Tuesday, July 8

Part two of a very long discourse

(Link to Part One of a Very Long Discourse and Part Three of a Very Long Discourse)

Occasionally, I become infatuated with fictional characters. Pathetic, I know. The most significant was Holden Caulfield; the result of reading The Catcher in the Rye as an impressionable young seventeen-year-old.

Catcher in the Rye is a novel that should never be read by anyone over the age of 18.

The first time I read it, I embraced Holden Caulfield’s cynicism with relish and tried to convince every living human that it was the greatest book ever written. I wrote research papers about it, I wrote stories in Salinger’s/Holden’s cynical style of narration, and when I got to college I spent time with my friends arguing over which people on campus seemed accurate personifications of Holden (usually based on the presence of a hunting cap with earflaps). I cheered any references to Catcher I read or saw on television or in movies. I wanted to marry Holden Caulfield, to tell the truth, despite the fact that he would probably ultimately find marriage squalid and depressing.

Eventually, I ran out of books I hadn’t read (obviously, this was before I discovered the Russians) and decided to read good old Catcher in the Rye again. Bad idea. The saying goes that you can’t step in the same river twice, and you definitely can’t read the same story twice, especially if it happens to be written by JD Salinger. Upon second reading, I was about 20, past high school and on hiatus from college. I found Salinger’s language still to be poignant and sarcastic and funny: “I don’t much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes anyway. Their bumpy old chests are always showing,” and “Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head,” are passages that cracked me up when I first read it and they still crack me up now.

But there was something missing the second time I read it. Holden annoyed the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. He just complained too damn much! It had been the basis of his charm before, but not now. It had something to do with the fact that you don’t possess the same innocence and wonder at 20 as you do at 17. Or the fact that all you want at 20 is to be 21 and party. Or that once you encounter real people who are as depressed or complain as much as Holden, it's hard to deal with. There’s also the fact that I read all of JD Salinger’s short stories that I could get my hands on, and I simply didn’t like them as well. Then there’s the fact that Salinger seems to feel, as Steven King put it, that his writing is too good for anyone to read. It just seemed…I don’t know, overrated, somehow.

Yeah, not somehow overrated, but totally overrated. I'm convinced that the enduring popularity of this book is owed solely to the fact that it's a banned book. I'm pretty sure old JD sold his soul to the devil to get noticed. Some words of wisdom: ladies, if you meet a guy who has read this book since turning 19 and considers it one of his faves, run for your fucking life, because you can be sure that guy is a great big mopey bore. The sick thing is that now I have a Lit-major-y urge to look up scholarly articles about Catcher to see what the scholars have to say. I suppose it might mean more to give it another read with an eye to Modernism, now that I know more about it, but blehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

If I want some late-Modernist reading I'll just stick with Camus. His characters don't mope.


Mambinki said...

I did the same thing with this book- I read it at 16, loved Holden, thought he was so much cooler than all of the stupid boys in high school. Then I read the book again in college and found Holden to be w real whiner and someone who probably could use a kick in the arse, some psychotropic meds, or both.

Jenny said...

I will gladly volunteer to give him that kick in the arse!