Saturday, June 7, 2008

J D Salinger: "Catcher" and "Franny and Zooey"

As I am holed up in my apartment in Siberia with a large amount of free time, I've been re-reading a lot of my favorite books from high school and college. I could not have been happier to revisit "The Catcher in the Rye," which rang as true to me today as it did 6 years ago when I was in my last year of high school. I also read another J D Salinger book--or more accurately, 2 interwoven short stories--"Franny and Zooey" not long ago. So, recently I have been thinking a bit about the author of both of these works. And considering Salinger didn't write much else-- the third and final essential Salinger book is apparently "9 Stories" which I haven't gotten to yet-- I've read the better part of his major works and could say a few words about him.

Firstly, I was struck by the difference in style between "Catcher in the Rye" and "Franny and Zooey." The plain-spoken, 1940s slang-infused narration is what "Catcher in the Rye" is probably most known for. The story is told from the point of view of a young guy, 16 years old, who has just been kicked out of yet another prep school for failing classes and general apathy. While the ideas in this book are deep and sincere, their presentation isn't very elevated or complex. It's more or less about this young guy questioning everything and seeing through the falsity in people and the choices they make in life. This is something all adults can relate to, which is why I think this book is so popular. The story is told as if a nice but half-educated kid were talking to you in the street, telling in stream of consciousness fashion his various thoughts about life and recalling mundane anecdotes from the past. His peculiar way of speaking offsets all of the negativity and makes it fun to read.

"Franny and Zooey" deals with some of the same themes as "Catcher" and so it is not difficult to see, thematically, how Salinger went from one to the other. But the language and level of dialogue in Franny and Zooey is remarkably different. It is strikingly sophisticated. These stories consist primarily of a few long speeches and rants made by their young protagonists, Franny and Zooey, who are both supposed geniuses that are going through some sort of existential crisis. The language is brilliant and manic--it feels like Salinger had been drinking too much coffee. The atmosphere is one of ivy league schools and elite intellectual circles. This book has quite a different flavor than "Catcher in the Rye." Overall, I would say that "Catcher in the Rye" is rightly considered Salinger's greatest masterpiece. "Franny and Zooey" contains several brilliant moments, but as a whole fails to leave you with a feeling of a complete story or much of an overall philosophical impact. But still it is very much worth reading, especially to see a completely different side to Salinger's writing style.

J D Salinger himself is, according to Internet sources, still alive, although already 89 years old. He has led an unusual life. He achieved fame at 32 with "The Catcher in the Rye" in 1951. He published "Franny and Zooey" together as a unit in 1961. The last thing he published was in 1965 before he became reclusive and stopped trying to publish his works. This means he hasn't published anything in a full 43 years. Wow. Allegedly, he still writes to this day but only 'for himself'. Maybe this wealth of literature will be released one day to the public after his death. To me, it is interesting to think of "Catcher in the Rye" and "Franny and Zooey" as largely autobiographical works, which show the development of Salinger himself growing up as a brilliant, disenchanted man in society. One can easily see Holden Caufield or Franny and Zooey Glass giving up on society and moving to a remote log cabin somewhere, composing brilliant novels and never publishing them.


Tombleweed said...

wait till you've read "Nine Stories", his greatest work (it really is) ... it's now sold as "For Esmé, with love and squalor" by the way...

god, i love Salinger

Anonymous said...

did you mention "raise high the roofbeam, the carpenter, and seymour"? that's probably my favorite salinger book. check it out before "nine stories" if you haven't already. more great stuff from the glass family.

Derek said...

oh, good lord, read "raise high the roofbeam, carpenters".

Anonymous said...

the published order of the glass family saga, and a more cohesive way to read the stories is:

A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut
The Laughing Man
Down at the Dinghy
Raise High the Roofbeams,Carpenters
Seymour: An Introduction
Hapworth 16, 1924 (Unpublished but can be found on the net)

ann_nsk said...

When I first read 'The Cather in the Rye' I was struck. When I read other stories by Salinger I was even more struck, because as you mentioned the difference is really great.
And it's really difficult to say what i like more, and which style i prefer, but i think Zooey is still my favourite. And probably because it is not complete... There's something about incomplete works that makes you feel empty and a bit confused...

Anonymous said...

F&Z is definitely my favorite. Whenever I read the last page, I have to remember to breathe and then I'm left sweating in much the same way I imagine Zooey is.

Anonymous said...

Again, I Reiterate, 'Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenter - You Will Not Be Disappointed.

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