Dear No One in Particular,
I identify overmuch with J.D. Salinger's characters. This probably says something significant about me; something tragic and obnoxious, no doubt. I'm sure there are better fictional characters to identify with, but I know for certain there are much worse.
Like most young people, I was first introduced to Salinger by way of Catcher in the Rye. I know there's quite a bit of contention over the book, and I'm not referring to the censorship controversy. Most people I know either loveloveLOVE the book or hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. Obviously, I fall into the former category, but I can kind of understand why there are so many firmly planted in the hater camp. Being forced to read and dissect books in school tends to have that effect on many great pieces of literature, and, let's face it, Holden is kind of a dickhead.
Yet what draws me to Salinger is his incredible ability to convey heartsickness in the written word -- more than depression, more than an aching loneliness, Salinger creates characters so complex and so beautiful in their flaws that their deep, deep hurt and crippling fears wind their way off the page and strike right into the heart of the reader.
More than anything, Salinger knows what it's like to feel alienated, confused, and deeply sad; moreover, he knows how that deadly combination can cause one to lash out, seemingly disaffected with the world.
Honestly, while I love Catcher, my absolute favourite Salinger tome is Nine Stories. A collection of -- surprise! -- nine short stories, I've always felt that this is Salinger at his best. (A very close second would be Franny and Zooey.) This is the book that should be taught to students; I've always insisted that should I lose my damn mind and become an English teacher, I would teach "Nine Stories". Just about every story breaks my heart in the best way possible.
My favourite story (possibly of all time) is "A Perfect Day for Bananafish". Bewilderingly, I've found it's easily the most misinterpreted.
My A.P. English teacher assigned us "A Perfect Day" as a reading assignment, and split the class into groups to discuss the story. To my shock and disgust, the most popular comment about the story was "God, he was so creepy!" I have a permanent dent in my forehead from headdesk-ing throughout the entire period. My classmates were in Berkeley, and the point flew so far over their heads, it was halfway to Jupiter.
Perhaps the reason I feel so strongly about "A Perfect Day" is because of my own struggles with mental illness, particularly with depression. I've since sought some help with my disorders, but reading "A Perfect Day" never ceases to remind me of how dark, how deep, and how torturous the pits of depression can be -- especially if you can play "normal". Seymour's relationship with Sybil, contrasted with the abrupt and painful ending, is a perfect "in" to a discussion about the complexities of mental illness. Seymour's mood swings, his obvious alienation from his wife -- all are hallmarks of a man wrestling to keep the demons at bay, if only for an afternoon so that he might hunt for the gluttinous bananafish.
Over the years, I've found myself engaging with the other eight stories in a way that I hadn't been able to upon first perusal. I'm currently re-reading "Nine Stories" and I was somewhat surprised by my reaction to the story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut". A somewhat satirical story, "Uncle Wiggily" struck home in a way I'd never thought it would. While Salinger paints a sardonic picture of life in the suburbs, his popular theme of heartache and alienation runs just below the surface. There's not much action in the story, forcing the audience to read between the lines, digging deep into the characters to see what makes them tick -- and subsequently, what holds the story together. I found the story to be typical Salinger in that it sought to tackle the problems of diving into perils of capital-A Adulthood, leaving the romance of childhood behind. Main character Eloise's actions were largely motivated by her unresolved grief over the death of her young love, Walt Glass, and the ways that it shaped her as an adult woman. Her issues with her husband ("If you ever get married again, don't tell your husband anything. ... Oh, you can tell them stuff. But never honestly") and her violent outburst at her daughter stem from her heartache over Walt.
I was most moved by the ending, with Eloise imploring her friend to reassure her that she was "a nice girl". I saw this as Eloise's moment of self-realisation; she is able to see how deeply she was affected by Walt's death, and how it further affected her relationships with her daughter and her husband. Walt was ripped from Eloise's life, thus preventing her from connecting fully with those she should have unconditional love for.
I bring this up because I recently checked out "Nine Stories" from my school library and the margins are lousy with notes.* Someone must have done an analytical paper on Salinger and left their thoughts and analyses in the book.
Such notes remind me of how wildly two readers' impressions of a text can differ. The person who scribbled their thoughts in the margins apparently focused on different aspects of the stories than I would have. It's interesting, reading the notes along with the original text; it provides another layer, presents another interpretation I would not have considered otherwise.
I wish I could read the paper that the came from these notes. It would be an interesting read.
So: anyone else a rabid Salinger fan, like I am? Or rabidly anti-Salinger? Comment, please! If you'd like to just talk about the books that you hold near and dear, that'd be wonderful too. I love talking books with people.
*I'm totally guilty of doing this, too. Apparently, I'm not the only one!