Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger's Legacy Will Linger

I gave a little gasp this morning when I read the news that J.D. Salinger had died. Not least because a month ago when I was home for Christmas, my mom and I were discussing how old Salinger was getting, and whether we believed the rumors that he had manuscripts stashed away in his New Hampshire house to be published upon the event of his death. I guess we'll find out soon...

A few years ago I wrote a play in which The Catcher in the Rye functioned as kind of a leitmotif; as a tribute to Salinger, I here post a bit of dialogue from the first scene. The characters are two college students--freshman roommates who are both aspiring writers.
JULIANNE: I hate The Catcher in the Rye.


JULIANNE: Sorry. I just could never stand it. I mean, it’s just poor little Holden bitching about how he’s so misunderstood and everyone else is a phony, but he’s the real phony, and he doesn’t even realize it.

ANJALI: How can you write about teenagers and not like Salinger?

JULIANNE: I don’t know. I don’t go for all that angsty stuff.

ANJALI: When I was fifteen, I thought what Holden says—“Even if you had a million years, that wouldn’t be enough time to rub out all the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world”—I thought that was the most profound thing ever. I guess it sounds kind of silly now.

JULIANNE: Over-the-top, yeah.

ANJALI: Mmhm. Still, though, that’s how it feels when you’re fifteen…or even eighteen, still, sometimes…

JULIANNE: You think you’re Holden Caulfield! That’s just great.

ANJALI: I’m not saying I want to be Holden, it’s just that sometimes, without intending to, I can relate to him. That’s all.

JULIANNE: (Beat) Figures.


JULIANNE: You’re the kind of girl who stayed home from prom and read The Catcher in the Rye and bragged about it in homeroom on Monday morning.

ANJALI: You have no idea what I was like in high school.

JULIANNE: Well, it was only three months ago!

ANJALI: (Beat) Well, I’m not saying you got all the details right, but yeah! Okay? I did feel like an outsider sometimes! I did call my parents phonies! I had a crush on Holden when I was fifteen, does that make you happy?

JULIANNE: (Laughs) That’s such a cliché!

ANJALI: I agree. A real cliché. And yes, I brought it with me to college, but hopefully I won’t need it here.
This is fairly autobiographical--it's true that when I was fourteen or so, I thought that Holden's line "Even if you had a million years, that wouldn’t be enough time to rub out all the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world" was the most beautiful and poignant thing I had ever read; and also, one time during high school I skipped a dance (though not prom) and stayed home reading The Catcher in the Rye and wore that like a perverse badge of pride. And I brought the book with me to college and wound up with a roommate who couldn't stand Salinger.

I now realize that reading The Catcher in the Rye as a signifier of rebellion is a total cliché--and that it's dangerous to idealize Holden Caulfield's worldview. Nonetheless, I would not hesitate to call The Catcher in the Rye a great novel--because it is so accurate about the way adolescence feels, because it has managed to speak to so many young people. And as an adult, if you can read it as a character study and not a how-to book, it's still great literature.

And the summer after I graduated from college and was back at home, somewhat aimless and mixed-up, my life in stasis, I did not hesitate to describe it as "a Franny and Zooey kind of month."

And maybe my fondness for italicizing words when I write dialogue (just look at the scene above!) owes something to Salinger's inimitable style?

Rest in peace.

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