Salinger as the pre-postmodernist

The life of J D Salinger, which has just ended, is one of the strangest and saddest stories in recent literary history. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to let the disappointment of the second half of Salinger’s career — consisting of a long short story called ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ that reads as though he allowed the pain of hostile criticism to blunt the edge of self-criticism that every good writer must possess, followed by 45 years of living like a hermit in the New Hampshire woods — to overshadow the achievements of the first half.

The corpus of his good work is very small, but it is classic. His was arguably the first truly original voice in American prose fiction after the generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Of course nothing is absolutely original in literature, and Salinger had his precursors, of whom Hemingway was one, and Mark Twain — from whose Huck Finn Hemingway said that all modern American literature came — another. From them he learned what you could do with simple, colloquial language and a naïve youthful narrator. But in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ Salinger applied their lessons in a new way to create a new kind of hero, Holden Caulfield, whose narrative voice struck a chord with millions of readers.

The narrative is in a style the Russians call skaz, a nice word with echoes of jazz and scat in it, which uses the repetitions and redundancies of ordinary speech to produce an effect of sincerity and authenticity — and humour: “The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl ... she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame’ll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them. I mean most girls are so dumb and all. After you neck them for a while you can really watch them losing their brains. You take a girl when she really gets passionate, she just hasn’t any brains. I don’t know. They tell me to stop, so I stop.”

It looks easy, but it isn’t.

Nearly everybody loves ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, and most readers enjoy Salinger’s first collection of short stories, ‘Nine Stories’. But the work that followed, the four long short stories paired together in two successive books as ‘Franny and Zooey’ and ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction,’ were less reader-friendly and provoked more critical comment, leading eventually to the retreat of the wounded author into solitude.

This was as much the consequence of critical failure as of authorial arrogance. These books challenged conventional notions of fiction and conventional ways of reading as radically as the kind of novels that would later be called post-modernist, and a lot of critics didn’t “get it.” The saga of the Glass family is stylistically the antithesis of ‘Catcher’ — highly literary, full of rhetorical tropes, narrative devices and asides to the reader — but there is also continuity between them. The literariness of the Glass stories is always domesticated by a colloquial informality. Most are narrated by Buddy, the writer in the family, who says at the outset of “Zooey” that “what I’m about to offer isn’t really a short story at all but a sort of prose home movie.”

The nearest equivalent to this saga in earlier literature is perhaps the 18th-century antinovel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’, by Laurence Sterne.
There is the same minutely close observation of the social dynamics of family life, the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative structure, the same teasing hints that the fictional narrator is a persona for the real author, the same delicate balance of sentiment and irony, and the same humourous running commentary on the activities of writing and reading.

Seymour Glass

How Shandean, for instance, is Buddy’s presentation to the reader in ‘Seymour’ of “this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: “I suppose, most unflorally, I truly mean them to be taken, first off, as bow-legged — buckle-legged — omens of my state of mind and body at this writing.”

Seymour Glass first appeared in one of the ‘Nine Stories’, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, as a disturbed veteran of World War II (as Salinger himself was), who on vacation with his rather shallow wife, after a charmingly droll conversation with a little girl on the beach, shockingly shoots himself in the last paragraph. The late stories are all in some way about the attempts of Seymour’s surviving siblings to come to terms with this action. This often takes a religious direction, and presents the Glass family as a kind of spiritual elite, struggling against a tide of materialism and philistinism with the aid of Christian existentialism, Eastern mysticism and a select pantheon of great writers.

This cultural and spiritual elitism got up the noses of many critics, but I think they overlooked the fact that Salinger was playing a kind of Shandean game with his readers. The more truth-telling and pseudo-historical the stories became in form (tending toward an apparently random, anecdotal structure, making elaborate play with letters and other documents as ‘evidence’), the less credible became the content (miraculous feats of learning, stigmata, prophetic glimpses, memories of previous incarnations, and so forth).
But what were we asked to believe in: the reality of these things, or the possibility of them? Since it is fiction, surely the latter; to suppose it is the former is to lose half the pleasure of reading the books.

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