Monday, September 7, 2009

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

What can you really say about Franny and Zooey that is profound, important? Only that, if you haven't read it, and you have read that other more famous book by the same author, you will be caught unaware.

Recently I read it for the second time. The first time was in the summer of 2002, over seven years ago. Has my experience of being alive changed since then? Yes. Am I in a very different personal situation than the time of the previous reading? Yes. Did my experience of actually reading the book differ at all? No.

This book is about nervous breakdowns and praying. During one particular day last week (last Tuesday, six days ago), I read the majority of Zooey, the much longer second part of the two prose pieces that comprise the volume, in between a lunch and dinner shift of my current stint of waiting tables at a restaurant. I was very depressed this day, and the book made me feel it even more so.

The crux of the entire work is Franny's dilemma--what is she supposed to do with her life?:

"'All right,' Franny said wearily. 'France.' She took a cigarette out of the pack on the table. 'It isn't just Wally. It could be a girl, for goodness' sake. I mean if he were a girl--somebody in my dorm, for example--he'd have been painting scenery in some stock company all summer. Or bicycled through Wales. Or taken an apartment in New York and worked for a magazine or an advertising company. It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.' She stopped. She shook her head briefly, her face quite white, and for just a fractional moment she felt her forehead with her hand--less, it seemed, to find out whether she was perspiring than to check to see, as if she were her own parent, whether she had a fever. 'I feel so funny,' she said. 'I think I'm going crazy. Maybe I'm already crazy.' (26)

Franny takes place almost entirely in a restaurant. It is the beginning of a weekend she will be spending with her college boyfriend Lane. Franny counters practically everything that is said to her in conversation with a depressing, fatalistic rejoinder. Then she goes into the bathroom and cries. Then she holds up her book, "The Way of a Pilgrim," and is able to stabilize. Then she tells Lane about the book, which is based around the idea of "praying without ceasing." If you repeat the phrase 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,' over and over, it will eventually be worked in the natural rhythm of your heartbeat and will open you up to a spiritual experience. Then she compares this basic prayer notion with that of several different Eastern religions and claims that the exact same thing is described in various texts by them. Then she faints. Lane, who has been rather curt and dismissive of her throughout the entire story, finally shows some tenderness and the ending has him vowing to help her get some rest and recover.

Zooey probably takes place a few weeks or months after the incident described in Franny. It is here that the Glass family is introduced. It would be tedious to get into all of the details that explain the authorship of Zooey, but basically, the story is written by Salinger's most frequent literary stand-in--Buddy, who is also born in 1919, the oldest living child in the Glass family, in his mid 30's and a writing teacher at a college in a rural part of the Northeast. Zooey is about 25 and an actor and taking a bath and reading a long letter from Buddy as the story opens, and his mother comes into the bathroom and has a long conversation with him about Franny. How are they supposed to make her feel better? Zooey concerns itself with this notion for its entire duration, but it also contains the synthesis of the religious inquiry of its predecessor.

Basically, Zooey is much longer, and solves the problem, or question, that Franny poses. And yet it still does not really reach a satisfying conclusion. What is most touching about the work are the lengths that Zooey goes to in order to help his sister. Eventually he tells her what she should be doing with her life, and that everything she is going through is "normal" because they, the two youngest Glass children, are "freaks."

Anybody between the ages of 18 and 26 may benefit most from reading this volume, but for its analysis of religious devotion, this should be required for anyone with strong opinions about that phenomenon--which, okay, is just about everybody in the world. Catcher in the Rye may be regarded as Salinger's most important contribution to literature, but I think it is fair to say that Franny and Zooey is a more polished and precise work--and while it may not be as titillating, it is certainly reaching for a higher echelon.

In Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that J.D. Salinger was probably the most influential writer of his generation. Along with Vonnegut himself, I feel that Kerouac rounds out the trifecta of the most influential novelists of the 20th century--and all were born within a three year span. Kerouac died forty years ago, Vonnegut died a couple years ago, and Salinger has not published anything in 44 years. Salinger is certainly the most selective of the three when it comes to the total number of books that he felt he needed to publish. It would be interesting to compare the religious philosophies espoused by Kerouac and him, but it is fair to say that he is the more abstinent of the two. My only point in writing this final paragraph is to say, Vonnegut was right. As a writer, he is the only one in our lifetime to have achieved a mythic status--that of a literary god. While it may not be 100% true, it's basically safe to say that every single young writer has been influenced, whether they realize it or not, by the predominant literary style that Salinger has helped to create. All four of his books are excellent, and while Franny and Zooey may not be the most "entertaining," it does offer the most profundity of all his works and may therefore be considered his true masterpiece. One could also say that his oeuvre as a whole is the true masterpiece.

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