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5th January
written by Steph

True confession time: I first encountered J.D. Salinger when I was about 10 years old.  I was still of the age where I read magazines aimed at my target demographic, those being of the ilk of Bop, Big Bopper, Tiger Beat, etc.,  At sleepovers, my best friend and I would giggle over articles involving Zack Morris from Saved By The Bell, and Leonardo DiCaprio, then famous for portraying the homeless boy Luke, who was adopted by the Seaver family on Growing Pains.  Good times.  Now, of course, J.D. Salinger himself was not featured in the illustrious pages of Tiger Beat.  For one thing, this would have been well into the era when Salinger had become a recluse and was no longer granting interviews, never mind posing for pin-up spreads.  No, instead I heard about him when reading an interview with one of my favorite actresses of the time, Sarah Gilbert (she who portrayed the sardonic daughter Darlene on Roseanne).  It was a questionnaire-style interview, and under “Favorite Book” she had written The Catcher in the Rye.  And so, on my next trip to the local library, I checked it out.  [Further guilty, but true!, confession: when I was about 7 or 8, I checked out Wuthering Heights simply because it was the favorite book of Mary-Anne Spier from The Baby-Sitters Club book series.  Clearly it was way over my head… but when I read it again almost a decade later, I still didn’t like it!] And so began my love affair with J.D. Salinger, or perhaps I should say more specifically, with The Catcher in the Rye.  For, I must confess that until a few days ago, although I had read Catcher several times over, I had not read any of Salinger’s other works (despite owning them).  Now seemed as good a time as any to rectify this situation, especially considering that Salinger turned 90 this past Thursday.  I plucked Franny & Zooey from the shelf and decided to give it a go. Franny & Zooey is comprised of a short story (entitled “Franny”) and a novella (Zooey).  They were originally published two years apart in The New Yorker back in the 1950s.  Franny and Zooey are the two youngest children in the Glass family, and the two stories, unsurprisingly, follow each in turn (though Franny features quite prominently in Zooey’s story as well).   I must admit that neither story charmed me the way Catcher did, but of the two, I think Zooey was probably the stronger of the two.  Both stories feature religious discourse quite prominently, which I found quite surprising, because prior to reading this, I had erroneously been of the impression that Salinger was not really a religious or spiritual person.  More traditional Salinger fodder turns up as well (namely his dislike of phonies, as well as his sense that traditional education is misguided, pretentious, and a waste), but clearly religion lies at the heart of these stories (though he tries to argue that Zooey is actually a love story). Perhaps I have built Catcher and Salinger up in my mind over the years, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by Franny & Zooey.  The two stories feel very interdependent (the events in "Franny" directly lead up to Zooey), but there’s a lot of rehashing that occurs in Zooey as a result.  This might have been useful back when the two tales were published 2 years apart, but within a single volume, a lot of redundant information is retread.  Furthermore, large tracts of Salinger’s writing felt extremely pedantic and tiresome, either when he was discussing religion, or when one of the Glass kids is talking about how his/her extreme intelligence is such a social burden.  It’s like listening to people who talk about how they’re too thin to wear clothing off the rack, or have more money than they know what to do with it all; it’s not that I don’t understand what Zooey is saying, but it’s annoying to listen to it for pages upon pages (and then when you think the topic has reached its natural conclusion and we’ve moved on, he brings it up again!).  Rants are clearly Salinger’s thing, but for a short book (hardly more than 200 pages), at times the story felt like it might never end (or start...).  Particularly despicable is the letter that Zooey's brother, Buddy, writes to him which kicks off the Zooey portion of the book. I also found myself wondering whether Salinger might be a bit of a one-trick pony when it comes to his writing, because I found that essentially all of his male characters are Holden Caulfield.  Honestly, most of Zooey’s dialogue is interchangeable with that of Holden, both in sentiment and in style.  I wondered whether Salinger could write a convincing female voice.  I suspected he probably couldn’t, but then I read the scene in Zooey when he and his mother are talking in the bathroom, and I felt my hackles rising…  Why?  Because the mother Salinger had written was pitch-perfect, and perfectly conjured up conversations I had had with my mother (minus the "young man" parts).  I knew exactly who that woman was, so I applaud Salinger for creating such a realistic female character. Again, I find myself torn regarding how to recommend this book (or whether to recommend it at all).  I truly feel that Franny & Zooey does not hold a candle to The Catcher in the Rye, but I must also admit that I also worry that having last read that book when I was 16, I might not be so fond of it now at 25.  Might I find Holden unrelentingly and unforgivably whiny?  Perhaps.  On the one hand, I feel that Franny & Zooey might be somewhat of a letdown to those who have read and enjoyed Catcher, but on the other hand, it might actually be very consistent and in line with Catcher (if less refined).  I do think I will give his collection of short stories, Nine Stories, a whirl in the future, and  I also think a re-read of Catcher is on my horizon; I’ll be curious to see how it stands up a decade after my last reading.  As for Franny & Zooey, I don’t believe it’s one I’d read again in the future (well, except perhaps for the bathroom scene, which really is a gem), but if you have an academic interest in religion, then you might find the bulk of the discussion contained within its pages interesting rather than dull. Rating: 3 out of 5


  1. 02/10/2009

    Hm, I think I may have had enough of one-trick ponies after Lahiri, but this does sound somewhat interesting. It’s been a while since I read ‘Catcher in the Rye’, so I might give it a try after all.

    Could you clarify, though, what you mean by a focus on religion? Is it one religion in particular, or just general sort of spirituality talk?

  2. 02/10/2009

    The first story focuses on Franny Glass and her fixation on a book she’s found involving a Russian pilgrim who essentially travels about trying to learn how to pray. It discusses this idea of praying constantly, until you finally begin to embody the words and are praying perpetually without even realizing it and reach spiritual nirvana (of a sorts). She shows up again in the second story, and she and her brother get into a long discussion about spiritual enlightenment and the purpose of prayer. It’s definitely religious discourse with a more philosophical and spiritual bent to it, as it is clear the first and foremost the Glass family is filled with precocious academics. Salinger himself dabbled in a lot of different religions, so even though there is a Christianity emphasis to elements of the discussion, it also has a Bhuddist twist as well. To be honest, I found it fairly tiresome and the specifics of that discussion are somewhat blurred in my memory of “Zooey” story; it was rather pedantic and preachy. The one upside is that it’s really very much a novella, and is easily polished off in an afternoon, so if you do decide to give it a try, it wouldn’t take up much of your time if it turned out to be not your cup of tea.

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