Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“Why is this ultimate phoney ignoring me?”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 4, 2010

J. D. Salinger passed away due to natural causes on January 27th this year, at the ripe age of 91.

I am writing this retrospective on the only book of his that I’ve read, The Catcher in the Rye, in place of an obituary. I first (and last) read it in June. I will also write about his Nine Stories in the upcoming two three or four weeks (delay due to shipping problems).

Finally, I’d like to thank fellow book blogger Kevin (from Canada, I believe) who made me actually sit myself down to write this piece (rather indirectly, actually; you can read how he got me to as well as where I got my title from in the comments section of his retrospective).

Catcher in the Rye cover

I find it hard to take this book seriously in any of its other covers.

I’ll always have a special connection to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. That has, however, to be taken with a pinch of salt; out of around fifty to sixty books I read in 2009, I think so of about twenty-five. But, this book is special over and above that; I began and ended this book with a slice of medium pizza (I was chewing well, and the book took me two hours).

Okay, that’s a lie. The real reason I love it so much is that the book perfectly portrays… what does it portray? The life of a teenager? If it did, all the schools would have shut down by now. Society? Won’t even answer that. Growth? To an extent, yes, but most people think that Holden, the narrator, doesn’t actually mature in the novel. Angst? Possible, but… some explanations just don’t feel right.

Now, that was a digression I’d never have imagined was going to come. It’s so clear in my head. Maybe I’m having this problem because I read this book in June. Then again, maybe not. Fine, from the beginning on.

The book is about and narrated by Holden Caulfield, an ex-student at a boarding school called Pencey close to but not in New York. The narration is happening a year or so after the events we are going to encounter. This bit tells you as much about the style as you want to know.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

There are only two people Holden really cares about, his sister Phoebe (another one of life’s mysteries that I read this book very soon after I watched the American series Friends, the best character in which is called Phoebe Buffay) and his English teacher Mr. Antolini.

No, he’s not a misanthrope. He just hates ‘phonies’. It is, in fact, hard to find a page in which he doesn’t express his hate for them. This idea of the phony, I suppose, is one of the major reasons I connect with this book so deeply.

For me, at the time, it wasn’t a new idea, but I’d never seen it confirmed by someone I hadn’t attempted to explain it to. This confirmation was important to me, because I saw these phonies all around. Everywhere. Every bloody where. In fact, I still do, but adopt a more philosophical (read: explanatory, therefore comforting) view about it.

So, why do I claim that Holden is not a misanthrope? Because it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity. Witness, for example, the type of books he likes:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you are all done reading it, you wish that the author was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

I, for example, am no misanthrope, and I know that I wouldn’t want to call up authors. Neither, I believe, would most ardent readers. But Holden understands that, because there are so few non-phonies, the few of these who write (the sentence above is immediately followed with “That doesn’t happen much though.”) shouldn’t be segregated as people you don’t want to meet. They should be met and known and hung out with. It’s not because of a special approach to books; his approach to books, by all other indications, is fairly normal.

The real fact about these phonies is that we all prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. Some people just prepare more elaborate ones than others, and they can’t always keep it up. These facades, they fall in often very subtle ways, like when someone rationalises something out of a piece of art which he doesn’t actually feel that it’s right (this is rather more obvious than most people would think). Also, the most intricate ones end up looking like facades. Is it really such an irritating book if it complains about something so real? For me, no.

For me, in fact, this book is about these overdone facades, and how we deal with them. It is, of course, true that this might not have been the case if I hadn’t come across the idea earlier in my life, but then, which interpretation has been done in a vacuum? (Aside: answer may be found in the last paragraph; there is a sense in which that is done in a vacuum, because the interpreter is refusing to use any of his experiences except those involving his logic.)

So, what does this book have to say about these facades? ‘They are a bad thing, voila’? I think it is a big enough service that it points them out. But, there could have been more. Holden could have learnt to philosophise about it by the end of the book, but either Salinger disagreed with me or he didn’t think of it. What does happen is that Holden realises his life’s vocation; he grows up, matures, but doesn’t leave this idea behind. He decides to become the catcher in the rye, teaching young children like his little sister Phoebe not to become phonies.

What is really interesting about this is that the Robert Burns’ song Holden thinks is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is actually ‘Comin’ through the rye’. Make of it what you will. I know what I do, but I have no right to spoil this idea for people who haven’t read the book, so I’ll stop here.

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8 Responses to ““Why is this ultimate phoney ignoring me?””

  1. Excellent review, Ronak. I do think that The Catcher in the Rye should be reviewed now by someone who is coming to it with more youthful eyes than those of us who read it several decades ago. Thanks also for giving new life to my blog joke in your headline. Holden would be very upset that I am not devoting much space to him in either of my Salinger tributes. My guess is that he would find the entire Glass family to be incredible phonies.

  2. S M Rana said

    SIXTY! books you read last year!! Quite a pile! I don’t know what a phoney is except the person who thinks he is transparent. The mind–read about Jung and the collective unconscious–is an ocean and what we wear is but a surface. Great literature, like great cinema, defies analysis, since it springs from the unfathomable depths of life–probably Salinger lies in that category and I happen to have missed him too.

  3. Of course, if Salinger were still alive, he’d probably be typing a comment in here right now, demanding that you shut down this blog as an invasion of his privacy. 😉

    I was supposed to read J.D. Salinger when I was a junior in high school, but we never got around to him. Instead, we were fed the usual “dry goods” that constitute the American literary tradition (notable exception: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). I know The Catcher in the Rye is a pretty short novel, so maybe I’ll pick it up at the library once I’ve finished Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals and Murakami’s short stories.

    Interesting aside: even though James Earl Jones looks nothing like him, his character in Field of Dreams is based on Salinger: a reclusive writer who writes a novel dealing with baseball.

  4. […] best Salinger I’ve read to date, Franny and Zooey reads like a more sophisticated rewrite of The Catcher in the Rye. The sour-mannered Holden is here replaced by the mild and diminutive Franny Glass and — in […]

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