Sunday, December 12, 2021

Salinger, Briefly

Everybody’s read The Catcher in the Rye. Which is unfortunate in a way. It’s one of those Books with a Big Idea on Society (TM), and though the Big Idea was maybe striking in the 1950s, since the ‘60s, well, we’re all pretty much one version or another of Holden Caulfield. But the real reason it’s unfortunate is that this first novel is not Salinger’s main work. Who would bother to reread the book unless he had to?

Rereading Salinger this past month convinces me that The Catcher in the Rye really needn’t be read at all. For those who haven’t read Salinger, I’d suggest just skipping it. The worthwhile Salinger is Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey—where, of course, the Glass family appears in all its messy glory.

Salinger’s main achievement came in chasing about his child prodigies, the Glass children, staging their cognitive sophistication against the background of their oddly normal New York childhoods. But his theme isn’t just gifted kids in a messy home. Elder brother Seymour’s religious quest, the way it impinges upon his brilliant younger siblings, adds the third key element of tenson. Through most of the work, Seymour himself is absent, dead in fact, but nonetheless drives the others. The final pages of Franny and Zooey wonderfully cement his stature as teacher.

These three elements (sibling child prodigies + rough and tumble New York + serious religious quest) make for a tough balancing act. And it’s this, I’d say, that makes Salinger’s last published work Seymour—An Introduction a failure for most readers. I.e., unlike the rest, it doesn’t balance. Narrator Buddy Glass, bubbling with juvenile energy in the verbal register, is simply not convincing given that at the time of narration he is in fact a pudgy 40-year-old academic. The takeaway: Salinger can give his children a virtually impossible sophistication—it definitely works—but he can’t make an adult, in this case Buddy, a convincing childlike voice.

Still Sallinger’s last volume is worth reading: Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour have their high points: some of the character portraits in the former; Seymour’s literary life, his poetics, in the latter. But yes, long stretches of Seymour (the attempts to describe his appearance) shouldn’t have seen print.

Many Salinger fans regret that though he continued writing he didn’t continue publishing. I’m going to guess he knew what he was doing. Any artist knows when his work is just a rehashing of things he’s done better before, and he knows not to impose that rehashing on the world. Unless that artist is a rock band.

To conclude: Start with Nine Stories, then read Franny and Zooey. The rest mostly pales in comparison. Leave Holden Caulfield with his gripes on the shelf: Holden is a period piece and, for us, almost ancient history. His society is no longer ours, a fact we should regret. Why? The “fakes” Holden had to deal with were not, like our current fakes, dangerous to life, limb and basic liberty.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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