, the American youth. Touché, Mr. West, touché.
I wonder, now, what I would have thought of A Cool Million had I not known ahead of time that it’s a satirical novel. Since I was laughing pretty steadily just after the first few chapters, I’m sure I would have picked up on it. If I lived back when this was released, however, and began reading the book completely unaware that it was meant to poke fun at those types of popular rags-to-riches tales might have left me with a pretty sour feeling. In fact, even knowing that it’s an amusing book, Lemuel’s undertakings follow such a drastic up-and-down rollercoaster motion that it’s hard to ever find a real satisfaction even in the humor of it. Its darkness and matter-of-fact tone are what made it so funny to me, but the crushing sadness in the reality of his brutal injuries are quick to bring the reader back down. Lemuel, forever holding on to a sense of optimism – generally emboldened by that stroke of luck that seemed to come along every few minutes – keeps on going, marching in search of a unique kind of success that he believes is out there, if only because he is constantly pushed to hold that belief. Lemuel is simultaneously searching for and representative of the American Dream, and West is explaining to us that it’s not out there, at least in the sense that people were raised to think about it. In hard times, holding on to a sense of entitlement can’t work for anybody, and in the extreme case of Pitkin, goaded by former President Whipple, it works against him. Hunter Thompson wrote extensively on the concept of the American Dream about thirty years later. In his quests to “find” it, he often noted that people needed to expand the definition of the phrase to even come close to achieving it anymore. In Hell’s Angels, in which Thompson documents his experiences riding with the infamous motorcycle gang, he makes the implication that they have found their own version of it; they live content lives, riding their bikes and working simple jobs, leading simple existences. If we don’t modify what we want the American Dream to be – if we seek some mystical ideal that is, and maybe always was, almost impossible to realize– then it’s absurd to think that it could ever be found. The absurdity of life was another common theme of Thompson’s, and it comes up often in A Cool Million. West does not hesitate take the surreal qualities of American life during the Depression to a wild and symbolic conclusion.
A Cool Million really made me reconsider what the American dream is. And why the hell are we so determined to find this so-called American dream? What is it? There are the adventurous tales as told by Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, the American dream of unlimited amounts of sex and cigarettes and acid. There is a piece I stumbled across in the New Yorker, the story of Donald Lau, who came to America from China in search of the American dream. He was hired by a Fortune Cookie Factory in Long Island City as the writer of fortunes, not because he was poetic in any sense but because he spoke better English than any of the others. He now lives alone in an apartment in Queens and writes fortunes. He is living the American dream. And then there's Pitkin, our protagonist. He loses an eye, his teeth, his thumb, his scalp and his leg and still pursues the "American dream" until the tragic end. All of these tales are equally fascinating, from Thompson to Lau to Pitkin. And they are all about freedom and venturing into the unknown. Which is what makes each story so inspiring. We don't care that Thompson is a crazy coked out journalist embarking on his latest acid trip or that Lau is living in Queens writing our fortunes or that Pitkin has lost valuable body parts and dies. They're all fascinating because they're all free. I don't think there is necessarily an American dream, but just a freedom placed on a pedestal that we all wish to experience for ourselves someday. Until then, we'll keep reading about lost thumbs and acid trips.
If Lemuel Pitkin is supposed to be the quintessential American boy representing all that is the American dream, it makes me nervous to be an American (especially if Betty Prail is the American girl). Now I understand that Nathanael West was writing a satire during the Great Depression and things were different- unemployment was 25%, hoboism was basically an accepted way of life, and there was basically no end in sight. But since the economic downturn over a year ago, it seems like this could be a possibility. This economic situation has been compared to the Depression. Does that mean that we can be compared to the Lem and Betty?
I certainly hope not. A nation full of Lemuel Pitkins and Betty Prails would be a sorry place – people missing essential body parts and girls being raped time and time again both by men and the system, even if it is only metaphorical for what we are as a country. While we may not be exactly as the characters in A Cool Million, we as a nation are not without their key attribute – that of a gross amount of optimism.
A recent New York Times article commented on this frightening component of our American being: “Throughout the history of American commercial life, one cultural trait has tended to dominate: Americans are optimists, a people prone to seeing the glass as not merely half-full but rapidly expanding, and bearing liquid that might yet be turned into gold.” This optimism today has much the same effects that it had on Lemuel Pitkin - “Excessive optimism and its close relation — a reckless disregard of risk — are widely blamed for helping carry the United States into the worst financial panic since the Great Depression.”
For Lem his disregard of risk (i.e. getting into cars with strangers, involving himself in schemes that will lead to arrest or punishment) led to the mutilation of his body. For us, the disregard of risk led to a "casino culture" and the mutilation of our financial system. Perhaps Nathanael West was writing with a bit more insight than he had anticipated.
The pages in A Cool Million that West devotes to describing the interior rooms of the whorehouse are not insignificant, especially in a relatively short novel. The rooms, and certainly when Wu Fong abolishes his "international" theme for a regional American theme, follow the stereotype of American houses in the respective regions, to the absolute detail. This article explains the Colonial revival phenomenon from the turn of the century to the 1930s, similarly documented in West's book with the removal of Lem's Colonial home from its stead and reassembled in the 5th Ave storefront window. For West, the rooms serve to expound his idea of the commodification of American history and culture, but ironically enough there has been, in recent years, a return to traditional American designs.
The article to which the picture above is linked tells of a couple in search of their "dream house," and found it in an 18th-century Connecticut farmhouse. Since then, the family has decorated with "folk art paintings and Early American antiques." From the floral stenciled runner in the dining room to the furniture, the house is a replica of its former self and an exemplary of 1800s New England.
Last year, the popular interior design blog apartmenttherapy proclaimed the "rustic farm look" the latest trend. Frequently, too, they post tips and furniture finds for transforming a room into a Spaghetti Western--including but certainly not limited to Navajo rugs and hand-hewn tables.
These returns to a traditional American design scheme are, if more genuine than West's lewd portrayals, a similar romanticizing, and inevitably turns the traditions into the same commodity.
Nathaniel West's A Cool Million is anything but your run of the mill Depression era proletarian novel. In fact, it not only satirizes proletarian novels, but also pokes fun at the "American Dream" and the belief that American society operates on the basis of merit and that anyone can be socially mobile. West's tone drips with sarcasm and even at times disdain, and I have to say that though the novel's brutality is at time quite humorous, I think it's possible that Nathaniel West may have gone too far.
A Cool Million was modeled on Horatio Alger's novels from earlier in the century, in which optimism is lauded and America is one happy meritocracy. However, West's novel warps Alger's model, and so many misfortunes befall the relentlessly optimistic protagonist, that one would expect him to give up, yet the he doesn't and finally ends up toothless, limbless, scalpless and dead, having accomplished none of his original goals. Though the reader does not easily identify with the protagonist Lemuel Pitkin, he ends up so mutilated and having lost so much, that one cannot help but feel slightly angry at the author...did he really have to inflict such pain upon his character?!
West was also criticized by many critics for having satirized racists and certain political and social factions too much. Throughout the novel he slanders Jews, Italians, Blacks, Communists, Facists, Chinese...you name it, he criticizes it. But at some point do his jabs cease to be funny? Do his satirically racist remarks actually hit a nerve? Is it possible that West wanted them to? Personally I found his sarcastic racism amusing at first, but after a while it got tiresome. I got his point, but his desire to satirize got in the way of telling the story....though, now I think about it, maybe his whole point was simply to expose and make fun of all these prejudices, not in fact to tell a story at all. After all, A Cool Million doesn't really have much rising action, a climax or even much of a conclusion.
I did a little bit of research on Horatio Alger that proved to reveal some interesting details. Apparently after attending Harvard Divinity School he took a position at a Unitarian Church but resigned a couple years later because he had had inappropriate relationships with some teenage boys! In fact church official wrote to the hierarchy in Boston complaining that "Horatio Alger, Jr. has been practicing on [the boys of the church] at different times deeds that are too revolting to relate." Nevertheless, they are related: "gross immorality, and a most heinous crime, a crime of no less magnitude than the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys ... which he neither denied or attempted to extenuate but received it with apparent calmness of an old offender – and hastily left town on the very next train for parts unknown". He later moved to New York City and spent time working at the Newsboys' Lodging House and spent a great deal of time with the newsboys themselves. It was this gritty reality that prompted him to begin writing his stories about young hard-up boys.
I wonder if Nathaniel West knew about this when he modeled his novel after Alger's stories, and if so, was he satirizing more than just the eternal optimism of Alger's characters???
A Cool Novel
A Cool Million has got to be the most fantastical novel I’ve read so far this term. Even though our protagonist has lost all his teeth, the satire of the novel is nothing less than biting-- in fact, Nathaniel West administers a deliberate chomp to Horatio Alger’s American dream, taking some limbs and eyeballs with it.
Lem’s adventure reminded me first and foremost of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, another story of a man on a journey, and another satire on journeys and the many things that can go wrong. But Vonnegut’s story wasn’t set in the depression. The actual depression rears its head every once and a while in the story, but never causes too much alarm, as it is hardly a direct problem with Lem. He started with nothing and ended with nothing. West argues that the only money to be had in America is just that—it’s all money to be had, be it through connections or sheer luck. The men praised by Shagpoke, like Henry Ford, are so sparse that he can only ever speak of two of them. If everyone in America could make it in America, it seems they would and there would be more stories to tell to either warn or inspire Lem.
Lem’s grotesque mutilations are personifications of the toll America takes on the highway of life, if you choose to ride it. Staying at home, Lem could have discarded his entire body, like his mother, and died. Instead, he was willing to sacrifice certain parts in order to survive. In his last job as a performer in a comedy show, his mutilations are the only thing that got him paid. The satire here is obvious, so obvious that the book is finished before you can say depression. I can’t wait to give it another read!