Life as it ain't

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

Archive for the ‘Salinger, J. D.’ Category

“The little girl on the plane/Who turned her doll’s head around/To look at me.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on June 14, 2011

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Undoubtedly the 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 another shape — the somewhat peremptory Zooey Glass, the youngest two members of the family which Salinger came to in all his books except Catcher. The vituperative first-person narrative is replaced by a gentle and keenly observant quintessentially American sort of third person voice straining to break free of the chains created by the limitations of language. The rant about phoneys is replaced by a violent and touching discussion of the value of what one may call mystical philosophy*, a discussion whose majority I’m not in any significant manner qualified to understand except in a skimmy way wherein I surmise the concepts from what is said in the book but the rest of which provided a useful supplement to what I’ve read in S Radhakrishnan’s Indian Philosophy.

The first part, Franny, deals with an encounter between Franny and her boyfriend Lane. Lane definitely qualifies as a pompous arse as per last paragraph, and despite her almost frenetic attempts not to, she every so often goes at him fangs bared, and feels sorry about it every time. She’s surrounded by lessers constantly acting like her greaters, and she has resolved to not set the record straight, to be meek in front of these her nemeses. It’s little wonder then that she has a nervous breakdown.

This isn’t just an incoherent scream; there’s a definite catalyst involved, in the form of a pair of books about a farmer who wants to understand what it is to pray unceasingly. He learns that that’s exactly what it is: unceasingly saying to yourself, “Lord Jesus Christ, have Mercy on me.” till the rhythm becomes a part of your heartbeat and you don’t need to do it consciously any more and then you achieve much greater oneness (there’s probably an Alan Moore video or interview somewhere in which he compares this idea, which is actually a pretty common one — long tracts of the Vedas are just repetitions of God names, for example –, with the effect of art). The first part ends with Franny ruining Lane’s mood, then collapsing, coming to and starting the Jesus prayer.

The second part is called Zooey, and illuminates Zooey’s stand on these concerns as opposed to Franny’s. But first, a bit of history. It turns out that Seymour and Buddy, the eldest Glass siblings, already in their twenties during the infancy of these two, supplemented their reading with mystical philosophies. Because these two, on their philosophical odysseys, had bent more and more towards the mystical philosophers; they felt the need to unlearn the differences between things (Radhakrishnan names this as the goal of philosophy as opposed to science, and this is what I use to characterise “mystical philosophy”) and hope that if these ideas are fed into these two from early enough they won’t have as much trouble.

Zooey is a young actor, slightly bitter at Seymour and Buddy for turning him and Franny into freaks. And he says he’s been through what Franny’s going through. And he proceeds to convince Franny that her breakdown is wrong.

In my review of Catcher, I wrote about Holden, “it is in this rejection of what he believes to be half-human that he expresses his true love for humanity.” Here, at first glance, there is no love for humanity. There is relief at the existence of people not covered with the jaded secretions of American society, but that’s about it. And yet… a little bit more thought shows that the purpose of the Fat Lady is to illustrate that there, in fact, is; the hate is reserved for social interactions. (This in fact curiously mirrors and extends what I said in my Catcher review: “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.” While I say that it’s vile when sometimes some people’s facades slip, Salinger says that facades are by their nature vile.)

Oh, and it’s magnificently important that both of these are actors by calling, and the final resolution is Seymour’s point that the Fat Lady is watching.

Now, while I’ve stressed on the philosophical aspects of the novel, there is another, equally important one, which Buddy desperately wants us to remember:

I know the difference between a mystical story and a love story. I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compund, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.

As I hope my piece has shed some light on, for Salinger, these two types of story are not all that different.He seems to be a man who felt intensely out of place with people, and always remembered that that was the reason he was compelled to pursue wisdom like a madman. If I had to bet either way, I would bet that he hated his endless thirst, that he envied the people around him who could live without this insane drive; that, in other words, he wished he were the Fat Lady, such is his discomfort with this wisdom.

*Though I refer to it as mystical philosophy, it is in no sense of the pulling rabbits out of hats by the grace of God sort. It is in fact a result of very deep consideration of the states of being. I’ll come to why exactly I call it mystical soon.
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“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’.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Salinger, J. D. | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

“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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