Nathanael West and Joel and Ethan Coen have never been known for playing it straight. A Cool Million, subtitled The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, and The Big Lebowski can be read as satires, if not parodies, of the American Dream of success. Their denial of coherence and lack of narrative discipline, deemed post-modern, their refusal to be constrained by the imperatives of conventional narrative and formal purity can be related to the way these works challenge the assumption that achievement is desirable and possible through hard work. Another connection between the novel and the movie is in the main characters’ embodiment of the Jewish folk character of the ‘schlemiel’—the clumsy, inept, charismatic character that stumbles from one situation to the next, pushed around by circumstances that are not of his own making. In following characters that are not in charge of their own destiny through convoluted plots that are ultimately absurd and somewhat incoherent, Nathanael West and the Coen brothers challenge not only narrative and stylistic conventions, but the conventional ideas of progress and improvement through work.
Both these stories are framed in such a way as to remind readers and viewers that they are, indeed, stories, the fabrications of their authors. In A Cool Million, the narrator intrudes on the action, distancing the readers from the fictional world of its characters. When Lemuel finds himself in ex-president Shagpoke Whipple’s house, the first-person omniscient narrator interjects by commenting that “it will only delay my narrative and serve no good purpose to report how Lem told about his predicament,” so he decides to “skip to his last sentence” (West 72). In another instance, the narrator returns to an earlier point in the story by saying that “several chapters back, I left our heroine, Betty Prail, laying naked under a bush…” (West 90), or he directly addresses the reader by assuming he or she “might be eager to know why [Wu Fong] wanted an American girl so badly” (West 93), or announcing that “I am happy to acquaint my readers to the fact that…” (West 95). In the last chapter, the narrator concludes that “little else remains to be told, but before closing this book, there is one last scene I intend to describe” (West 177). These intrusions distract from the world of the narrative and point out its unreality.
Similarly, the Stranger in The Big Lebowski appears at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film to introduce, comment on, or conclude the narrative. Invoking the mythic Western hero, the Stranger opens the movies with “way out West there was a fella, fella I wanna tell you about” voiced over “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” on the soundtrack. The Coens not only satirize the narrator, who has “this whole cowboy thing goin,” but satirize the use of narrators in film in general, by making the Stranger unreliable, clearly not omniscient (“there’s a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me”), who digresses (going from Los Angeles to London, Paris, and the “queen in her damned undies, as a fella says”) and is somewhat confused about what it is he wants to say: “Sometimes there’s a man, (…) and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here—sometimes there’s a man (…) Sometimes there’s a man… Aw, I lost m’train of thought here. Aw, hell, I done innerduced him enough.”
Narrative conventions are ignored or defied not only in style, but also plot. In reading A Cool Million, one is undone by one’s own expectations. In the beginning, a timeline is set only to be shattered. Lemuel must earn fifteen hundred dollars to pay off the mortgage on his house in three months. Having decided to “go off to seek my fortune” in New York City, we expect the story to evolve within these time constraints, and Lem to succeed or fail in earning the money by the end of the three months (73). However, any hope of success is destroyed when Lem is wrongly accused of stealing and ends up in prison before ever making it to New York, where he spends the next twenty weeks. West’s character strives for, but never achieves success. The author takes the rags-to-riches story of writers like Horatio Alger Jr. and flips it on its head, and poor Lemuel, try as he might to climb the social ladder, only manages to get one foot on before West moves it on him.
From the beginning, the character is not allowed to succeed not for lack of trying, but because events that are out of his control shape his fate. The dismantling of the hero, starting with his teeth, is accomplished by the end of the novel with no participation on his part. A heroic gesture that would have sealed Ragged Dick’s fortune, is not merely ignored by its benefactor in Lemuel’s case, but he loses an eye in the process. Mr. Underdown, whom Lem saved from runaway horses, grows “extremely angry,” threatening to have him arrested (104). When he is captured by Wong Fu and prepared for the offensively caricatured Maharajah of Kanurani, he escapes by no means of his own, but because his glass eye and false teeth fall out. There is not one instance in the book where Lemuel manages to take his destiny into his own hands. Similarly, Jeff Bridges’ Dude gets caught in with Nihilist musicians, millionaires, feminist artists, kidnappers, and porn producers without ever meaning to get involved. “All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back,” the main character laments, and he is, in the end allowed to return to the comfort of the bowling alley, but only after having the rug quite literally and metaphorically pulled out from under him a few times. The bowling pins here also serve a metaphorical role, as the Dude is, like them, passively knocked about by external forces.
While Lemuel believes in improving his condition through hard work, the Dude is perfectly content with his rags; success, to him, is not equal to material wealth and public recognition. The Dude’s existence is made out of bowling, smoking lots of pot, drinking White Russians, and generally avoiding any effort. The Stranger comically introduces the Dude as “most certainly” a lazy man, “quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.” When we first meet him, he is writing a check for less than a dollar, which might as well bounce. He has gone to college, he informs the Big Lebowski’s assistant (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but he admits to having spent his time “occupying various administration buildings, smoking a lot of Thai stick, breaking into the ROTC and bowling.” When Maude (Julianne Moore) asks him what he does for recreation, he says “Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.”
He escapes societal conventions whenever possible. Employment, marriage, even his appearance and his name mean little to him. He resists the trappings and expectations of the American Dream, such as domesticity: Walter informs us he doesn’t have an ex; one of the first things he tells Jackie Treehorn’s thugs is “Does it look like I’m fucking married? The toilet seat’s up, man”; when Da Fino calls Maude his “special lady,” the Dude bursts out: “She’s not my special lady, she’s my fucking lady friend. I’m just helping her conceive, man”; and when Maude informs him the yoga-like contortions are meant to improve chances of conception, he spits his drink across the room and says “let me explain something about the Dude…”
The Big Lebowski plays fast and loose in terms of style, stitching together many different genres: comedy, crime, the Busby Berkeley musical in fantasy dream sequences, the detective noir, the western, the buddy film. The Coen brothers toss formal purity out the window, resulting in a film that transcends and defies genre conventions and is ultimately incoherent in terms of plot, enacting formally what its character accomplishes on the level of content. The content, like the idea behind A Cool Million, is the rejection of the American Dream of success in a Franklinian society that calls for striving and achievement.
Self-reliance is emphasized in both works, by Shagpoke because he refuses to give Lem a loan, and by the Big Lebowski when he tells the Dude “I can’t solve your problem for you, sir. Only you can. Your revolution is over. The bums lost. My advice to you is to do what your parents did and get a job.” Shagpoke Whipple’s speeches mirror those of the Big Lebowski. In trying to encourage Lemuel to go out into the world and “win [his] way”, the ex-president convinces the young protagonist that “the world is an oyster that but waits for hands to open it” and “America (…) is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both” (West 73-72). Even after Lem gets arrested, Shagpoke is unrelenting in his idealistic, absurd encouragement: “I believe I once told you that you had an almost certain chance to succeed because you were born poor and on a farm. Let me now tell you that your chance is even better because you have been to prison (…) Here a man is a millionaire one day and a pauper the next, but no one thinks the worse of him. The wheel will turn for that is the nature of wheels.” Lemuel’s wheel only takes turns for the worse: “Jail is his first reward. Poverty his second. Violence is his third. Death is his last” (West 178). There is something admirable, and perhaps even heroic in the character’s resilience, while the Dude is “a man, I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero?”
West allows not a glimmer of hope in his novel. He offers a harsh criticism of society, but no solution to its ills. When Lemuel and Shagpoke head to the “Golden West” in search of fortune, this promise of quick financial gain is again not delivered on. The speculation of the gold rush, like that of the stock market, proved only an empty delusion. During the Great Depression, when the action of A Cool Million takes place, there was not much left for America to dream on, and the bleak, negative universe of West’s work is suited to the times. The main difference between the novel and the film is their tone. While the Dude returns to his state of happy idling in the end, Lemuel is dismantled and used as a political platform “he did not live or die in vain. Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism, and International Capitalism, (…) America [becoming] again American.” In this way, he is used by others even after his death.
The Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski, an urban maze, is the paradigm of a capitalist society, a place where dreams are manufactured, fabricated, and performed, in Hollywood as well as daily life, as the Big Lebowski demonstrates. “They call Los Angeles the city of angels. I didn’t find it to be that exactly,” the Stranger muses, “although there are some nice folks.” The Dude is “the man for his time’n place. He fits right in there.” However, as Bob Dylan points out on the soundtrack, this is the kind of place a man needs to “hide sometimes, to keep from being seen/ But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.” Perhaps that’s why the Dude avoids any conventions, because he is avoiding turning into an upward-venturing, hard-working, “little urban achiever” machine in a deranged society.
Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski challenge societal, narrative and stylistic conventions in the way they depict the aspirations and ideals of their main characters and American society as a whole. The American Dream based on Protestant work ethic and Benjamin Franklin’s self-reliant, achieving society is dismantled, just like the main character of the novel. Lemuel and Donny might have died, but the Stranger informs us that there’s a little Lebowski on the way, who will perhaps inherit his dad’s indolence. “I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.”
West, Nathanael. A Cool Million and The Dream Life of Balso Snell: Two Novels. New York:
FSG Classics, 2006.
The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore,
Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Netflix. Online Streaming.