June 23, 2011

Reflections On J.D. Salinger

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My high school English literature class had us choose three books from a list of eleventh-grade level classics to write book reports on. One of my three books was Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which I inhaled in a day and a half. Unlike the experience of many of my peers, my inhale was adrenalized and resentful. According to my book report, Holden was a self-righteous jerk whose accusations of phoniness were unjustified; it is much easier to denounce all of society and its norms, I wrote, than to genuinely attempt to engage with it, to parse its biases and discern the well-intentioned in people.

Coming from a high school student who lacked the literary background to appreciate Salinger’s unorthodox voice and style, for whom personal impressions were primary, my criticisms were hardly groundbreaking. Further, belonging to roughly the same age group as Holden, I didn’t realize that his angst was the typical and wholly forgivable angst of his age group—what teenager isn’t at one point or another riddled by existentially weighty issues? I myself was going through a similar phase, though unlike Holden, my own angst was of the abstract, heady variety that manifests itself in sulkiness and the desire for ample amounts of alone time. Upon retrospect, I see that my response to Catcher was defensive, and reflected my discomfort regarding the discrepancy between the seriousness of my adolescent unhappiness, and my failure to act. Unlike Holden, I wasn’t doing poorly in school, and I didn’t have any desire to run away, and these facts made me feel like a phony. In any case, after I was finished with my book report, I was done with Holden, and I didn’t think about Salinger for the next couple of years.

I returned to Salinger’s work after discovering Franny and Zooey my sophomore year of college. I picked up the book at the library on a whim, and read it in a day. When I was finished, I borrowed Nine Stories, and also read that with appetite. I loved the deceptive straight-talk that watermarked a Salinger narrator, and the way many of his stories were centered around a subtle alteration of mood. I was enamored with the members of the Glass Family, and aspired (as it turns out, like many of my contemporaries) to be a Franny. It became clear to me why Salinger is afforded such an important role in literary history. His style and voice are monumental. His depiction of young people is pitch perfect (this, after all, is why Catcher in the Rye was able to get under my skin in the way it did), and, as demonstrated by stories like “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” and “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” he does muted shellshock just as well as Hemingway.

Salinger’s characters are delightfully Salinger-esque. They simultaneously possess the moral underpinnings and intellectual gifts of their nineteenth century forebears, and the cynicism and alienation of their “postmodern” descendents. Like actors on a stage, they are revealed through their physicality—their dress, gesture, posture, gait (this mode of presentation later influenced Wes Anderson). They are not cynical or unhappy as the result of being unable to excel, or to meet societal standards—on the contrary, they are often exceptionally intelligent and beautiful. And though Salinger writes about money, class, and war, the problems his characters face are never merely psychological, and the “morals” of his stories do not take the form of social criticism. Rather, they are existential, full stop; they concern questions about authenticity, the self, and personal identity.

I started to think about Salinger again after his death last year. One discovers a kind of irony in considering the transition from Catcher in the Rye to Salinger’s later works. Holden famously complaints:

I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that’s fun to watch. And if any actor’s really good, you can always tell he knows he’s good, and that spoils it.

While the Salinger of Catcher in the Rye was skeptical about the quest for authenticity, I read later Salinger as admirably attempting to straddle the line between the fact of identity’s essentially performative nature (of identity as a project that has to be freely chosen by the subject, in a Sartrean sense) and the potential for this performativity to undermine its very purpose, to “spoil it.” In a way, later Salinger shares in the guilt I experienced as a teenager. Just as I was worried about the discrepancy between inner and outer, my theoretical views and the actions that I did not take, Salinger is concerned with the disjointedness between the self, and the inadequacy of an agent’s expression of it.

I was surprised to learn that Salinger had died. Because I hadn’t read anything recent by him, I had always assumed that he’d died a long time ago. Upon reading about the solitary lifestyle he led, and his decision to stop publishing his work, I wondered whether guilt had anything to do with this decision. I wondered whether his final conclusion was that one could only encounter the self in solitude, where the threat of phoniness loses its sway.TC mark

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