Life as it ain't

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

“We know the sound of two hands clapping. / But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – A Zen Koan

Posted by Ronak M Soni on February 21, 2010

The Catcher in the Rye may be the Salinger book considered the classic, but most seasoned book lovers I know, both on World Literature Forum and the blogosphere (I know precious few in real life), prefer his Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. Right now, after having read this book twice, the first time as I would any other book and the second to confirm the new view I got of it in the last story “Teddy”, I’m not sure I care enough about the book to be writing this review. It’s basically trying – if the above-quoted epigraph and “Teddy” are enough to go by – to ,at least slightly ,disturb our view of reality.

It’s method: take the three-act structure and leave out an act (or maybe just half of one, but I don’t really care for these formalisms anyway), so that the ending completely blindsides us, the difference from The Sixth Sense being that Salinger’s ‘twists’ can’t even be properly explained in retrospect. It’s a very good experiment, and it doesn’t detract from the experience that Salinger is one of the best I’ve read among American anti-formal writers, but, with the exception of four stories, I’m just… best exemplified by a bored Bill Murray.

As I said, I only liked four of the stories, so I’m only going to talk about them, as I believe I’ve explained myself adequately on the negative front. The stories are “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, “Down at the Dinghy”, “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” (by far my favorite) and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”. Special mention for coming close to being good: “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”, about one girl talking to one man and then another, and “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, about a new art teacher who finds an extraordinary student.

Instead of actually talking about “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, I’ll just direct any interested readers to two interesting write-ups on it, one by Kevin (from Canada) and one by Trevor Barrett, as they say anything and everything I could possibly say.

“Down at the Dinghy” is the second appearance, in Salinger’s work, of a Glass family member, after Seymour in the first story. This is the story of the relationship between Boo Boo Tannenbaum, née Glass, her son Lionel and Lionel’s Godot-ish father.
It is, along with “For Esmé”, the least random of the nine stories.

“For Esmé – With Love and Squalor” is by far my favourite of the nine. It centers around an American soldier posted for training near Devonshire, England. He goes down to the town, walks into the church, listens to the child choir sing, notices particularly one among them, and goes over to a tea shop. Soon, the girl, her little brother and their governess walk in. The girl walks over, and introduces herself as

“My first name is Esmé. I don’t think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know.”

Salinger, as has been endlessly noted everywhere man can put pen to paper, has a great ear for dialogue; my favourite touches were the frequent interruptions and the not uncommon intonations of syllables, like “wonderful”. What is really amazing about these stories, however, is how this dialogue is so masterfully intercut with details. We aren’t surprised, for example, when after the conversation they shake hands, and the narrator observes,

Esmé and I shook hands; her hand, as I’d suspected, was a nervous hand damp at the palm.

But this conversation is only half of the story. When he reveals he is a writer, Esmé asks him to write a story:

She guided the conversation in a different direction. “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime. I’m an avid reader.”

I told her that I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn’t terribly prolific.

“It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn’t childish and silly.” She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

I was about to press her for more details, but I felt Charles pinching me, hard, on my arm.

I urge you, dear reader, to ponder on the placing of “She reflected.” Other writers would have had her reflect on something, but this guy, he’s content just having her reflect, leaving open various questions, questions which become clear if you read the story.

Anyway, back to the story, the second half is the story he writes for her, which would be hilarious with its biting wit if it wasn’t for all that poignance.

Finally, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”. This is the most completely conversation intercut with action of all the stories. An old man and his mistress are sitting in a little room when he gets a call, and the guy on th other end of the line is looking for his wife. The plot twist in the end of the story isn’t actually surprising if you’re reading carefully. It’s what happens after that that makes it the most randomly ended of the Nine Stories.

A final word: the question on top is much more ably answered in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music. The answer is that one hand makes the ‘cl’, and the other the ‘ap’.

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4 Responses to ““We know the sound of two hands clapping. / But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” – A Zen Koan”

  1. Wonder what you’d think of Joyce’s Dubliners, as those stories appear to be snapshots of Dublin life versus beginning-middle-end stories (so already you see an author beginning to tinker with the short story form). Until, of course, you reach the last story in the collection, “The Dead,” which combines the powerful emotion that many short stories try to build to nowadays, but within a “traditional” story structure, which only strengthens the “epiphany” at the end, as Joyce called these moments of understanding.

    I’m trying to read more short stories this year (also more nonfiction, like philosophy and history), so if you hear of any others that you enjoyed, feel free to pass them along to me.

  2. Personally, I don’t think it was the unconventionality that turned me off, because I liked ‘Pretty Mouth…’ which was one of the more random. Also, thinking of many of the stories, I liked the theory behind them, but I was just underwhelmed (the second one ‘Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut’, for example, has a twist which I should love).
    The only reason I haven’t read Dubliners yet is availability. I’ve been looking for a copy for a long time.

    As for great short story collections, here’s something I recently posted on a discussion about the best short story collections ever:

    About best ever short stories, I have come to be of the opinion that nothing fits the form like Science Fiction. My list would the anthology ‘Anthropology through Science Fiction’ edited by Carol Mason, Martin Harry Greenberg and Patrick Warren, and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” (I would list his complete works, but every edition I’ve seen of that is translated by that fool Andrew Hurley), both basically sci-fi.
    I know Borges as sci-fi sounds odd, but think about it; he just does a completely different form of sci-fi. Where other writers might put new planets, he puts infinite libraries. If he does put new planets (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the story’s about their mode of thought.

    Another one that I’ve loved is Salman Rushdie’s East, West.

  3. Stephen said

    Ronak, I thought Bart Simpson had solved the conundrum of one hand clapping – you just clap the fingers of your hand against its palm.

  4. This seems to e an important physical conundrum, and some of the most important thinkers in the world have given to it their own solutions.
    Unfortunately, I’m completely ignorant of any Simpson-lore, and had no idea that this particular important thinker had provided such a Pragmatist solution.
    That said, being a bit of a dreamer, I’ll go with Pratchett’s solution.

    All that said, thanks for visiting again and commenting. Your presence is appreciated.

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