July 27, 2009

J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey

Posted in Salinger J.D. at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

Franny and Zooey (US edition)

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.”

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38 Comments »

  1. deucekindred said,

    Interesting! I find that J.D. Salinger’s books should be read when you’re in your mid teens to early twenties. Older than that and you’ll be disillusioned.

    saying that there is one story I keep returning to and that’s Raise High the Roof beam, Carpenters (sorry but Seymour : an introduction doesn’t do anything to be) It’s a pure farcical situation and Salinger’s eye for the so called higher classes of society is just as sharp as Waugh’s (or Fitzgerald for that matter :) )

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks dk. I should have said that I had read Franny and Zooey before, along with Salinger’s other published fiction, in my late teens or early 20s as you suggest. I do have fond memories of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (that’s the one about a wedding, right?) but can’t remember whether Seymour held any charm for me.

    I should probably reread the stories as well.

  3. Bangzo said,

    Superb review…very thoughtful Sounds like a good read for the summer.

  4. I reread the three Glass family books every few years (which means I’ve been through them about 10 times) and never regret the experience — I do regard them as parts of a continuum rather than separate books. Part of what intrigues me and that I like best is precisely what others dislike in Salinger — the egotism and self-centredness of every Glass child that makes them so difficult to like. (Franny really is a horrible person.) And which, of course, means they can only really affiliate with each other.

    I am one of those people who hope that there are more Glass manuscripts on the shelves in the yurt in New England. I can understand those who hope there are not.

  5. I wonder how many late teens and early twenties folk read Salinger these days?

    It really was a rite of passage when I was younger and then only the properly committed would read beyond Catcher. I suppose we all have our stories of friends who were mildly obsessed by him but I had a friend who went to New York with the sole mission of asking a taxi driver what happened to the ducks in Central Park during winter.

    From what I gather this is far from unusual.

    I find myself compelled to read the stories again to see what they look like twenty years on.

    • Judy said,

      I am 16 and Salinger is my absolute favorite author, it just seems like many authors these days don’t compare, I’ve also gotten many of my friends to read “The Catcher in the Rye,” because it’s my favorite book, so don’t lose too much hope in our generation we still know good literature when we read it.

  6. deucekindred said,

    @ John yes it’s the wedding story. There’s a dwarf who I think steals the show.

    you’d be surprised at the amount of people who have read Catcher. Go to a university campus and I bet you’ll find at least one student carting it around. In Malta Catcher…. is studied in the tertiary education sector, alongside Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 so I guess one rite of passage is still going.

  7. Deana said,

    Salinger’s stories (I’m referring to the collection “Nine Stories”) are second to none within the genre of American short story. Following your recommendation, John, I read Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins” and the best of his stories inevitably echo Salinger’s sentiment and style. For those who regard The Catcher in the Rye as a period piece or nothing but a rite-of-passage book, the stories are more “universal”. I think that the novel’s undying charm is largely due to the fact that it appeals to a very wide audience; it would be naive to think that an individual can only feel lost and disillusioned during adolescence. What’s more, for Holden, purity, innocence and sincerity can only be found children – that’s a very grownup way of feeling. How many 18-year-olds can relate to pre-pubescent kids?

    I haven’t read Franny and Zooey for ages and I don’t really remember much of it but I can’t help but wonder how could the author, having been steeped in religious mumbo-jumbo, put such wise words into the mouth of Mrs Glass if her voice was not his own?

  8. _lethe_ said,

    I loved Catcher as a teen. I must have read it about 7 times, and I could quote whole paragraphs verbatim. So I bought Salinger’s other works, and was very disappointed to find I hated all of them, except Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and a couple of the Nine Stories, which were okay.

    I only kept a copy of Catcher. Not too long ago I took it off the shelf and started to read bits here and there, but I quickly found out that that was a bad idea if I wanted to keep my love for it intact. Definitely agreeing with deucekindred that Salinger is strictly for young adults (and I never could stand the Glass children).

    • Trevor said,

      Is one of the ones you like from Nine Stories “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor”? I loved that one.

      • _lethe_ said,

        It is! :-)

  9. Trevor said,

    When I got access to all past issues of The New Yorker I had the goal of reading these two in that format — hasn’t happened yet! Thanks for bringing it back to my mind! I think I’ll have to do just that later this week.

  10. Biblibio said,

    How many late teens, early twenties read Salinger? More than you’d expect. Now, as to how many enjoy it… That’s the reason I haven’t read anything beyond “Catcher in the Rye”. I’m the appropriate age group but in all honesty I’ve rarely disliked a book as much as that one.

    I suspect I’ll get over it one day in the coming years and when I reach the end of the “peak Salinger age” I’ll probably take a stab at “Franny and Zooey”, though I’m not holding my breath. I know it’s become almost a cliche to dislike “Catcher in the Rye”, but that’s just how it is. Opinions differ. I’ve heard that “Franny and Zooey” is better but I’m still a little cautious. I guess I won’t know until I try, right?

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. There seem to be two schools of thought developing: that Salinger is best read when in your teens; and that he’s good anytime (good point, Deana, about adult identification with ‘adolescent’ disillusionment). Biblibio, you are bravely bucking the trend! He does write (almost) exclusively about young people though, perhaps because he identifies with them strongly in his own searches for meaning and dislike of (literary critics’) adult cynicism. “J.D. Salinger: the Michael Jackson of literature.”

    For UK readers, the collection Nine Stories is published here under the title For Esmé, With Love and Squalor. I must admit the only story of that collection I’ve read in recent years is ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ I will try the title story as recommended by Trevor and _lethe_.

  12. Deb said,

    Young people continue to read Salinger because he’s still required reading in many high school and college English classes. As to whether they enjoy reading Salinger, that’s another matter. My daughter, who will be a high school junior in a couple of weeks, had to read Catcher in the Rye over the summer in preparation for her English class. She did not enjoy it, finding it both puzzling and boring. (She was much more intrigued by her non-fiction required reading, Autobiography of a Face.) Prior to reading Catcher, she knew nothing about Salinger, about the mythos that has grown up around him and his work, and came to the book with no preconceived ideas about what it would be like. I suspect she isn’t the only young person who read the book and thought, “Meh, what’s the big deal?”

    It’s likely that Salinger’s time has come and gone. Essentially, two generations of readers have matured with nothing new from him, so his published work remains frozen in time, unconnected to anything that might have come after. He could have stayed in the fray and continued publishing, taking his lumps but building up a large body of work (like, say, Philip Roth). Instead, he chose to become a recluse and has not published anything in four decades. I’m sure that if he were to publish something else in his lifetime (or if, after his death, his heirs decide to publish his work posthumously), there would be some interest, but I believe that by-and-large most readers have moved on.

  13. deucekindred said,

    That could be why Pynchon, although a recluse is still revered. Despite the fact that he has never been seen in public we know that he has still published books. In fact he has a new one coming out next month.

    Now people may find him difficult – unreadable even – but the fanbase he has is quite something due to the fact that every novel has ties with one of his past ones, which gives people new clues about his character roles, past plots etc….

  14. Randy said,

    Well, your review and its subsequent commentary (like Kevin’s) has pushed me to finally break down and read a Salinger book. I am not sure why I never read him in HS here in the states. Probably because most other fellow teens did and I was a contrarian. I read all of Vonnegut instead…

    Franny and Zooey seems like a good one to try.

    Randy

  15. john h said,

    Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post (a great critic in my opinion) wrote an article about Catcher some years back on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. The article was entitled “Aging Gracelessly” from which you may infer his opinion of the book. I agree with him. I think the book is vastly overrated and the reason it has endured as long as it has has a lot more to do with social changes than literary merit. The disaffection he wrote about back in ’51 has become much more the norm now than it was then. In that sense, the book was prescient. But come on, get over it. It’s an annoying read. At least for me it is.

  16. I can’t help but observe (as someone who likes Salinger) that disliking him is even more of a cult than liking him. The aura surrounding Catcher is probably responsible for that (I think you have to regard it as a Gatsby some decades on — in my opinion, both over-rated books). And there is no doubt that, as Deb’s post shows, force-feeding these works down the throats of students is unfair to both the student and the work.

    On the other hand, if you read the three Glass books, in order, as an ongoing effort to explore the America of the time through the experiences of a Manhattan family……Philip Roth looks like a self-indulgent fool in comparison.

    Then again, maybe those of us who do like Salinger are a bit of a cult, too.

  17. Kerry said,

    Well, this probably does not speak well of me, but I joined the anti-Catcher cult without ever glimpsing a word of it and I am actually happy to be in that camp. I think I was turned off by its reputation before I ever even considered reading it. At this point, being well past the prime age for reading it, I plan never to do so.

    My point in posting is not to promote my cult, as my opinion is based almost entirely on ignorance, but to agree with Kevin that there is both a pro-Catcher and anti-Catcher cult. They are not well-organized, yet, between them, they hardly leave an untainted soul.

  18. Stewart said,

    I was twenty-nine when I came to Salinger last year, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Catcher In The Rye. I concede how you read it may affect your attitude toward it. If looking to make Caulfield your new best friend, then it’s more likely to be enjoyable if you are younger, and his teenage whining may grate for an adult. However, taking a step back and appreciating what Salinger has done and how he has done it was what pleased me about the book.

  19. John Self said,

    Essentially, two generations of readers have matured with nothing new from him, so his published work remains frozen in time, unconnected to anything that might have come after.

    Nicely put, Deb. My concern is that, as a writer who found it impossible to cope with the critical brickbats that publication brings, Salinger’s unpublished writing has probably continued in a vein that leads toward self-indulgence, or at the very least more and more of the same. I expect that we will find this out before long.

    John H., thanks for the note about Yardley’s piece. Here it is. I haven’t read it yet but will do so soon.

  20. In support of your instinct, John, it is worth noting that Salinger’s last published work — Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in the New Yorker, June 19, 1965 — is a pretty much unreadable ramble. Those with access to the New Yorker archive can get it, but I certainly would not recommend it (I still remember being flumoxed when it originally appeared). If Trevor drops in here, perhaps he can be induced to take it on since he does have access.

    • Trevor said,

      I just looked it up, Kevin. I didn’t know Salinger used such long long paragraphs — some of them go on for column after column! I’ll give it a go!

  21. JRSM said,

    I’d only read ‘Catcher’, and that in my late 20s, when it didn’t do much for me. Despite some reservations, I think I might have to to read this one, too. I’d partly been avoiding it because the title struck me as awfully twee.

    As Deb says, “Young people continue to read Salinger because he’s still required reading in many high school and college English classes”, in the US at least. A very funny take on this is Frank Portman’s ‘King Dork’, a YA novel in which the protagonist has ‘Catcher’ forced on him by his father, most of his teachers, and almost every other adult he comes across. Appropriately enough, ‘King Dork”s cover is a thoroughly defaced version of the original ‘Catcher’ dustjacket.

  22. Julie said,

    I read *Catcher in the Rye* when I was fifteen because reading a complete book of any length was virtually unheard of at my high school. I remember not liking it at all–I couldn’t stand Holden Caulfield. I think my reading likes and dislikes there was driven by how much I sympathized with characters. I kind of cringe when I think about *Catcher…*

    When I was seventeen, I read *Franny and Zooey* as well as *Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction* and remember loving them. I remember being enthralled by the relationships, how they seemed to misunderstand each other yet were steadfastly loyal to one another–but I’m not sure if that’s actually an accurate description. I’m planning on rereading in the near future.

    I’m twenty-one now and just finished reading *Nine Stories* and I really liked most of them. But the way I read has changed even more in the past three years. I still didn’t find his characters completely sympathetic, but they were interesting. The control in his writing is what impressed me above everything else. I love how flawed his characters are, but concurrently there’s a sense that they are all striving after something. I read Salinger with a suspicion that he writes with tongue in cheek.

    I don’t know too much about Salinger biographically, only recently learning about his publication history. Eh.

  23. I stand with those who think the Glass stories are his masterpiece – and Franny and Zooey is a key part of that – but you’re also right, I think, in noticing that Salinger becomes more and more a part of the stories the later into the series you go. “Hapworth 16th, 1924″, the last published Glass story (in the New Yorker) was never made available in book form (and the Glass stories as a whole haven’t been anthologised this way) and you can see why – as well, in my opinion, giving the clearest explanation of all about Salinger’s subsequent silence. The walls between author and characters seem to have completely fallen in. In “Zooey” they are still standing, which makes it such a remarkable piece, if a little uncomfortable at times. After “Hapworth” (easily available on the web, ironically, given its samizdat status for so long), there really wasn’t anywhere fictional left to go.

  24. babka said,

    I love Salinger, particularly Franny & Zooey. Permission to write, to act, and to believe myself capable of making a beginning into the unknown are for me rooted in this book, and in several of his stories, which were part and parcel of my earliest acting classes as a teen. It is as a 60-something adult that these kinships, collisions and consolations (and wit!) have come into full bloom. Franny, for example, led me to read the 2 Way of the Pilgrim books, which led to the infinitudes of the Philokalia. Shining my shoes for the fat lady, daring to enter imagined worlds, respect for the form of the novel itself (vs. the film variations) – his orthodoxy, his wide-ranging inquiry, the knowledge that publication itself was not his goal, and that he wrote every day, far beyond our opinions of him…..I am glad he won his law suit. I love his work, I treasure his characters, and the Wise Children, survivors, despite/because of Seymour’s despair (see Perfect Day For Banana Fish) ….embody the “that is the question” post-Auschwitz, and post W.W.II. If he had only written the title “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters” and nothing more – it would have been enough.
    Bless him & keep him.

  25. John Self said,

    Many thanks for the comments and thoughts, Julie, Adrian and babka. I suppose the greatest tribute to Salinger is that even though he hasn’t published anything in over 40 years, his work can still inspire such passion – on both sides.

  26. nico said,

    I agree, the Nine Stories are worth reading. It’s impressive that in the US kids have to read Catcher in the Rye for School. Curious choice!
    Also, what an interesting interview with Ozick (in the link). Can’t wait to see what she will come up with…

  27. Mp said,

    First I would like to say I enjoyed the review.Made me want to reread All his books which is what a good review should do unless it is telling you the book is pure trash . With that I will add that I can’t agree with a few things that were said about Salingers books in general in particular the idea you would be disillusioned > I feel no matter WHAT you read at what age you will merely get something different out of it at different ages.How else do you explain the appeal of The Harry Potter series among so many adults? They are really written for the young but have wide appeal because the style is interesting and the stories intriguing. As I age I find I do not think of myself as someone who is older I just carry around new memories and experiences.But we are all still the young children inside we were when we first started reading !! At least in alot of ways.Or maybe my husband and I are just two of the lucky ones that have been able to maintain a sense of childlike wonder at the world after 40 years of being together! If you can do that you will still be able to enjoy anything you did as a child for the most part just in a new way….

    • Johnssius said,

      I agree you with that one get totally different things when reading same books in different ages. Has happened to me for example with Stephen King books… Unfortunately when I was a kid, Harry Potter didn’t exist yet.

  28. John Self said,

    Thanks Mp for your comments, and I’m pleased most of all that the review makes you want to reread the books. I do want to reread Catcher in the Rye as well, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to compare it with my earlier experience of reading it, and I can’t remember anything about what I thought of it at the time…

  29. tz said,

    I just finished Fanny and Zooey as I am auditing a Yale online course (very good, by the way and there are many others on the Yale website). I read Cather in the Rye about 20 years ago in my early 20′s and was very much impressed with the sincerity/authenticity of Holden. He’s a whining, “not privileged enough” teen, but there is something very unique and visceral about Salinger’s characterization. His dramatic style leaves me with almost as strong an impression now is it did twenty years ago. I don’t think I would be disappointed if I reread Catcher- to me it is a masterpiece because it captured in a very singular way the postmodern disillusionment of the second half of the 20th century that continues on a wide scale today. I really don’t like the characters per se in the two novels, but the concepts that are discussed by them and the positions they take are very relevent and provocative even today.

  30. John Self said,

    Salinger died of natural causes on 27 January 2010.

    I expect we will now see his unpublished work. I have mixed feelings about this. Natural human and literary curiosity makes me wonder what he was writing for the last 45 years. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear from responses to ‘Hapworth 16, 1924′ that Salinger was going in directions that many readers were uninterested in following. I saw some of this in Franny & Zooey: the indulgence of the not-as-interesting-as-he-thinks-they-are Glass siblings, and the pursuit in his fiction of spiritual issues that were increasingly preoccupying Salinger himself. This makes me concerned for a lack of critical distance between author and subject. Without the feedback of editors and readers on his later stuff, could it have disappeared completely up its own fundament?

  31. [...]   Citizen Reader, Asylum, the other results from Fyrefly’s Book Blog [...]

  32. Judy said,

    Salinger is my favorite author, which many of my english teachers find odd since I am only 16, but his books have captivated me since I was in 8th grade and first read “The Catcher in the Rye.” I just hope more of his work gets published.

  33. [...] naturalism: the locutions, structures and emphases (she places even more reliance on italics than Salinger) are on the nose, but the content and length of the exchanges give the scenes a febrile, hyperreal [...]


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