Saturday, September 3, 2011

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

I assigned Nine Stories as the summer reading for my upcoming AP English course. Students respond well to Catcher in the Rye, I reasoned, and might respond well to Salinger's other work, and a set of short stories, as easily portioned as it is, might take some of the burden of summer reading away. Whether or not those things are true--well, I'll tell you that in a few days when I find out how many of them completed the assignment.

Nine Stories remains as I remembered it: a collection of plain-spoken, yet acutely detailed, accounts of human interactions. I am still mostly baffled at "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" (What is it about Ginnie's interaction with Selena's brother that makes her go back on her demand to be paid for the cab fare?), mostly bored by "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," and heartbroken by "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" and "The Laughing Man," which probably are the best offerings here.

I was less absorbed in "Teddy" than I was the first time around--when you know for sure what's coming, that Teddy accurately predicts his own death, his long, plodding conversation about the nature of reincarnation saps the story of its dramatic thrust. The most rewarding to re-read--that is, the one that seemed richer for offering things I had missed the first time around--was "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," about a young artist who fakes his way into teaching at an art correspondence school.

The narrator--a nineteen-boy who is decidedly not the Parisienne De Daumier-Smith, friend of Picasso--takes the job out of boredom, or listlessness, or maybe is simply trying to get away from the stepfather he has to bum around with now that his mother has died. His students are irredeemably bad--not necessarily without talent, but puerile, or pornographic, or both. But one, a Catholic nun in Toronto, piques his interest, and he writes her a very personal letter asking her if he could mentor her as a painter.

What the narrator finds, perhaps without looking, is a kind of religious epiphany. Sister Irma's painting is a scene of Christ's crucifixion, and he experiences it as a secular vision. There is something unmistakably modern in his awe; it is the reaction of a world for whom artistic revelation has usurped religious revelation, who cherishes the symbol because it is more palpable than the murky truth to which it refers. It is easy to point out the tone-deafness of his letter to Irma--he asks, credulously, if being a nun is "satisfactory, in a spiritual way," and privately imagines that she is a young girl he might rescue from her vows--but it is also achingly sincere. This quasi-spirituality is so powerful that it gives Salinger a chance to try out some rare poetic flourishes:

Just before I feel asleep, the moaning sound came again through the wall from the Yoshotos' bedroom. I pictured both Yoshotos coming to me in the morning and asking me, begging me, to hear their secret problem out, to the last, terrible detail. I saw exactly how it would be. I would sit down between them at the kitchen table and listen to each of them. I would listen, listen, listen, and with my head in my hands--till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would reach down into Mme. Yoshoto's throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma's work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

But it is Sister Irma's parish priest that writes back, withdrawing her from the school. The worldly nature of the narrator's epiphany has not enabled him to make a real connection or a real communication, as is often the case with more religious epiphanies. An agnostic, he fashions the nun into a goddess-figure, who then acts, like a goddess, inscrutably.

But the moment that elevates the story happens at the end, and is something I do not think I totally understood when I read it a couple years ago. The narrator, having dressed up in a tuxedo for dinner and then having changed his mind, watches a girl undress a mannequin in a store window:

She was changing the truss on the wooden dummy. As I came up to the show window, she had evidently just taken off the old truss; it was under her left arm (her right "profile" was toward me), and she was lacing up the new one on the dummy. I stood watching her, fascinated, till suddenly she sensed, then saw that she was being watched. I quickly smiled--to show her that this was a non-hostile figure in the tuxedo in the twilight on the other side of the glass--but it did no good. The girl's confusion was out of all normal proportion. She blushed, she dropped the removed truss, she stepped back on a stack of irrigation basins--and her feet went from under her.

The narrator calls this his "Experience," and has to steady himself against the glass. Clearly, this epiphanic moment has usurped the last one--but why? I think it is because he senses the girl's great bafflement at seeing him, tuxdedoed, outside her shop window, and that in some way she is experiencing an epiphany of her own, an inscrutable spiritual vision. For him, it is not the experience of the vision, but the embodiment of it, that truly satisfies, being the god-figure instead of the saint.

He writes in his diary, "I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everyone is a nun." This is not quite right; one must be a god to grant freedom to a nun, and though everyone is in some respect a nun, I think Salinger is suggesting that everyone is a little bit more than that. Or, rather, that nuns and the god for whom the toil are not entities as separate as one might have thought.

1 comment:

The Life of the Average said...

I feel like the epiphany is not what you described. I believe that the narrator was attempting to convey to the woman in the display that he was not hostile, but because there was a wall in between them, she was unable to understand and, therefore, the two of them experienced a certain disconnect. The narrator them comes to the conclusion that one man is incapable of communicating to another what his intentions may be. For example, the narrator saw great potential in the nun, yet he was unable to get this across. He requested for her to stray from religious art, and this ended in her being withdrawn from the class. We all have potential, ability, and power that we may not see. Others may try to show this power to us, but we do not see it because of this barrier that exists between each man. Therefore, "everybody is a nun." This is a theme in both this particular short story as well as a few other short stories in Salinger's Nine Stories. (Note the wall joke that the young boy tells in "For Esme..." It is my belief that this also refers to the barrier between man)