Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nine Stories by JD Salinger

I love love love these stories. I expected to like them--after all, Catcher in the Rye is one of the world's best books--but I don't think I expected them to be as memorable as they are. Though, I suppose, if you produce as little as Salinger, you really ought to make the best of what you publish, right?

What impresses me about Salinger is that, while these prose in these stories isn't necessarily my favorite--especially because Salinger is keen on using judgement words like "memorable" and "unprettiness," which sort of ruin for me the experience of discovering things about characters and situations organically--but the dialogue and the realness of characters' interaction is so true and well-wrought that each story becomes very convincing. Too many authors deprive their characters of personality by making their characters say things that could be uttered by the average man, but the dialogue of Salinger's characters shapes and defines them because it's so fresh and not dumbed down. Here's an exchange between Seymour Glass and a small girl in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish":

Sibyl released her foot. "Did you read 'Little Black Sambo'?" she asked.

"It's very funny that you should ask me that," he said. "It so happens I just finished reading it last night." He reached down and took back Sybil's hand. "What did you think of it?" he asked her.

"Did the tigers run all around that tree?"

"I thought they'd never stop. I never saw so many tigers."

"There were only six," Sybil said.

"Only six!" said the young man. "Do you call that only?"

"Do you like wax?" Sybil asked.

"Do I like what?" asked the young man.


"Very much. Do you?"

Sybil nodded. "Do you like olives?" she asked.

"Olives--yes. Olives and wax. I never go anyplace without 'em."

To me, this sounds like many conversations I've had with small children. There's an element of absurdity to it that you think would be easy to capture, but I suspect if you or I tried it we wouldn't come nearly as close as Salinger at making it sound natural.

I did have one reservation, which was that Salinger seems fixated on two types of characters: the precocious child and the witty, cynical 20-30something. After finishing the collection, however, I decided that this was not necessarily the limits of Salinger's abilities, but that these stories really do work with a few central themes in common, whereas I had been expecting sort of a hodgepodge, unconnected collection. I think somewhere in these nine stories Salinger is suggesting that precociousness in a child--like Sibyl, or Esme in "For Esme--with Love and Squalor," or the Comanches in "The Laughing Man"--becomes in young adulthood a sort of unsatisfied and restless cleverness that manifests itself in depression and ennui. Most particularly it can be seen in the first-person narratives of "For Esme--with Love and Squalor," in which the narrator is a disillusioned soldier who is always cracking jokes, and "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," about a young art student who pretends to be an accomplished Parisian artist in order to work at a correspondence art school with an older Japanese couple. Of course, in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," these qualities combined with what seems to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder form a recipe for suicide. The narrator of "Blue Period" (De Daumier-Smith is his psuedonym; his real one is never given, though surely he overlaps somewhat with Salinger himself) uses his mendacity as a guard against his own disillusionment and cynicism, and he struggles through his corrections to his students' work--which is mediocre at best--until he stumbles across the paintings of a nun which are, to him, an unexpected and fleeting moment of sheer beauty. It is almost as if Salinger's young characters, marked by their cleverness but never their happiness, are constantly seeking the sense of wonder that they grew out of in childhood.

This idea comes across particularly strong in my favorite story of the nine, "The Laughing Man," about a boyscout leader who is constantly telling his troop a serialized story about the title character, an absurd amalgmation of crime noir, Bond novels, and comic books who "subsists on eagles' blood and rice." It is told through the eyes of one of the scouts, who doesn't understand completely what is at hand when the scoutmaster's girlfriend keeps showing up and then, suddenly, doesn't--but when the scoutmaster pulls over the troop bus and tells the final chapter of "The Laughing Man," brutally killing off the boys' beloved hero, we know what has happened: his heart has been broken.

The last story, "Teddy," brings the theme of precociousness to a strange extreme. The titular character is a young boy aboard a ship returning to America from Britain where, we learn very gradually (Salinger is a master of delayed exposition), he has been undergoing psychological "tests." As he bickers with his parents and scribbles in his diary, he seems just another gifted little boy until he reveals something to a passenger coincidentally familiar with the boy's "tests"--in former lives he has sought to obtain Nirvana but a spiritual stumble has caused him to be reincarnated once again as Teddy, to try one more time. He has an acute awareness of his spiritual life and could tell you, if you wished, the exact date and circumstances of your death. This is strange territory for Salinger, but the story's power and effectiveness is undeniable.

Of course, these themes surface again in Catcher in the Rye, and I feel that having read them gives me a fresher understanding of that book, especially the relationship between Holden and his precocious little sister, Phoebe. How much more potent is Holden's preoccupation with the vulgarities scratched on the walls of Phoebe's school when the possibility that Phoebe will grow into someone like Holden emerges? Something to think about.


Carlton said...

Precocious, precocious, precocious...

Elizabeth said...

It's lovely. :)

Anonymous said...

yall!!! are you on crack???

Paul said...

My favorite collection of short stories.