“Everything everybody does is so-- I don't know-- not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.”
Nowhere near as beloved as J.D. Salinger's most famous novel, Franny and Zooey is nevertheless a fine follow-up to Catcher in the Rye, once you've finished university, talked a good game, enjoyed a few wild streaks, got a good job, and have come to the realization that for all your good fortune, your education, your friendships, and your loves loved and lost, there is yet something amiss, intangibly off, and the anxiety that this might be all there is. Luckily, I have never suffered the nervous breakdown that strikes the titular Franny, who for all her beauty and intelligence has an acute Holdenesque disconnect from the physical world, leading her to chant “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” a mantra she's learned from a story about a Russian peasant seeking God called Way of the Pilgrim, a book handed down from her older brother, Seymour, the famous suicide in Salinger's short story, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.”
Franny's existential dilemma is the thread between the two stories (originally published within a few years of each other in The New Yorker in the 1950s), the short “Franny” and the novella-length “Zooey.” The former concerns Franny's disastrous date with her long-distance beau, Lane, on the eve of the big football game with Yale, the latter story with her brother Zooey's attempt to prod Franny out of her misery. Both pieces are dialogue-rich and easy to imagine as theatrical productions, especially as both Franny and Zooey are actors and have an air of the performer, charisma, and a genius for wit (the reader senses the impact such a family drama, especially one so connected to disillusionment of the adult world, would have on contemporary artists, most especially the filmmaker Wes Anderson). As much of a legend Holden Caulfield is, Salinger seemed much more interested in the Glass family, its vaudeville parents and seven children, all of whom were once regarded as child prodigies on a radio program called It's a Wise Child.
Lane, over martinis and snails at a lunch date in an upscale bistro, just wants to talk about some “goddamn” paper he wrote about Flaubert. Franny, chain-smoking and not even looking at her chicken sandwich, recognizes in Lane the supercilious mannerisms emblematic of the culture she is from and which she has begun to despise. It leads to several remarkable outbursts, flabbergasting Lane: “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.” Living on nerves and Marlboros, Franny faints in the ladies' room.
In the follow-up novella, Franny is back at the family loft in Manhattan's Upper East Side, refusing to eat Bessie Glass' chicken soup, smoking cigarettes on the sofa, and mumbling sotto voce the Pilgrim's chant. Zooey, her older brother (the two are the youngest members of the Glass family), is a successful TV actor who knows nevertheless that television is a waste of time (and arguably his talent). Like Franny, he has an overactive bullshit detector and some keen legacy childhood interest in spirituality, courtesy of Seymour and Buddy (the oldest of the Glass children), who had evangelized ideas about Buddha, karma, dharma, and the like to Zooey and Franny when most kids their age were engaged in hide and seek. “We're freaks,” Zooey reminds Franny. He too had had his ordeal when the Jesus prayer had overwhelmed his sense of being and he'd considered abandoning his worldly possessions to live as a wandering mendicant. Even at 25 when you're old enough to know how the game is played and play it well, Zooey can't help calling bullshit on his peers, his friends, and even his mentors: “I make everybody feel that he doesn't really want to do any good work but that he just wants to get work done that will be thought good by everyone he knows-- the critics, the sponsors, the public, even his children's schoolteacher. That's what I do. That's the worst I do.”
Elegantly written, a tad whimsical, and bolstered by strong personalities, Franny and Zooey is not so much about questing for the meaning of life, but a means for getting by spiritually in a secular, consumeristic society. It is well-documented that Salinger himself was exploring oriental philosophies, likely in order to better cope with the horrors he witnessed in Europe during the Second World War. And no doubt it wouldn't have taken very long for someone as sensitive as Salinger to weary of the fame he'd become associated with in Holden. (I wonder if he had a stock answer for when daft strangers queried whether Catcher was autobiographical...) In all likelihood, Salinger had been socially paralyzed by fame and its inevitable protocol, dramatizing an explanation for his own withdrawal from the world. It's possible to conjecture as well that the tepid response to his publications following Catcher caused him to resent the reading public for expecting multiple masterpieces. Or maybe he just didn't really love people. The same loathing of “phonies” found in Catcher is obviously here in Franny and Zooey, only more measured and restrained. No one thinks of Salinger as a people's person, but we don't want to think of him as a misanthrope either; 'troubled genius' is a nifty fit. It will do well to remember that no one is perfect and no one is more aware of that than the sort of mind that might conjure the Glass family and Holden too. Salinger, via Zooey Glass, reminds us (lest we forget): “An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” In the end, it's good enough to help Franny get through her funk and sage comfort for the rest of us when, inevitably, into a void, we ask ourselves what are we doing all this for...?