July 27, 2009
J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey
I had the idea recently that I would like to read and review 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, the ‘unauthorised sequel’ to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The ever-vigilant Salinger had his lawyers on the case, and a few weeks ago a judge banned the book from sale in the USA, though it remains available elsewhere. I bought it, and then realised I hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye since I was in my late teens and would need to revisit it. But I couldn’t find my copy. Undeterred, I dived into 60 Years Later and quickly came to the conclusion (when the Caulfield character took eight pages to get to the bathroom mirror so he, and the reader, could see that he was an old man and not the teenager he thought he was) that it was a lot of phony crap. By then, however, my itch to read some Salinger again had become unbearable.
I opted for Franny and Zooey (1961) as some would have it as Salinger’s masterpiece. Janet Malcolm said that rereading it “is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby.” This seems like a wild claim. The book comprises the story ‘Franny’ and the novella ‘Zooey’, first published in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957. They are further chronicles of the Glass family children, first introduced via eldest brother Seymour in the 1948 story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’. Although Salinger has not published for over 40 years, it’s understood that he has continued the Glass chronicles, a thought which fills me with ambivalence. There are seven Glass children, and they grew up in the public eye (or ear) by featuring on a radio quiz ‘It’s a Wise Child’:
Public response to the children was often hot and never tepid. In general, listeners were divided into two, curiously restive camps: those who held that the Glasses were a bunch of insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth, and those who held that they were bona fide underage wits and savants, of an uncommon, if unenviable, order.
It’s not hard to side with the haters, not least because Salinger himself seems so firmly in the, if not adoring, at least thoroughly fascinated, camp. He has lavished detail and attention on the Glasses, and he said on publication of Franny and Zooey that his writings on the Glass family were “a long-term project, patently an ambitious one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms.”
It seems already to have happened, though it’s not all bad news, as Salinger’s style is charming enough in its way, and he is not uncritical of his characters. On the first page of ‘Franny’ he has college students on a railway platform, in hot discussions, “clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.” Among these is Lane, boyfriend of Franny Glass, reading her last letter to him (“I love you to pieces, distraction, etc.”) as he awaits her train. As it arrives, he tries “to empty his face of all expression that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he felt” about Franny.
Well he might: she’s hard work, perhaps even more so than others of her age. She rails against the ambitions of her contemporaries:
‘I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting, it is, it is.’
She’s “sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” If this sounds dangerously as though we are heading toward effacement of the self through varieties of spiritualism, then you’re right to be worried. (“When I hear the word ‘spiritual’ I reach for my luger,” says Cynthia Ozick. “It suggests narcissism and little else.”) Franny tells Lane that she is adopting the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer, inspired by the Russian work The Way of a Pilgrim.
The second part of the book, the novella ‘Zooey’, takes us directly on from Franny’s exchange with Lane, in the family’s Upper East apartment, which has a bathroom large enough for two characters to walk around and have a 40-page dialogue in. These two are brother Zachary (‘Zooey’) and Bessie Glass, their mother, and the story, we are told, is written by elder brother Buddy (“who was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man“), and opens with one of those sentences that had stuck in my mind ever since I first read the book (but which I wouldn’t have been able to place, unprompted). “The facts at hand presumably speak for themselves, but a trifle more vulgarly, I suspect, than facts even usually do.” This uneconomical voice which Salinger gives Buddy is consistently held throughout, so that one hundred pages doesn’t deal in much that’s summarisable other than ‘Zooey talks with his mother and then his sister.’
The voice is a symptom of Salinger’s singular characteristic as an author: control. We already know from his history of litigation and his refusal to permit film adaptations or illustrated covers that Salinger exerts meticulous control over his creations, but this comes within the text too. The most curious example of this is his intensive application of italics within dialogue (“It’s infuriating not to be able to get him. It isn’t even normal”): he makes absolutely certain that the reader will read the words precisely as he intended them. This exercise of control is exactly what Franny wants from the Jesus Prayer (Zooey mocks and challenges her motives for relying on it), and there is a section of the book which reproduces several passages of Eastern wisdom, presumably alternative dabblings by Franny and her siblings.
What makes me uncomfortable about Franny and Zooey is that we know that this search for spiritual enlightenment also exercised Salinger at the time (and thereafter, at great length). It feels almost as though the reader is prying on Salinger’s private struggles: an ironic position given Salinger’s hard-fought protection of his privacy. Salinger is a talented writer, though I do wonder if he would be so popular now if he had continued to publish instead of attaining mythic status through his silence. One sentence in particular, addressed to the Glass children, seems particularly poignant. “I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all,” Salinger has Mrs Glass tell them, “if it doesn’t make you happy.”