Monday, March 2, 2009

"It needs more air than I am willing to admit."

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!


Diana said...

For my honors program in high school, I had to do a 4 year project on a character in a book. i chose holden caulfield. it got so intense in the research and over analyzing that i compared a lot of my boyfriend to him. now that is weird!

amanda said...

That sounds like a great project!
I would be totally weirded out if I started seeing Holden in my boyfriend. He's an interesting character, but ... yeah, I wouldn't really want to date him.

Thanks for the comment!

Diana said...

Thankfully I didn't marry anyone like Holden, but studying the same fictitious personality does something crazy. I love your blog BTW!

amanda said...

I hear ya. I'd probably see Holden and Phoebe EVERYwhere if I spent 4 years studying them.

Thanks so much! I love your blog as well; your photos are an eye-gasm.

Lesley Denford said...

I totally adore Catcher in the Rye. I always forget how good it is, then randomly start reading it again and burst out laughing.



amanda said...

I really, really need to re-read "Catcher". I remember being surprised by how amusing it was, too!

mighty jo said... going to read some salinger.

amanda said...

I'd love to hear your take on his writing.

Vanessa said...

J.D. Salinger has to be my favorite author ever. When I read his work, I always end up-- along with feeling the intense sadness that's often his trademark-- smiling and laughing to myself at how insanely witty he is. I don't know if I've ever read other books where I have just smiled and thought "wow, amazing," at the pure mastery of language and character and humor. I could go on and on and on, but I won't. :)

Weekenddress said...

Oh I just finished re-reading 9 stories, it was so good. Salinger is definitely one of my favorite authors ever. I'm so serious when I say I want to be a member of the glass family! Awesome blog too :)