Sunday, July 19, 2009

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by JD Salinger

The first night, just this last week, that I felt quite hale and bullish enough to go back to work on this Introduction, I found that I'd lost not my afflatus but but my wherewithal to continue to write about Seymour. He'd grown too much while I was away. It was hardly credible. From the manageable giant he had been before I got sick, he had shot up, in nine short weeks, into the most familiar human being of my life, the one person who was always much, much too large to fit on ordinary typewriter paper--any typewriter paper of mine, anyway.

Leave it to Salinger to put these two works together--works that, like Franny and Zooey, form two halves of something much more cohesive--and leave the one called "Introduction" for last. There is a great irony to that title, not only because this is the last book-length piece Salinger published, but by the time the narrator of Seymour: An Introduction sits down and begins to write, Seymour has already been deceased for decades.

Both of these novellas are about Seymour from the perspective of his brother, Buddy, and both are marked by Seymour's absence. In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Buddy recalls taking leave from the army to attend Seymour's wedding in New York, but Seymour never arrives and somehow Buddy gets trapped in a car with the Matron of Honor and other members of the bride's wedding party, most of whom have a very poor opinion of the absent Seymour. Seymour: An Introduction is a more comprehensive treatise on Seymour, covering only the early parts of his life and written well after Seymour's suicide.

In a manner of speaking, Seymour's presence and absence define much of Salinger's works about the Glass family: He appears in two works, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which recounts his suicide, and "Hapworth 16, 1924," a late Salinger novella written from a young Seymour's perspective. And yet, he is the subject of these two novellas, and casts a long shadow in death over the events of Franny and Zooey; in Introduction, it is suggested that Buddy is the author of Catcher in the Rye, which casts the relationship between Holden Caulfield and his dead brother Allie in a new light.

These two novellas make it clear that Buddy is somewhat in awe of his brother. Though all the Glass siblings are invariably intelligent--one recurring references in the books is to a radio roundtable show, "It's a Wise Child," in which they all took part as children--Seymour occupies a singular place. Buddy describes him as a poet, sometimes literally, but often simply possessing of a poet's soul, deeply wise in the manner of Zen Buddhists. The title of the first novella comes from a line in Sappho, which Buddy's sister Boo Boo leaves in a note for Seymour on his wedding day:

Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.


Taller than a tall man--this describes Seymour perfectly, not just on his wedding day, but as the figure which towers over all of the other Glass siblings as the pinnacle of wisdom, kindness, and self-sacrifice. In Introduction Buddy is continuously apologizing for his efforts, as a writer, to place himself in the same spotlight, as his brother, but there are conflicting desires here: One, to step out of the way and let the world see Seymour for the genius that Buddy believes he is, and two, to be recognized in the same way. Buddy reprints a letter Seymour wrote to him in which Seymour affirms their connectedness:

The membrane is so thin between us. Is it so important for us to keep in mind which is whose? That time two summers ago when I was out so long, I was able to trace that you and Z[ooey] and I have been brothers for no fewer than four incarnations, maybe more. Is there no beauty in that? For us, doesn't each of our individualities begin right at the point where we own up to our extremely close connections and accept the inevitability of borrowing one another's jokes, talents, idiocies? You notice I don't include neckties. I think Buddy's neckties are Buddy's neckties, but they are a pleasure to borrow without permission.


There is a valid temptation here, I think, to see Seymour and Buddy as facets of Salinger himself--on one side, the transcendent philosopher, and on the other, the very human writer. Perhaps there is a Buddhist-like attempt here to separate the lofty from the ordinary, and throw the ordinary away, but the very nature of these novellas affirms that the two are inextricably connected. The question that remains is why Seymour, whom Salinger paints as brimming over with joy, wisdom, and kindness, chose to commit suicide. I often think that the answer to that question, if we could find it, might provide some sort of answer to the question of why Salinger has silenced himself for the past fifty years.

In any case, I think that Seymour: An Introduction might be the best thing that Salinger ever put out. It's written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, not like Joyce, but as close to stream-of-consciousness as a writer as mannered and minimalist as Salinger could achieve. I recommend it highly.

10 comments:

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

This is so weird to read since I have never heard a favorable review of R.H.T.R.B. It is the only Salinger I have never even wanted to touch but now I am curious.

Christopher said...

Really? If you liked Franny and Zooey, it's cut from basically the same cloth.

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Christopher said...

Raise the roof beam, Australian carpenters.

pat said...

This book drove me nuts when i first read it. And though i love The Catcher in the Rye, the JD Salinger book I tend to reread the most is franny & zooey.

Love this blog, btw.

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