Friday, June 06, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #156: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I haven't read this book since I was Holden Caulfield's age -- and, if I was not as adamant in my hatred of "phonies" as he is, it was mostly because I feared I was one. Reading it again, around thirty years later, I was struck by how purely and crisply of its time it was: deeply wounded by the just-ended WWII, suspicious of itself and the whole world, looking forward to the generation growing up and all of the things they would reject. It's not hyperbole to claim that you can see in embryo all of the cultural upheavals of the next twenty-five years in this one short 1951 novel.

The Catcher in the Rye has come full circle, as far as I can tell: when it was published, the teachers and authority figures hated it, and so boomers read it avidly, passing it around and insisting it told their real stories. By the time my generation, the apocalyptically named X, came around, those boomers were in the positions of power, and Catcher in the Rye was widely taught -- and still, mostly, loved by a second generation of teens. But millennials seem to have soured on it: whether Salinger's semi-invented slang has curdled over the past sixty years, or if their Zeitgeist is just too different, I can't say. Now, Catcher in the Rye is sliding into the "standard classic" category, with The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome and Moby-Dick: a few students authentically love it when they encounter it, some more can enjoy its virtues, and all too many find it a dull chore.

It's easy to see why: Catcher in the Rye lives and dies on Holden's voice; there's nothing to this novel besides Holden's viewpoint and raw emotion. He narrates it, six months or so after the fact, from a sanitarium in California -- and we can assume all sorts of things from that and the other hints that he drops, and make our own assumptions about what happened between the events on the last page and Holden starting to tell his story in that West Coast hospital. If you find Holden a bore, or can't sympathize with him, the book falls apart for you: there is nothing else to enjoy if you cannot appreciate Holden. And the fact that's he's clearly rich and spoiled and massively indulged tends to work against sympathy these days, in a way it didn't in 1951.

The events of Catcher in the Rye are few: Holden leaves his school, Pencey, just over the border into Pennsylvania, and heads back to New York City a few days ahead of the end of the semester, late one Saturday evening in mid-December. He's being kicked out of yet another school -- he failed nearly all of his classes, after avoiding most of his work -- but his restless self- and everything-else-loathing drives him away even before the school does. He sees a few people at Pencey before he leaves, and over the next thirty-six hours or so in the city: a couple of schoolmates, friendly teachers current and former, his adoring younger sister, a semi-former girlfriend, a whore and her pimp. None of those meetings is easy; Holden is a raw nerve who can't go along and can't get along and can't even articulate what he wants clearly. He's the pre-archetypical Angry Young Man -- even younger, and even more confused and miserable than angry.

So the entire novel is what Holden tells us about those few events -- about what actually happens, about what he thinks will or could happen, about what's running through his head the whole time. He doesn't understand himself, so he can't explain any of this to us: a number of times in the novel, he tells us that he's broken down crying, and he doesn't even know why he did that. It's a brilliant portrayal of a deeply conflicted young man, a novel that's vastly more modernist than it usually gets credit for. And maybe, before too long, teachers will stop teaching it and start telling students not to read it, so the cycle can start all over again.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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