Sunday, July 11, 2004

A Review of Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Franny and ZooeyExtra-long post today--I beg your indulgence. I recently finished reading J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, which was the last of his books I hadn't read. (I also tracked down a lovely and sad uncollected story called "A Girl I Knew" from The Best American Short Stories of 1949, well worth reading.) After reading it, I went back to skim through the rest of his books, especially Nine Stories and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters & Seymour: an Introduction, trying to tie together some themes and ideas in his work, especially in the Glass family stories. Every one of these books spoke to me deeply, and I began to wonder what about them appealed to me. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)

In Salinger's work, the figures who stand out most prominently are characters in crisis. On the one hand are the characters who die: Seymour Glass commits suicide (an event that looms like a dark sky over several subsequent Glass family stories), and Teddy foretells his death in circumstances that border mysteriously between the chance of accident and the will of suicide. These two deaths bookend Nine Stories, marking the climaxes of the first and final stories in the collection. On the other hand are the characters who experience dramatic breakdowns but who seem to turn a hopeful corner at the end of their stories, finding something they need to deal with their spiritual dilemmas. There's Holden Caulfield, of course, in The Catcher in the Rye, and Franny in Franny and Zooey. In the latter book, the emphasis is on the impact that the two eldest Glass children (Seymour and Buddy) had on the two youngest (Zooey and Franny) by exposing them at a young age to Eastern religious ideas and by encouraging spiritual values over the "normal" values of their peers.

"All I know is I'm losing my mind," Franny said. "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. I don't care what anybody says."

When I read Franny's statement, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Holden Caulfield's idealism. I felt a strong sense of agreement with what she says and remembered how deeply I sympathized with Holden's values when I read Catcher as a teen. Ten years into my career I'm surprised how much I still agree. Obviously we have to have an ego--and ambitions--to thrive in our culture, and I think that's healthy, but I've also always been very suspicious of the need to achieve status for its own sake. Franny has practically stopped living because of her disillusionment, so, clearly, her life is not in a healthy state, but many of her rebellious, nonconformist ideas are right on target.

I was bowled over by another of her tirades:

"It was the worst of all in class, though," she said with decision. "That was the worst. What happened was, I got the idea in my head--and I could not get it out--that college was just one more dopey, inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth and everything. I mean treasure is treasure, for heaven's sake. What's the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? It all seemed like exactly the same thing to me, if you take off the wrapping--and it still does! Sometimes I think that knowledge--when it's knowledge for knowledge's sake, anyway--is the worst of all. The least excusable, certainly." Nervously, and without any real need whatever, Franny pushed back her hair with one hand. "I don't think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while--just once in a while--there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn't, it's just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word 'wisdom' mentioned!

I was struck by this so strongly, not because it is necessarily true of all academia, but because in the last year or two I've started to feel like I was cut off from the deeper significance of things, that I was getting distracted by the constant flow of information, much of it trivial. I enjoy reading classics, but, reading them on my own, I often felt like I was missing some depth. On the other hand, reading in book groups wasn't helping me much either. You shoot to be done with the book by a deadline--the evening of discussion--and just when you should be beginning to digest the book, within an hour or two the group has declared itself finished, the next book chosen. (I know of a book group that meets weekly, which is a big time commitment, but the group does have the advantage of discussing a particular book more than once, letting ideas about the book evolve. If I start another book group in the future, I want to build in a way of ensuring ongoing discussion.) For the last year I've been trying to read more meaningfully. Reading Azar Nafisi's brilliant Reading Lolita in Tehran was a major event for me in this quest, because it gave me an inspirational example of people who had done incredibly thoughtful and engaged reading, and since reading it I feel like I'm starting to get back on track.

Another thing I love about Franny's wisdom rant, in which she criticizes accumulation of treasure, is that Salinger sets this dialogue in a family room that is crammed to overflowing with the family's acquired furniture. This juxtaposition seems to suggest two seemingly incompatible truths--that accumulation is natural, perhaps even inevitable, but also, as Franny seems to realize, that it can be a trap. Seeing the great new film Before Sunset recently, I was struck by the way it handled some similar material. Like Franny & Zooey, Before Sunset is comprised of a conversation between two people (in the book there are actually three two-person conversations), and much of that conversation is concerned with questioning the values of consumerism (and accumulation) and its effects on our environment and our souls. Salinger's work, I've read, was seen as a critique of the post-war American economy and culture. Fifty years later, that conversation is every bit as vital because those problems are worse than ever.

What makes Franny & Zooey so interesting is the way Salinger pits brilliant Franny in dialogue against her equally brilliant brother Zooey, a guy who is clearly on the brink of a breakdown himself (in the course of the few hours of the story he sweats through his clothes though he's done nothing more than talk--a typical Salinger touch) but who has worked through many of the same issues Franny has and sets out to attack them, sometimes cruelly, sometimes with tongue in cheek, but ultimately with real love for his sister and insight into their shared problems. It's ironic that he has his most effective conversation with her by phone (from another room in the same apartment). Coupled with the fact that he is preoccupied in the beginning of the story with a letter from his eldest (living) brother, a (Salinger-like) hermit writer who is otherwise almost unreachable, even by phone, it suggests that these brilliant, loving siblings, as close-knit a family as they are, communicate best from a distance. (My favorite example is the message scrawled in soap on a mirror from BooBoo to Seymour in "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters," but the Glass stories are teeming with vital communications conducted by letter or intercepted in diaries.)

As I said earlier, eldest brother Seymour's death haunts the Glass family, coloring the entire conversation between Franny and Zooey. Looking at his suicide in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" for clues, I was struck by how similar to and yet different it is from the death of the title character in "Teddy." In both stories there is the suggestion that the characters have achieved a kind of perfect enlightenment on Earth and that, therefore, their deaths are due. They are ripe for death. Just as an example, when Teddy, a boy genius who (like the Glass kids) has been tested by numerous adult experts, is asked by an awed educator, "What would you do if you could change the educational system?", Teddy replies:

"...I wouldn't even tell them [children] the grass is green. Colors are only names. I mean if you tell them the grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way--your way--instead of some other way that may be just as good, and maybe much better..." (195-6)

This reminds me of the subtle use of this color metaphor in a more offhanded way in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," in which Seymour addresses a little girl who's taken a shine to him at a beach:

"That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit."

Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. "This is a yellow," she said. "This is a yellow."

"It is? Come a little closer?"

Sybil took a step forward.

"You're absolutely right. What a fool I am."

Seymour subsequently takes the child into the water on a raft and tells her about fanciful Bananafish, which he encourages her to look for. When she claims to see one, he kisses her foot, returns her to shore, and subsequently returns to his room and swiftly kills himself. It is as if, having managed to get one child to see the world for just a moment in an imaginative way, he feels he has achieved his purpose in life and has nothing left to live for. Teddy, on the other hand, is depicted as some kind of kiddie zen master. He predicts the possibility of the death he dies a few minutes later, which causes the dark question of sucide to hang over the story, but I think the spirit of the story strongly suggests we should see his life as fulfilled and his death as an accident or a matter of fate. Both Teddy and Seymour are surrounded by family members who don't seem to understand them: Teddy's father and Seymour's mother-in-law are somewhat hostile; Teddy's mother and Seymour's wife are more sympathetic but still seem unequipped to understand them. The biggest difference, of course, is that where Teddy's death is probably accidental, Seymour's is self-inflicted and, more disappointingly, it is the kind of thing predicted by his mother-in-law, a disagreeable nag and worrywart. The story seems to be proving to us just how wrong she is--how silly she is!--until it takes its abrupt, disturbing turn, making us question our very instincts. As optimistic as I am in reading ambiguous endings, I can't see the end of the story simply as a vindication of Seymour's enlightenment.

It's that dark possibility of self-destruction that seems to haunt all of Salinger's characters in crisis. It's what makes Franny's turn towards recovery so powerful. It provides balance in Salinger's body of work, which is so perfect as it is that I can almost accept his desire not to publish anything else (even his previously published and uncollected stories). The concern with the proper education of children (and its effects) is at the core of Salinger's work. It's a beautiful (and, for a bestseller, unusual) theme that helps imbue these stories with an air of generous spirituality, their powerfully humanist quality.


Lastly, a couple miscellaneous notes:

In Zooey, the title character, an actor, is sitting in a tub perusing a melodramatic script entitled The Heart is an Autumn Wanderer, a clear spoof of Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which caused a literary sensation not long before this was written. The McCullers book features a central character who is a deaf-mute, and it reminded me of "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," in which, after being pestered to the answers to some questions about Seymour Glass (and how he caused injury to a famous actress), Buddy finally pours out the truth to a deaf-mute old man, the only person left in the room at that point. In a strange way, like the relationships that the characters in Lonely Hunter have towards Singer, Buddy has a quasi-spiritual connection to this deaf-mute, though "Raise High..." inverts the deaf-mute character from a figure of tragedy to one of mostly comedy. In another possible reference to McCullers, in a letter to Z, Buddy (who is clearly modeled on Salinger himself) calls himself a "lifetime English major." A writer, he makes fun of college writing classes. Of 38 student stories, he says, "[t]hirty-seven of them will be about a shy, reclusive Pennsylvania Dutch lesbian who Wants To Write, told first-person by a lecherous hired hand. In dialect."

I already knew Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums was Salingeresque, but in re-reading the Glass stories, I noticed several striking similarities. Aside from the fact that the children are all eccentric geniuses who live in New York City, achieved a certain fame in their youth, and grow up to face psychogical/spiritual crises, they also share certain traits like smoking cigarettes. Zooey has a major scene where he is sitting in a bathtub and his mother comes in to talk; ditto Gwyneth Paltrow's character. Lastly, BooBoo Glass' married name, we learn in "Down at the Dinghy," is Tannenbaum (slightly different spelling). I don't know how much of this was conscious modelling (someone told me that Anderson got the name from friends), and I don't mean to suggest that the film (which I love) is a rip-off. I don't recall learning much of anything about the Glass family father in any of Salinger's stories, but Royal is the center of Anderson's film. Still, since Salinger is (thank goodness) dead-set against letting Hollywood adapt his work (although his short "Uncle Wiggily" was the basis for a film), I like the idea of a skilled film director doing the next best thing, writing unique stories that are influenced by J.D.

Also, a Glass family quiz and a handy list of Salinger's shorts, collected and uncollected.



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