Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Franny and Zooey

Any book I read on my front stoop gets an automatic bump, because I like reading on my stoop and I don't do it as often as I should. I mention this because I read the bulk of Franny and Zooey out there and still hated it.

I borrowed the copy I read from my Mom, who mentioned when I picked it up that it had been one of her favorite books when she was younger. I remembered one of Salinger's other works, The Catcher in the Rye, as one of my childhood favorites, and had re-read it a few months before getting Franny and Zooey from Mom. I was really disappointed by Catcher. I found Holden Caulfield extremely irritating and his love shallow, and the story never seemed to go anywhere. I chalked this up to the book having spoken to me at a particular time of my life - I read it as a sophomore in high school - and tried to keep thinking about the good feeling of it that had existed before. When I read Franny and Zooey, I hoped that it would be more substantive but I had the same problems with it, and upon discussing this with Mom, she said she suspected she would feel the same way. Salinger seems to speak to a very particular attitude and worldview, and it seems to me that you need to be at a certain place in your life to appreciate it.

This realization actually dovetailed nicely with reading At Home In The World, because the same controlling, small-minded bullshit evident in Salinger's relationship with Joyce Maynard is what's disappointingly prevalent in Catcher and Franny. Salinger's self-imposed solitude obviously closed his world in around him and made him extremely sensitive to external influences, keeping him in a kind of eternal adolescence. It's why he wrote teenagers so accurately, but I'm somewhat loath to say this is a good thing. Teenagers need literature they can relate to, but I think it would be better to see well-written teenagers in a more productive context.

Salinger isn't untalented. You can't say he's a bad writer and be serious about it. I tried to figure out what the problem was, and I think what it comes down to is that he wastes some really gorgeous language on stories with no plot and utterly repugnant characters. There are wonderful phrases and descriptions in Franny and Zooey, but it's in the service of characters who spend too much time wrapped up in their own misery. The Glass family has had its tragedy and that understandably causes serious angst and despair, but the particular slice of their lives that we are shown in the book shows little but the family being foul to one another, taunting each other and condescending to each other. It's not a liberating embrace of grieving, it's the worst of tragic cruelty in the name of revenge.

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