Three Thoughts on JD Salinger

Inspired by a new friend named Esme, I recently read Salinger’s late novellas—Franny and Zooey; the Carpenters/Seymour diptych. I discovered afterwards that I had inadvertently done something right; I had read a writer’s entire published work (almost) in the order it was published. Here are three thoughts about J.D. Salinger*.

1. Lane Coutell’s Letter/A Perfect Day for Examplefish

I think a certain iteration of Salinger would appreciate the following phrasing: if a woman on vacation with her mother in Florida (Bananafish) has a vacuous phone conversation with her mother, and her charming husband does not later shoot himself in the ‘right temple,’ will we still dislike her? And if a Princeton English major is not seen to be adorably devoted to a letter from his girlfriend (Franny) in the first scene of a story, can we still be surprised by his callow uselessness later that afternoon?

Of course not. This is one of the two or three things Salinger does as well or better than any other writer I’ve read. What is he doing? He’s using the power of beginnings to create a lasting displacement, a lasting uncertainty for the reader. The iconic case here is probably the beginning of ‘Franny,’ the story of Franny Glass’ visit to her boyfriend Lane Coutell at college. Over lunch, Lane turns out to be a prick, and a self-involved, intellectual prick at that.

But the story doesn’t start at lunch, and it doesn’t start with Franny. It starts with Lane, on a train platform. What Salinger does perfectly is make Lane out to be a total non-prick. He’s not standing with the other ivy league kids. Instead, he’s opening his jacket to reread (Salinger’s careful to let us know that the paper looks like it’s been folded and unfolded many many times) a gushing love letter from his girlfriend, Franny, who’s about to come visit him. When Franny gets off the train, Lane does something (and darn me for not being able to find my Franny and Zooey right now, but it’s one of those perfect little Salinger details like a brand-new seven of hearts, about which more later) that shows us how totally thrilled he is that Franny has arrived. Lane, thinks the reader, is probably a pretty decent guy. He might even be protagonist material.

But then there’s the car ride, and the restaurant, and the conversation, and the book, and the conversation, and the entire rest of the story, in each of which circumstances Lane behaves more and more badly. He isn’t so much nasty as criminally self-absorbed and plainly undeserving of the remarkable Franny. Here’s the genius: if he’d started with this stuff, ‘Franny’ would be just the story of a bad college date, and probably not a great one. Salinger’s already at the outer limit of his competence writing about people this old, and what might be his one god-given natural talent as a prose writer—an utterly exquisite facility for pacing (scenes, paragraphs stories)—has already begun to trammel itself up with the metaphysics that will consume his later work. [The fully-consumed stuff is lovely, by the way, about which more later, but the partway there feels a little clumsy, like a golfer who just switched clubs.]

And yet ‘Franny’ is almost certainly an excellent work of fiction. Why? Because readers are lonely, and have a habit of adoring whichever character first comes along to rescue them from the confusing environs of a beginning story. We’re like lost puppies this way, snuffling around for someone to follow home. In this case it’s Lane. And it’s our adoration of Lane—or more properly the tension between our readerly habit of adoring Lane and the gradually revealed (here salinger’s pacing is in top form) truth that he’s a prick—that drives the story. With each progressive scene we’re as shocked as Lane seems to be that things aren’t going well. We don’t understand what’s wrong with Franny, and we don’t understand what’s wrong with us, and we don’t understand why things can’t be as affectionately straightforward as they seemed to be in that letter she sent us—did she send it just a week ago?—or what’s going on with all these wandering holy men. This sense of inexplicable collapse is exactly what being on a bad date, or in a failing love, is like, and I don’t think I’ve seen it done better anywhere else.

But if it was just Franny it would just be Franny. The truth is that this happens in almost all of Salinger’s best works (in which I am darn well NOT counting Catcher in the Rye, thanks): Bananafish is another perfect example. The story that begins with Seymour on the beach is just inscrutable; the one beginning with Sybil uncomfortably pedophilic. It’s only by giving first Muriel and then Sybil as frames for Seymour that the story can be stable—but Salinger knows that these frames will affect our reading. Our first interaction with Seymour is mediated by these two (three) women narrators: one is afraid of him, one exasperated with him, and one gleefully charmed by him. We’re obviously expecting something bad after the first two—it’s the prodigious lightheartedness of the Sybil interaction, contextualized by our expectations of depression and damage, that do it—and then the harsh return of damage at the end, first with the woman in the elevator (crucial, extraordinary scene) and then finally with the suicide, that make the story.

[What’s more, the framed narration in Bananafish forces us to read the story again: once Seymour kills himself we have to know why, so we read Muriel’s section again, and then Sybil’s, and then judge. It’s twice as long as it looks like it is.]

Esme too: why append those few pages at the beginning about camp? Why tell us about the bulletin board in the rain? Only to build an expectation. Here it’s a tone: something grim, dreary, rain-soaked and lazily deadly—something against which Esme herself can be an absolute revelation, and which defines a third point, with the active squalor of the third section, of the story’s argument. It’s a better piece for it. What does Salinger know? That stories are best when they surprise us, and that the best way for them to surprise us is by beginning as something other than they’ll end up being—that way the reader shares in the discovery of whatever is discovered.

2. Disarmament/Never a Draft but a Terrible Draft

This one will be short. One of the problems you have as a writer is the problem that you, the writer, tend to be either better-read or more fluent or simply smarter than whoever your protagonist is. There are basically three things you can do about this. First, you can make your protagonists dumb. Second, you can make your protagonists ordinary people who happen to have an untapped gift for narration (someone should tell them to be writers!). Third, you can make your protagonists smart intellectual types just like you. The only problem with this strategy is that seeming too much smarter than your readers is pretty much a guaranteed fail. Unless, of course, you can find a way to make your brilliant narrators sort of charmingly, preferably hilariously flawed. Perhaps they were child stars of a particularly pedantic nature; perhaps they lived on the upper hilarious west side; perhaps they are acerbic to each other and particularly to their mother, perhaps the only way you can tell if they’ve been staying up too late reading is by whether they’re wearing two pairs of draftproof socks. The Glass-es are maybe the most literary of our invented families, and it’s Salinger’s precise deployment of humanizing details that keeps them from being also the most obnoxious.

3. Abandonment/Your Stars

I won’t belabor it, but at the end of Seymour the critical thing is Seymour’s ‘formlessness’: when playing street games with other children, he has the nerve to excel in induplicable, irrational ways. He bends marbles into other marbles, dominates stoopball with a shot that invariably hits other boys in the face. He does not follow the rules (much of Seymour is about the true poet’s unboundedness by rules) and by not following the rules he achieves far more than any other. As a fragment, this would be an interesting meditation—but as the last work before Salinger closed his country gate and retired to a life of wooden tables and swearing at reporters, it reads instead as a resignation letter, a not-particularly-heartbroken fare-thee-well…to what? Not from writing; we have it on good authority that some huge number of hugely brilliant novels are waiting somewhere in a safe—and Seymour does play games, is described invariably as a poet. Salinger resigns not from writing, but from fiction.

And what, pray tell, is fiction? Fiction is Nine Stories, is Esme absentmindedly touching the ends of her hair as she leaves the café, is Sybil’s shoulderblades like wings. Fiction, here, is the technology of storytelling, the secret vocabulary that Salinger, in 1948, knew so preternaturally. You can see it vanishing in the late novellas. Nothing identifies the Nine Stories Salinger so perfectly as the narration of tiny physical details. Muriel turns the receiver slightly away from her ear. A woman looks at one’s feet. Sybil hops on one foot. They’re perfect little moments—playing cards, almost, only supple on their own but so remarkable when you get five of the same color, all in one neat hand.

In Franny things are mostly holding together—it’s just that his plotting has gotten a little distracted, has gotten a little too excited about the East. Zooey and Carpenters are frankly crisis stories. You can hear Salinger’s teeth gnashing: he doesn’t care about the fiction game anymore but he’s so damn good at it that it’s almost impossible to stop playing. So you have these long irrelevant scenes making fun of one’s mother in the bathtub, or dealing with a deaf/mute uncle. The stories stumble forwards, taking twice as long as early salinger on some things and skipping over others completely. They’re split, bipolar, schizophrenic in the most robust of senses.

And then in Seymour he abandons it altogether and just does what—by this point—he wants. He wants to talk about Seymour’s eyes for whole pages? List Boo Boo’s favorite Seymour poem? Well he sure damn will. He’s given up on tidy corners, given up on concise catechisms, given up, in brief, on writing the way other people want him to—given up on fiction. The only bizarre thing is that he’s choosing to tell us about it.

Salinger’s abdication poses a few problems for the young American writer who reads his work hoping for technology. First, he makes that young writer feel perhaps permanently unenlightened. Do Catholic novices read early Martin Luther? The collected Calvin? One suspects that if they do they feel a similar shiver. One spends a great deal of time attempting to become very good, feeling that will make one happy. And yet: Salinger was very good. He was spectacular. But two things happened. First, spectacular did not make him happy. Second, he found something beyond spectacular, something that interested him more. Whether this made him happy we may never know. But it seems that being a very good fiction writer is not the answer, or not the entire answer.

*I found on Wikipedia this afternoon that the third and most important of these points had already been made at least in passing by Louis Menand. Now I’m a regular New Yorker reader and this is probably the sort of article that I would have read—so there’s every chance that I didn’t think of these things originally, that I just read the Menand piece when I was 19 and filed some little seed away until I started thinking seriously about him again when I promptly began regurgitating/plagiarizing the original thoughts of this literary luminary. But it certainly felt, when I was reading about Seymour and the Aim thing, and remembering the stuff about one’s own stars, like I was having original thoughts. And that’s as certain as we critters get to be.

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