Review Of Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/16/05
J.D. Salinger is the Terence Malick of the writing world, save that his art is not as productive and not as qualitatively good as Malick. Both men are acquired tastes to most, both are notoriously reclusive, with Malick readying only his fourth film in a third of a century this year, while Salinger has managed to only proffer three readily available literary works in his nearly sixty year long career- that being the criminally overrated The Catcher In The Rye- a good- but nowhere near great- novel, the hit and miss Franny And Zooey, and the collection of short stories known as Nine Stories, which has a reputation of being, along with James Joyce’s Dubliners, one of the great short story collections of all times. In a word- not. That’s not to say that there are not some brief moments of greatness, but Salinger seems to be one of those people who for whatever reasons has found a critical niche, that a devoted following idolizes, and has exploited it fully. Although it’s been decades since his last published works his name still regularly ranks with the top writers of the 20th Century, and his reclusive nature is enough to make Greta Garbo seem a rank amateur by comparison. To me, this is as inexplicable as the mystery of Harper Lee’s canonization for To Kill A Mockingbird- another good book that’s vastly overrated, although its reasons for overpraise are far more obvious due to the progressive racial angle of the work.
Nine Stories contains some famous tales, as well as tales that surround the fictive Glass family. The first of these tales is called A Perfect Day For Bananafish, and may well be the most famed of all of Salinger’s works, outside of The Catcher In The Rye. It was first published in The New Yorker, in January of 1948, and in reading it it becomes apparent that my last observation is superfluous, because it, and all the other stories (seven of which were published in that magazine) definitely have that The New Yorker feel. If you had read The Stories Of Alice Adams, as I recently have, you know what I mean, and the formulae such tales follow. The dialogue is generally first rate, especially compared to contemporary short fictionists, and at least insofar as mid-20th Century New York plutocrats go, but, it has not aged well. Woody Allen was far better at capturing that dilettante feel a few decades later, but even his latest films lack that panache of currency. That’s the problem with so specifically gearing a tale towards a specific audience- it’s limited, ephemeral and loses its luster quickly. In a sense, his dialogue, and even all these tales, are the prose equivalents of John Dryden’s versic courtly intrigues. As for the actual tales, A Perfect Day for Bananafish is basically about the last day of Seymour Glass’s life. He and his wife Muriel, a definite pre-Stepford Stepford wife, are staying at a beach resort, and in the first half of the tale Muriel is gabbing with her overbearing mother. While the conversation is fairly realistic, the things that the two talk of lend no higher essence. Good dialogue, in stories, sounds as if anyone could be uttering the words, but are certainly written for a higher purpose. While this dialogue sounds well, there is nothing illuminating within the dialogue for either the characters nor the rest of the tale, which is basically about Seymour meeting up with a young girl named Sybil, whom he tells a tale of mythical bananafish. Then, abruptly the tale ends with Seymour going up to his room and blowing his brains out with a gun. The presumption is that Seymour is suffering from what would later be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, because of references to the war, a book Seymour mailed his wife from Germany, and references to a psychiatrist- yet it is just as plausible that he’s crazy. This tale has been grossly overinterpreted, too. Many see the bananafish significance as being symbolic for either sciolists like Seymour Glass, or the overindulgent materialists like his wife, or Sybil, and while some points can be scored for either camp, the tale within the tale is so lightweight and absurd that even were we to accept that Seymour is trying to be symbolic with a child, most would be turned off by his condescension and dilettantism, making him an even more unsympathetic character.
The next tale is Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut, another New Yorker story that first appeared in March of 1948. This story is about two unfulfilled suburban women who get drunk one afternoon. Disillusioned by their lives, they self-indulgently prattle on about life’s unfairness, and have learned little from its meager lessons. The ending is a nice little turn, but overall the tale is all fluff and little substance.
Just Before The War With The Eskimos is the third story, from June
of 1948, and centers around two more dilettantes- the cynical and self-centered
Ginnie Mannox and her upscale tennis partner, Selena Graff. In the tale Ginnie
gets to meet Selena’s brother Franklin, another in the Salinger vein of
elf-absorbed and not quite with it men. He cuts his finger and then offers
Ginnie half of his chicken sandwich, while telling his sister that she is not as
well-adjusted as she thinks. The tale ends with a nice observation, but is more
interesting for Salinger’s odd interest in very uninteresting characters-
characters for whom narcissism is all the rage.
The fourth story is The Laughing Man, from the March, 1949 New
Yorker. The title actually refers to the story within the story, as well, where
the nameless narrator, ostensibly Salinger, recounts an adventure, at the age of
nine, when he and other members of his Comanche club were entertained by a
Staten Island law student, nicknamed Chief, who was paid to keep abreast of
them. At the end of each day, the Chief regaled them with the serial story of a
grotesquely deformed antihero, The Laughing Man, and his many cohorts- including
a wolf and a dwarf- lacing it with the emotional vicissitudes of his own doomed
romance. The Laughing Man regularly crosses ‘the Paris-China border’
to avoid capture by an internationally famous detective named Marcel Dufarge and
his daughter. Not uncoincidentally, The Laughing Man’s demise comes the same
day the Chief’s romance is kyboshed. The structure
of the story is a bit too melodramatic, and a bit too trite within its formulaic
tale within a tale, even in that era, but there are moments, and one can credit
Salinger with attempting to break free of formulaic storytelling.
Down At The Dinghy, from an April of 1949 Harper’s
magazine, is the middle story, about another rich young dilettante woman named
Boo Boo Tannenbaum (née Glass) and her young son Lionel, who hides upon his
father’s boat. The relationship between mother and son is explored as Boo Boo
finally wins her son’s trust.
For Esmé - With Love And Squalor, is the sixth story in the collection, and appeared in an April, 1950 New Yorker. It is also one of his most famous tales, as well as seemingly an autobiographical one. In it Sergeant X meets a brilliant thirteen year old French girl named Esmé (there seem to be few truly uneducated folk in the Salingerverse), and her little brother Charles, one afternoon, at a café, while stationed in England, during World War Two, right before D-Day, a mission he will be sent on. They are both so taken with each other, in their brief converse, that they vow to correspond with each other, and that he will write a tale about her, in her honor, about squalor- her favorite topic. The events of D-Day, however, have a negative effect on Sergeant X’s mental state, and he forgets about Esmé and his promise. With the war over, and stationed in Germany, X stumbles upon an unopened letter from her, along with a wristwatch, symbolic of his own fractured psyche, for its crystal was broken in transit. Then, while holding it, he falls asleep, unable to work up the courage to see if it works. The ending is a disappointment, gloom with a ray of sunshine- quite familiar, for in it Salinger tries to be symbolic, by having X try to spell out a word to mimic the ticking of the watch, but merely manages to leave the reader shrugging their shoulders after an otherwise good tale- probably the best in the book, as well as most complex, especially in that we are shown the effects of war without ever seeing the war itself.
Pretty Mouth And Green My Eyes is from a July, 1951 New Yorker,
and is a rather dull story about a middle of the night phone conversation
between two friends who are lawyers. The first lawyer has been prevented from
having a romantic evening by the second lawyer’s phone call. His faithless
wife failed to return home from a party. Seemingly using his friend as a
sounding board, the second lawyer rails about his marriage and wife, whom he
long ago stopped loving. This tale really goes nowhere. It is not so much a
story as a scene, a mood piece, and on that level it works, but the characters,
like most of Salinger’s, are not involving, nor particularly deep.
The penultimate story in Nine Stories is De Daumier-Smith’s
Blue Period. It was first published in the May, 1952 issue of the World
Review. It is a humorous tale about a pretentious, but talented, young
artist who moves to Montreal, Canada to become an instructor at an arts
correspondence course school. He puffs up his life experience to include being
older than he is, being an intimate of Picasso’s, but hates his talentless
students, save for an old nun, Sister Irma, whom he imagines is young and on her
way up in the art world, and whose painting moves him. He then epiphanies after
a night of failure.
The ninth and final tale is the mononominal Teddy, from a January,
1953 issue of The New Yorker. The title character is Theodore McArdle, a
ten year old on an ocean liner, coming home to America from a European trip with
his parents and sister. Teddy is a genius, and forerunner of other Salingerian
heroes, who converses with an odd man named Nicholson about philosophy,
reincarnation, and religion. Its ending is rather weak, but it contains
typically good Salingerian descriptions, such as: ‘His eyes, which
were pale brown in color, and not at all large, were slightly crossed--the left
eye more than the right. They were not crossed enough to be disfiguring, or even
to be necessarily noticeable at first glance. They were crossed just enough to
be mentioned, and only in context with the fact that one might have thought long
and seriously before wishing them straighter, or deeper, or browner, or wider
set. His face, just as it was, carried the impact, however oblique and slow-travelling,
of real beauty.’
Most of the tales are filled with almost preternaturally wiseass, smarmy kids who are de facto mini-adults, pre-cursors of the terminally wiseass brats who have inhabited tv sitcoms for the last few decades, yet whose moments of ‘prodigy’ reveal that they are as hypocritical as Salinger’s adults, while the adults in the tales are generally what can most charitably be called ‘losers’, and losers unredeemed. Then, again, to call them tales or stories implies that they arc. Most of these pieces are vignettes, sketches, or mood pieces, and even then the overpraise for them cannot be justified, for Raymond Carver sketches far more convincing and three dimensional characters, but as stories- or narratives- even granting their New Yorker conventionality, they do not succeed as well as they could have, with a little less preciousness, and a bit more ‘real’ reality. Perhaps, also, it’s because Carver, or a Pete Hamill, or a Robert Olen Butler, are more contemporary, their characters sound more contemporary- even if set in the same time periods as Salinger’s, but I think there’s more to it. His work does not date well, and has a precious mid-20th Century feel to it, as if Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, Reaganism, etc., never happened, and this distances especially younger readers- not so much in a lack of references, but a lack of realism. In a sense, Salinger’s short stories are darker, yet still naïve, versions of the fictive and idealistic Americana staked out by Norman Rockwell’s illustrations. And to get a sense of why that fails just compare any Salinger character to the characters of a William Kennedy from the same historic time frame. Kennedy’s characters are intelligent, artistic, dreamers, and failures, but at whatever social level they occupy they are far more likely to have been encountered by real readers. Now, before you state the obvious- that Kennedy’s characters are all novelic creations, whereas all but Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, inhabit a different medium- I would state that a short story’s essence is to illuminate character and/or moment- to focus intently on what would be a crescendo or climax in a longer work, so that explanation or claim does not really wash with me.
Salinger, to me, seems much more akin to James Joyce in the fact that one can argue he is a great writer, with moments of brilliance, but not a great short story writer, just as Joyce was not a great novelist. Their forms only superficially resemble short stories and novels, whereas their works might more properly be classified mood pieces, as I said, or true prose poems- a vastly overused term, as opposed to true ‘proems’ of the sort Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, or Georg Trakl, mined so effectively. Salinger’s short stories were recommended to me for his dialogue by a friend, but it is his descriptive powers that are his greatest strength, not his conversational exchanges. The dialogue can be good, but it can also be pretentious- that spoken in The New Yorker, but not by real New Yorkers, and the sort only spoken in short stories, not the real world. As stated, one need only be a Woody Allen film aficionado to appreciate his far greater ear for pretentious WASPy colloquy, whereas Salinger’s can ring false and strain credulity- seeming, at its worst, like John Updike, but with more breadth- especially when put into the mouths of babes, literally.
These Nine Stories are hermetic 1950ish tales, whose ‘humor’ is more based upon the fact that they are written in an oddly exclusive fifty to sixty year old idiom than being truly comic portrayals of human frailties. They are also strangely void of any real deep philosophy or insight; instead being mired in the then-current Freudian and pseudo-Freudian machinations thought to motivate real people, yet which have hooked deeply into the psyche of many readers, despite their absurdity. Yet, there is a certain critic-proof quality to the tales because of this near-fetishism not of the actual writing, but the meta-idea of what the writing is deemed to be about and represent. This is because it is rare, in the criticism of Salinger that I’ve read, that what the stories actually are about and/or accomplish, are addressed. Instead, there is a cultic quality to the ogling of the Glass and Caulfield families, partly buttressed and abetted by Salinger’s own weird public persona’s bizarre appeal- think Howard Hughes or Michael Jackson, wherein a member of either clan could pick their nose or suck their thumb (with or without booger attached) and Salingerians would insist that some cosmic relevance or Oriental or Zen symbolism was afoot, merely because of the way the character’s finger plumbed their nostril. This also allows Salingerians to pummel those who are not as impressed, with the writing of their hero, as being shallow or unenlightened, rather than merely able to see the limitations and flaws that are manifest to all but the devoted. Salinger is held up as a veritable godhead of anti-materialism and shallowness, yet this is not only a simplification, but an outright misread. Salinger is not a prophet against shallowness, rather an advocate of a different form of shallowness- intellectual shallowness to narcotize one from life’s pain, rather than the more manifest spiritual shallowness. Just look at characters like Esmé- she’s a phony, and even Teddy McArdle is a boor in the making. On top of that, Salinger is also a satirist, a point even his greatest admirers miss, although his satire is sometimes lame, and is taken for ‘realism’ by those enamored of stereotypes. Yet, these very misreads lend a cultic quality to Salinger’s work, and this sort of non-critical adoration is what many writers seem to want for their own work, but the truth is such personal fawning obscures any work, and instills an artistic reliance on things not actually present in the body of the artwork to define it. This is a dangerous precedent for any art or artist, and not something to be encouraged.
Not being subject to such blinders, though, I can state that my final verdict is that J.D. Salinger is a vastly overrated writer, wont to weak and predictably contrived and mechanical endings, quite insular, and non-universal- the perfect prerequisites for a cultic figure- but that does not mean he is not a good writer, by any means, just not nearly as great as his most deluded cultists believe.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 7/05 Hackwriters website.]
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