Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There Might Be a Good Life Beyond Thirteen

"You're so goddamn funny, it isn't funny."

According to the documentary on his life, J. D. Salinger's unpublished work after his "retirement" in 1965 will be released to the public beginning in 2015. In anticipation of such a literary cultural event I've taken to reading Franny and Zooey and now, Nine Stories, of which only one of the stories I'd read previously. (The second time I read The Catcher in the Rye I was just finishing university, quite unprepared yet for adult life and wept-- I read it four years later in a summer in New York and found Holden a whiny brat-- no plans for a reread for now, perhaps when my son is of age, in which we might read it together.) After bearing through Nine Stories, I'm afraid my enthusiasm for whatever is to come from Salinger doesn't hold much for me. In fact, Salinger might be one of those popular authors whom I just don't like very much, a list that includes Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Haruki Murakami, and J. G. Ballard.

What exactly is my problem with Salinger? After all, he often writes beautifully-- his prose is stylistic, precise, and occasionally lyrical. But for all his fine writing and sophistication, there is something wholly unlikable about nearly everyone's story he deigns to tell. The nine stories (all written in a five-year period shortly after his war experience) deal variously with PTSD, childhood innocence, and child prodigies, while one story treats anti-semitism and another an inebriated man insecure about his wife's fidelity. The problem then is not subject or prose, it is Salinger's heroes, especially his young geniuses, who infuriate us with their arrogance. It takes considerable charm to overcome major character flaws like uppityness and obnoxiousness. In literature, in fact, it is rather impossible. Consider this diatribe by one of Salinger's spoiled brats: "I mean here's this awful little person from Altoona, Pennsylvania-- or one of those places. Apparently starving to death. I'm kind and decent enough-- I'm the original Good Samaritan-- to take him into my apartment, this absolutely microscopic little apartment that I can hardly move around in myself." He is an ass, of course,  but not an isolated example from this collection-- the heroes of "De Daumier-Smith's Blues" and "Teddy," are equally precious, precocious, and pretentious. Salinger would have us expect the little boy in "Teddy," would remark to a stranger, "Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions." Oh, are they really, Teddy?

But as annoying as they can be, the larger problem with most of Salinger's stories is they are forgettable. Not a lot happens in them-- the characters think too much, they drink, they cuss their "Christ Almightys," "Chrissakes," and "Goddamns" (after awhile most of Salinger's characters begin to sound like Holden Caulfield.) Easily, the most dramatic and thus most famous story in the collection is its first: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." I'd originally read this when I was about 21 years old and remembered it as having significant impact. But upon this latest reread I found Seymour Glass anything but the legendary genius Salinger makes him out to be in Franny and Zooey and other stories. From the outset here we know he's unhinged from the beginning due to a lengthy conversation between Seymour's wife and her mother. There are three scenes with Seymour himself, the lengthiest of which he is playing with a little girl, Sybil, on the beach. Seymour takes Sybil out into the water on a floating raft. They look for bananafish, a fictional creature that "behaves like pigs." He has a Humbert Humbert moment in which he kisses the arch of her foot. But it is not this bizarre, nearly pedophiliac moment that is so disturbing. Nor is it his evident social awkwardness when later, in the elevator hotel, he rashly accuses a woman of staring at his feet "If you want to look at my feet, say so. But don't be a goddamn sneak about it." No, the stunner is this: Returning to his room, he takes out a pistol. With his wife asleep before him, apropos of nothing, he blows his brains out. That he should do this, shattering forever any normalcy and sanity in his innocent wife, is abominable. To this reader at least then he is at best a creep, at worst, a monster. That this could be one of the most celebrated stories of 20th century literature baffles me to no end. 

A story of similar themes but much more complex and better executed is "For Esmé-- with Love and Squalor." Again, we have an older man and a girl, though this one is about thirteen. The narrator, an American intelligence officer, meets her in a tearoom in Devon, England after witnessing her melodious singing in a church. They have an engaging character, and though Esmé
is nearly as supercilious and precocious as any Salinger type she is very nearly charming, or at least we are able to recognize the charm she has on this lonely soldier. The second half of the story follows the end of the war, in a battle-ravaged Bavarian village where a Sergeant X, battle-scarred and suffering severe post traumatic stress opens a piece of mail that had been forwarded over many addresses-- it is from Esmé and the contents of its cadence and character rejuvenates the young soldier. 

J.D. Salinger during the War

It sounds sentimental and it could be easy to dismiss from our generations of leisure and small sacrifice. But we all have our personal "battles" even if they are nowhere near as dramatic as Salinger's, who was in D-Day and helped liberate the death camps. But we can remember a time more innocent, more optimistic before the war (our war, our little war). This is Salinger at his best and how he might have contemplated his literary purpose: to remind us of what it felt like to have our future in front of us. Perhaps that is why Salinger is so popular among the young. But childhood is not necessarily our life peak from which we inevitably decline. For those of us who have left innocence behind and have discovered adulthood hasn't been an outright disaster, the running themes in Salinger's work can feel a bit melodramatic, if immature. After all, you don't need to be a child to be imaginative, creative, and adventurous. In fact, you can keep a youthful spirit intact most especially when you don't sentimentalize the past. You would have thought Salinger, a Zen enthusiast, might have realized the joys of present tense living. 

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