Perhaps you might’ve heard that J.D. Salinger wrote more than one book. Growing up, I imagined he finished Catcher in the Rye, wrung his hands of the whole writing business, and scurried away to live the rest of his days as a hermit in a cabin in the woods.
This is not true, of course.
I recently read his sophomore novel, Franny and Zooey, and it is amazing. In the interlude after the first story, he “catches us up”, describing the book as a collection of short stories. So, naturally I thought the they would be unrelated. Then he goes on to explain the family tree between the six siblings, Franny being the youngest at 20 and Zooey being the main “middle” child at 25.
Zooey still lives at home in their parents’ overly furnished apartment. It’s filled to the brim with Victrolas, reading tables, and so many lamps. The window shows down upon a school across the way, a literary tool Zooey alights upon in conversation only to have an epiphany about how good the world is while trying to convince Franny that she’s being overly dramatic, but at the same time, in his roundabout way of getting to the point, he’s saying she should be an actress.
It’s truly amazing, how naked they are. And if you have siblings or close friends, you can relate to how they talk to one another.
Franny’s your atypical brainiac, just trying to fit in at college and she comes home enervated and wanting a safe place for a nervous breakdown while she figures her shit out and Zooey’s charged with the task of helping her through this trying time via a conversation he and his mom share in the bathroom. And she’s a character: a chainsmoking ghost who wanders from room to room, jangling all the way, with her pockets full of nails and candlesticks and who knows what else. She’s sown pockets into her otherwise uncomely Japanese kimono-type of house dress for this very reason. To be useful, it seems, at the drop of a hat. The Glass parents used to be triple threats themselves, until they settled down to have kids, who turned out to be the Wise Children, broadcasting their smarts on the radio for a decade or so during their prime. Living up to their claim to fame, they each went on to do great things, or so we’re led to believe. It looks like Franny and Zooey are the ones left to fill the gap.
Dialog is always a finicky beast throughout all walks of life, really, especially if you’re forced to relate to characters who just seem to crop up out of the ether and take over your life. J.D. Salinger’s dialog in Franny and Zooey is so good, as to believable in every sense of the word. From his “go away, mother” retorts while he’s taking a bath while concubescently trying to shoo her way from his one safe haven in the house to him calling his little sister from the second line and pretending to be their oldest sibling Buddy, the few scenes in this “skimpy” novel as J.D. Salinger describes it, are real, as real as you can get when an entire novel is composed of a handful of characters sharing epithets on the meaning of life.
Their speeches are fraught with quotes from philosophers, Zen buddhists, and even Jesus himself. And why is this all coming to a head now? No one has touched Seymour’s things since he took his own life some years ago, but Franny’s claimed the lat two books he read, The Way of the Pilgrim and the follow-up to that novel, as her own and has the Jesus Prayer as her own personal “om” of calm to court the menial disasters of her college life.
“Matthew, Chapter Six. I remember it very clearly, buddy. I even remember where I was. I was back in my room putting some friction tape on my goddamn hockey stick, and you banged in–all in an uproar, with the Bible wide open. You didn’t like Jesus any more, and you wanted to know if you could call Seymour at his Army camp and tell him all about it. And you know why you didn’t like Jesus any more? I’ll tell you. Because, one, you didn’t approve of his going into the synagogue and throwing all the tables and idols all over the place. That was very rude. Very Unnecessary. You were sure that Solomon or somebody wouldn’t have done anything like that. And the other thing you disapproved of–the thing you had the Bible open too–was the lines ‘Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.’ That was all right. That you approved of. But, when Jesus says in the same breath, ‘Are ye not much better than they?’–ah, that’ where little Franny gets off. That’s where little Franny quits the Bible and goes straight o Buddha, who doesn’t discriminate against all those nice fowl of the air. Those lovely chickens and geese that we used to keep up at the Lake.”
She hates her professors, she has no real friends, and her boyfriend doesn’t understand her. She’s having problems eating and her mother is concerned. So, what’s a brother to do? He berates her to tears, then convalesces to a point where she’s laying in her mother and father’s bed, self-actualized. If this tiny tome were a movie, we’d see the radiance of enlightenment shine through her like that one scene in Amelie where the blind guy she helps across the road finally feels the synergy of life flow through him after she tells him where he is what these smells mean.
It’s an amazing book, let me tell you. I love these characters and I wish there were more of them, but like most books, they end where they’re supposed to and that’s where it ends. Enlightenment. Self-actualization. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? Whether we want to be actors or writers or some other thing entirely.