The first J.D. Salinger I read was Catcher in the Rye in high school. It was a big-deal book because no other books we were taught were ever things you could relate to, they did not really concern themselves with connecting or moving the reader. I’ve also read Franny and Zooey and the collection of short stories Bananafish for a Day…and I can’t stand any of them. They make me physically angry.
The writing itself, from what I can recall because I have not touched the stuff since before my 21st birthday, was good — the voice is believable and the characters sound like real, live depressed people. Here is what I had a tough time with — the effortless beauty of the characters who took their beauty for granted (Franny literally wakes up in a scene with perfect hair); the biggest sin in the books are being “phony”; the attitude that children are perfect because they are not at phony.
But what I always found strange was that although these protagonists hold children on such pedestals, they invariably put them in danger, maybe due to the fact their misery made them so selfish? (Can you tell this is like a totally balanced, impartial review of Salinger’s work?)
Well, like take a look at Seymour in “Bananafish” — he admires this little girl for her yet-unmarred-honesty, but creeps her out when they sit next to each other at the piano. He takes her swimming, and there’s a vibe that he might drown her in one moment. He feels disconnected from everyone (which is a big deal. That’s an awful feeling I don’t wish on anyone), even from his beauteous fiancee, whom he considers a big-fat phony (um, so why are you engaged?). The story ends with him killing himself in front of the fiancee. Nice.
I’m also not down with the idealization of children. They’re just people, dude, and they will learn to hide what they think and feel later on, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What might be seen as purity now is actually just…simplicity. If the little girl turned to Seymour and said “dude, I’m eight. I cannot handle your crazy. Go to a shrink and let me live my life. Thank you,” I would probably be a big fan.
(…it occurs to me just now that I may be misinterpreting the idealization of children, and it’s really more a reflection of the protagonist’s desire to return to childhood, that they’re projecting their own memory of innocence on to the children, however inappropriately…crap, then it would mean I’ve hated Salinger pointlessly for years…no matter! I am continuing with this theory!)
My high school teacher asked, But don’t you see? The fact that your reaction to the writing is so strong is a testament to the quality of the writing. (I’m paraphrasing…or actually, I’m making it more complicated.)
The thing is I don’t like Salinger characters, they give me heartburn, and if you don’t like the Salinger characters, I don’t think you can be a fan. What rubbed me the wrong way about this guy’s work was a) the endangerment of children (because I actually do like kids) and b) we were asked to identify these incredibly loaded, good-looking depressed people who found the world inauthentic and thought that was a huge crime. It’s not that I couldn’t get down with that — as I said, alienation is a horrible part of being human, but jees, committing suicide in front of your fiancee — really? Was she that phony? Does she really deserve it? Yes, in our fourteen-year-old revenge fantasies.
Hmmm, but now that I’m adult, I’m kind of pro-juvenile fantasies in fiction, so does that mean I should go revisit these books and find that I now may actually love them? Oh crikey.