(((())))

15 03 2010

Well, it’s long overdue, and indeed unnecessary, but below is my J.D. Salinger appreciation. I should say, though, that I don’t think anyone could improve (and this coming from someone who’s blogged countless Salinger pieces already), I don’t think anyone could improve on Garth Risk Hallberg’s at the Millions. Cheers, Garth.

(((())))

Now that he’s left this mortal coil, it’s easier to speak of J.D. Salinger without fear of staining his pointed silence, his cessation of publication in 1965 and subsequent reclusion. Because the only tribute the man seems to have desired was for one to not speak of his work once one had seen it⎯his dedication for Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction reads: “If there is an amateur reader still left in the world⎯or anybody who just reads and runs⎯I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.” By being now wholly absent, Salinger has perfected the silence that he fictionalized with the momentous suicide of Seymour Glass, a signal event for all the Glass family characters who parade through many of Salinger’s stories trailing their psycho-spiritual detritus behind them with their eyes straining toward some high-hearted redemption. Like a thunderbolt, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in the New Yorker in 1948, introduced the world to the brooding World War II veteran, Seymour, whose wife is on the phone in their hotel room worrying over his mental health with her mettlesome mother while he: goes down to the beach; meets a precocious young girl, Sybil; tells her about the bananafish who go into a dark hole and gorge themselves with bananas until they die; and returns to his hotel room in a disturbingly foul mood to sit on the bed next to his sleeping wife and fire a bullet through his head. The unease that hangs in the air throughout this story never resolves itself; this, like all of Salinger’s Nine Stories, as they were collected in book form, has what John Updike rightly called an “open-ended Zen quality…the way they don’t snap shut.” Salinger was always leaving subtle clues behind to guide readers without beating them over the head with his passions⎯the epigraph to Nine Stories is the Zen koan: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” What is one to make of Salinger’s relative eccentricities: his rejection of fame and public life, his deep embrace of Zen, his open-ended stories, his iconic masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, his late-period winding monologues attempting to give something of this mystical, mysterious Seymour Glass to the world? Forgive me for seeming facetious, but here: let us make nothing of it.

Readers often demand clarity from their authors and books, but the grandest work smells of mystery. The charm, the import, the meaning, so-called, of momentous literary works is irreducible and unspeakable. As such, nothing need be said about the Glass family saga or the alienated adolescent, Holden Caulfield, longing to be the catcher in the rye, the rescuer of children who have wandered too close to the cliff’s edge⎯(Holden, who smashed all the windows in the family garage after the death of his beloved brother, Allie) (Holden, who finds solace in the frail fleeting things of life, in innocence and wonder and moments of unvarnished love). There is nothing to say about the Fat Lady speech Zooey Glass gives to his sister Franny (in the midst of her spiritual and existential breakdown) at the end of the book that bears their names. The words are all there. One is always tempted to interpret works of art, and one may want to defend the artists one loves in a boisterous, full-throated voice. Surely there is space for everything. But Salinger, as ever, was really onto something when he said: “A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves.” Just the simplest, most perfect acknowledgements. Salinger might as well have been describing himself when he had Seymour, in his final published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” write that “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” I have been thrilled to life by Salinger and given to feel tender again. But there are no answers in Salinger’s books. There is in his work, as he once put it in a letter to Esquire, “some sort of trembling melody offered without embarrassment or regret.” Salinger’s gift to the reader, as he writes in Seymour: An Introduction, is an “unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((()))).” Therein the plentiful void.

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