Absurdity runs best at short distances, it seems, and stories tend to become more naturalistic as they get longer, provided they remain readable. West had a perfect sense for how far his conceits could go. From Tod Hackett watching ”the scarlet infantry of England” pass by his Hollywood office in the opening paragraphs of The Day of the Locust to the persistent deployment of the protagonist’s nom de pity in Miss Lonelyhearts, West stands midway between Saki and George Saunders in the history of compact, pitiless satire. (The section headings in Miss Lonelyhearts seem lifted directly from the former’s Reginald tales, in fact.)
Of course, West didn’t have much success in his lifetime, and you have to wonder if it wasn’t because he chose (or was compelled by his particular skill-set) to write at such a useless length. (His two other, justifiably overlooked works—The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million—are also skimpy exercises.) But then the distinction between novel and novella is about technology and commerce rather than dramatic necessity anyway. While all of West’s works were originally issued in stand-alone volumes, it takes two of them to fill out a Modern Library edition—to make an adequately-sized object commonly referred to as a book. (The Library of America’s standards for bookiness are even more extensive, requiring all four of West’s works.) Now, with the (final?) arrival of the ebook revolution, one wonders two things. First, would West’s fortunes have been better today? And second, what form will fiction be allowed to take once it’s freed from the technological and commercial restraints of bookiness?
Not long ago, one hour seemed like the perfect increment in which to deliver a crime drama, after all, and it only took VOD, DVDs, and Netflix to show us that 60 hours could work just as well.
Jim Hanas is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Slate, Radar, PRINT, Communication Arts, Advertising Age, the New York Daily News, GQ, Salon, the Village Voice, etc. His stories have appeared in Fence, McSweeney’s, One Story, Bridge, and Twelve Stories, etc. Find him HERE and HERE.