Reading Pathways: J.D. Salinger

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franny and zooey salinger

I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE, Vol. 2 Write-In Giveaway.

I know, I know. You’re hearing “Salinger,” and you’re automatically thinking those four little words, “Catcher in the Rye.” And you’re making one of two faces: You’re either looking at me all googly-eyed because you are Holden Caulfield, and you know the rest of the world are just a bunch of phonies, or you’re rolling your eyes because you just can’t stand that whiney little teenager.

I know you’re falling into one of these camps, because Catcher is a book with a rare magic. Read it at exactly the right moment in life, and it captures you, explains you, and will forever be a welcoming place of comfort. But, miss the window, and, while you may learn to appreciate the prose, you probably won’t enjoy the character. It’s like trying to get into Narnia for the first time as an adult, or venturing into Neverland without Pan.

So let’s ignore Holden for a moment (don’t worry; he expects it), and start here: with Franny and Zooey, a book more typical of Salinger’s style.

1: Playing with the short story form is something Salinger does a lot, and Franny and Zooey is no exception. Technically, it’s a short story and a novella bound together, but they fit together like puzzle pieces, referencing each other and sharing characters. Novel, short story, novella? Who cares, really. Together, they add up to a good story.

We meet Franny Glass at a train station, where she’s trying hard to seem normal, but instead collapses into full meltdown/religious awakening. Her “religious awakening” ends up consisting mostly of hiding out on her mom’s couch and thinking about Buddhism. (Something most American, college-educated do-gooder types can relate to. Or maybe it’s just me.) Eventually, she’s joined on the couch by her chain-smoking, fellow-deep-thinking brother, Zachary (aka Zooey).

Franny’s saved from being a cliché by her complete sincerity — this meltdown isn’t for show. Her tragedy is that she isn’t so much judgmental as constitutionally unable to deal with pretending, either from the world or from herself. She can’t connect to a world full of phonies, and, in that way, she’s a lot like Holden.

2: We move on to Nine Stories and meet Franny and Zooey’s siblings — and the breakdown of almost every one of them shows Salinger’s attitude toward fame and hints at his own fear (and maybe reality) of being ruined by overexposure and flattery.

See, the Glass family were both child geniuses and child stars, performing for most of their childhoods on a famous radio show that showed off their smarts and caused them to get disillusioned and super cynical early in life. Even the name, Glass, is a not-so-subtle metaphor of being brittle, fragile, and transparent. Salinger himself was a recluse who stopped publishing in 1965 because he felt fame was ruining his work.

If, by the way, the Glass kids remind you of The Royal Tenenbaums, that’s not an accident. Salinger allusions run rampant in Wes Anderson movies, and the artists are alike in many ways, most notably in character choice: disaffected children with adult-like sensibilities and active imaginations (grown-up versions of these children, in Salinger’s case). If you love Rushmore, chances are you’re a Salinger fan waiting to happen.

3: Finally, it’s time to revisit the old high school syllabus with The Catcher in the Rye, that now-classic tale of the disillusionment of youth. The plethora of sad-lad copycats released since its publication make it easy to forget just how original Salinger’s novel really was, but reading his other work first helps us see how different Holden’s voice is from Salinger’s own, and recognize Catcher as a work of art. If you already loved this book, you’ll love it this time around, too. If you didn’t, you’ll probably still be pretty uncomfortable, because Holden’s not an easy character. He holds a mirror to our past and to our present, making us embarrassed by his (and our) youthful naïveté while calling us sell-outs for trading lives of pure authenticity for something more, well, livable. It’s possible Salinger was unnerved by Holden for the same reasons, making it even more powerful that he told this story, and that he did it with grace, sincerity and respect.

So that’s your introduction to Salinger, and you’re already mostly through his body of work. For extra credit, read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (packaged in one book) and, for bonus points, hunt down the New Yorker story Hapworth 16, 1924, which was never printed as a book because persnickety old Salinger couldn’t decide on a binding style — a classic Salinger move, insisting on perfection or nothing. It’s the reason he can be so frustrating. And it’s also the reason we love him.

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