Jul 252002

My girlfriend and I saw Tadpole the other night. It’s not terrible, but the main character, a 15-year-old Manhattan boarding-school student who pines after his stepmother and reads Candide in translation despite his alleged fluency in French, brought back Holden Caulfield to me like a bad oyster. (Note to Tadpole director Gary Winick: nobody prepares grilled cheese sandwiches in advance.)

Holden was 17 in 1951, which means that, like a lot of his fans, not to mention his creator, he’s collecting Social Security. Salinger too is retired; he had the good sense to stop writing when he had nothing left to say. So can we retire Salingeriana and Salinger retreads too? Would that be OK?

What everyone remembers about Holden is his passion, his positive mania, for sniffing out everything “phony.” This keeps him very busy, which is good because he has nothing else to do. Ernie the piano player is a phony because he puts in too many arpeggios. His roommate is a phony because he’s vain and stupid and succeeds with girls by sounding sincere. The guy across the hall is a phony because he describes a great basketball player as having “the perfect build for basketball.” A girl he dates is a phony because she likes the Lunts and says “grand” too often. (Here Holden may have a point.) A teacher he used to like is a phony because he turns out to be an alcoholic homosexual who married for money.

Now all of these people are ghastly in their own way. But showing off is one thing, and vanity is another, and envy is a third, and affectation is something else. It gets us nowhere to lump these traits together and call them “phony.” This can’t be chalked up to Holden’s adolescent argot either. “Phoniness” recurs constantly in Salinger, no matter which book, no matter who’s narrating.

In Salinger’s universe only children are never phony. It helps to be dead too. The only truly sympathetic characters in Catcher in the Rye outside of Holden himself are his sister Phoebe and his late brother Allie, a sort of proto-Seymour Glass who died of leukemia and wrote poems on his baseball glove in green ink.

This harping on “phoniness” is indispensable to Salinger’s continuing appeal. For all Holden’s modesty, his ejaculations of “I’m an idiot, I’m a madman,” at bottom he feels superior to the phonies and provokes the same feeling in the reader. And Salinger’s settings, fancy boarding schools and prestigious colleges, intensify the feeling by elevating the baseline. It’s always pleasant to feel superior, and especially pleasant to feel superior to the Ivy League. And the beauty part, for the reader, is that no actual achievement, no objective superiority, is required: it’s all a matter of having your heart in the right place. (Many readers also appreciate that you can kill the complete works in a couple afternoons.)

But whatever else you can say about Catcher in the Rye, at least no member of the Glass family appears. Here’s a typical example of middle-period Salinger. Salinger is writing in the person of Buddy Glass, in Seymour: An Introduction:

It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction — extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-earned runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.

This passage is not the best in the Glass works but it is by no means the worst. The comment on his own fervent and rather ghoulish admirers is amusing — Salinger, like the sainted eldest Glass, Seymour, is a sort of suicide poet himself — but let’s look at the style for a second.

Salinger’s books, like many thin volumes, have earned him an undeserved reputation for brevity. In fact, as this passage shows, he is a gasbag. Sentence for sentence, he’s right in there with Thomas Wolfe; he just doesn’t write as many sentences. The snobbish qualification “to put it much more horribly than I really want to” is characteristic. He can’t think of anything better than “floppy-eared runt” yet he wants to let his reader know, sotto voce, that he isn’t really happy with it either. One might object that this is the voice of Buddy Glass, not Salinger himself; but in Franny and Zooey, where he’s narrating on his own account, he writes exactly the same way.

Then there’s the jumbo list of authorial flaws in the middle of the paragraph. Salinger likes lists. Franny and Zooey has one, of the contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet, that’s nearly three times this long and apropos of nothing.

Not having read Salinger in fifteen years I didn’t remember how awful, how self-conscious, how snobbish the style is; how full it is of parenthetical throat-clearing, pedantic qualifications, go-nowhere asides, shuck and jive.

Only the Glasses, among the adults in Salinger, get a phoniness pass. As Zooey says to Franny, “Whatever we are, we’re not fishy [phony], buddy.” This is partly because of their surpassing brilliance, which, like most surpassing brilliance in literature, we have to take mostly on faith; and partly because they’re more like overgrown child prodigies than actual adults. (All the Glasses appeared as children on a quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child.” Wisdom…children…get it?) But the Glasses, like Holden, are all potential, no achievement; all faith and no good works. What do they amount to as adults? Buddy, a literature professor at a cow college. Franny, a student and aspiring actress prone to fainting spells when near vulgarity. Zooey, a television actor. Boo Boo, a Tuckahoe housewife. Walt, dead in the war; Waker, a Jesuit priest. And finally Seymour himself, a suicide at 31. (He leaves 184 double haikus, and they are brilliant, masterly, Buddy tells us so. He can’t actually print any of them, though, legal matter you understand. The trouble with having a literary genius as a character is that you can’t show much of his ouevre, beyond the occasional letter or piece of juvenilia, without being a literary genius yourself.)

And what sort of wisdom do these Wise Children impart to us? I yield the floor to Zooey, who finally snaps his sister Franny out of her religious mania with this:

“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? …Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

All of a sudden we’re not supposed to feel superior any more. We’re supposed to feel humble, because Christ is in us and of us. Gosh, I never heard that before. There’s something cheap about this sort of fake wisdom, something tawdry, meretricious, something…what’s the word I’m looking for? Phony. That’s it.

(Update: I posted this, in a slightly different form, on BlogCritics, which inspired Rodney Welch to comment.)

  4 Responses to “Enough Salinger Already”

  1. Do you think that Holden’s penchant for locating "phoniness" is simply his juvenile effort to critique the human condition in order to make a note to himself and the world that he is superior to the "phoniness?"

    The pecularities in people, e.g., Holden’s "phony" examples, are frequently labeled in society as dysfunctional by those that don’t have the same traits. Is Holden just falling into this same shallow trap of stereotyping or even worse is he prejudiced against people for slight behavioral differences?

    Granted, certain behavior has to unequivocably be considered as dysfunctional. We need labels, definitions and rules for certain groups; murderers, child sex offenders and terrorists.

    On the other end of the spectrum are people, Holden included, who label others (as "phony") because they prefer scotch to tea, want money to feel secure in life, gamble instead of saving, or make an effort to be nice in lieu of being brutally honest. These characteristics are life choices or just how a person turned out after his experiences in life thus far. These are simply ways people have learned to enjoy or cope with life. Deciding someone is bad or good (phony or not phony) based on these type of characteristics makes me wonder the motivation for the decisions.

    Do you think Holden is illustrating people who are "phony" by his standards merely to entertain rather than to criticize?

    Is there a parallel here between Aaron’s illustration of Gerard Cohen and Holden’s illustration of his "phonies" of the world?

  2. I think you’re going overboard to lump all of Salinger’s writing as having the same problems but I can see why you doubt Holden’s sincerity after reading Salinger’s later works.

    When I read Catcher, I tend to see Holden as thinking he is superior to the phonies only in the sense that they are unaware of the problem of phoniness and he is at least aware of it. I think Holden wants to avoid the mistakes he sees other people making. He notes what these mistakes are and at the same time constantly questions his own choices, behavior, and opinions. He knows knows life is to be taken earnestly yet he also knows a phony would take himself too seriously and be humorless. Such contradictions make Holden a bit of a pendulum. (For instance, he regrets not asking Allie along on the bike ride and so now takes care how he treats people important to him, yet also does not descend into scripted care — not above pinching Phoebe’s butt). His constant refrains about what a moron he is shows humility as does his generosity and humor (and I think there’s a good deal of humor in those refrains). He struggles between all of these aspects of life and is taking things to extremes including the extreme of often not giving a damn. A pendulum.

    In contrast, I don’t find Salinger’s later writing anywhere near so engaging and rewarding as Catcher (and Nine Stories). His later writing has narcissistic qualities, in my humble opinion. (For instance, the Glass family is unlike any family in existence because everyone is so similar. Real families have a confounding array of different personalities. The Glasses do not. It seems Salinger wishes everyone in a family were witty, considerate, thoughtful, and engaged and wants to write a fantasy piece. That would be fine, but his realistic writing style goes against that fantastical aim.) And I agree that these later works are too wordy. Taken together, I couldn’t even finish Seymour: An Introduction.

    It could be that Holden was a reflection of a younger Salinger wrestling with life’s contradictions, while the novel length Glasses were a reflection of Salinger in later life indulging in narcissism. This development makes one wonder if Holden was really headed on the same track toward self love: a big old phony who doth protest too much about phoniness. I think the novel taken in itself (no looking out at the author), Holden stands as an uncertain figure. You really cannot tell where he’s going from there. He could turn out to be a great adult. I think Salinger’s best works paint a picture of life and the ongoing question marks about people — how much can you tell about someone from a brief encounter (or even long association), where is this person headed, what are the differences between reality and how one sees reality — and how we don’t ever really find the answers about the other people around us (or even ourselves, to some degree).

  3. OK, maybe I am a witless sap. I certainly am not a learned literary critic. But I love Franny and Zooey, including especially the concluding secret about Seymour’s fat lady. The first time I read this little epiphany moment I did not see it coming and I wept. Maybe it’s nothing new, but most of the time most of us have forgotten it and if we shine our shoes at all we do it for all the wrong reasons. So it is nice to be artfully reminded that there is at least one right reason to always polish them. Any yes is is possible to be sentimental and self expressive yet still artful. (It is also possible to be austere and self denying yet artless.)

    There is perhaps one (yes perhaps ONLY one) moment in fiction that touched me more than this. Really two moments, which hit the purest notes of father-daughter love and pure heroism that I have ever heard. It comes near the end of Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest. First “not a boy, me — she didn’t want to leave ME.” Then “go through the dam.” I still cry.

  4. I always thought Holden Caulfield was supposed to be a tragic character because he recognizes the phoniness in the world around him but secretly also recognizes it inside himself. I bet Salinger thought about himself the same way.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>