16 May 2008

J. D. Salinger: Then and Tomorrow

Nine Stories, J. D. Salinger (1953)

J. D. Salinger's released body of work covers a time when the U.S. was at a cultural watershed moment. Old social systems were crumbling, and alternative culture (the Beat Generation, the Dharma Bums, The Merry Pranksters, Timothy Leary) was growing with ferocity. Salinger was and remains a harbor of serenity from the surrounding chaotic storm. I like storms, but I also like safe harbors.

The Catcher in the Rye gets all the attention it needs. Here I want to make sure you've been properly introduced to the Glass Family, in three of Salinger's finest released (in book form) works: Frannie and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction.

These short stories and novellas are unparalleled, timeless, visionary. I agree with contemporary critic Janet Malcolm who argues the novella Zooey is Salinger's masterpiece. Malcolm also addresses eloquently the way Salinger was short-sightedly brutalized by some critics regarding the works listed above.

Regarding Zooey, Ms. Malcolm sets the stage for us as such:
.... In "Zooey" we find the two youngest Glass children, Franny and Zooey, in their parents' large apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Salinger's use of recognizable places in New York and his ear for colloquial speech give the work a deceptive surface realism that obscures its fundamental fantastic character. The Glass family apartment is at once a faithfully, almost tenderly, rendered, cluttered, shabby, middle-class New York apartment and a kind of lair, a mountain fastness, to which Salinger's strange creations retreat, to be with their own kind. Twenty-year-old Franny, who is brilliant and kind, as well as exceptionally pretty, has come home from college after suffering a nervous collapse during a football weekend. ....
The other place to begin your acquaintance with the Glass family is Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters has it all: Zen wisdom, a picture-perfect view of Manhattan in the 1940's, brutal yet tender satire, belly-laugh humor, and intolerance for intolerant people. As I write this, I'm taking my 4th or 5th crack at rereading Seymour: An Introduction and trying to break through to its core meaning. I've been trying for 30 years, and this time, I think I've climbed to level one comprehension. (Point being: don't start with Seymour: An Introduction.)

Nine Stories is highly recommended here most importantly for a non-Glass-family story: For Esme' with Love and Squalor. This short story is one of the finest I've ever read. Salinger biographer Paul Alexander documents both the enduring popularity and critical acclaim this tale receives. Don't get me wrong, Nine Stories has a great deal to offer, but I'm just crazy for Esme'. A friend of mine loves A Perfect Day for Bananafish best. Teddy is also masterful. The total collection is pure joy, if viewed through a Buddhist lens.

Salinger quit publishing his work in 1965, but has apparently continued writing. I for one can't wait to find out what he's got tucked away in his vault. Once you've read Frannie and Zooey, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, chances are you will also be impatiently awaiting the release of more Salinger.

Now, to close, a little self indulgence on my part. Even if you never read a word of Salinger's work, I'll be quite content if you read the long quote (actually an uncredited long quote from another time and culture), used by Salinger in the first several pages of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Seymour Glass, oldest and most revered of the Glass children, reads the following story to comfort his 10 month old baby sister, Franny, who is up crying during the night with the mumps:
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: "You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?" Po Lo replied: "A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But a superlative horse -- one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks -- is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him."

Du Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. "It is now in Sach'iu ," he added. "What kind of horse is it?" asked the Duke. "Oh, it is a dung-colored mare," was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. "That friend of yours," he said, "whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast's color or sex! What can he possibly know about horses?" Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. "Has he really got as far as that?" he cried. "Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses."

When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.
Less is more.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Great article! I purchased Nine Stories in the early 80s and read it from cover to cover in one sitting. Ahhhh, those were the days. I enjoyed all the stories immensely, with my favorite being The Laughing Man.