Monday, February 1, 2010

Quickly. Quickly and slowly.

On my right wrist there is a tattoo that reads: GLASS. Yes, it is an inked tribute to J.D. Salinger's Glass Family.

Last Thursday, my sister sent me the simple text, rip jd salinger. I was surprised at how powerful a hit this was. I muddled through two student meetings and then headed home, fighting back tear bursts on the CTA (it's unnerving, isn't it, to see someone crying on the bus or train? I was that girl). When I got home, I exploded into a weird sob. Giant tears rolled down my cheeks, I let out a few quiet moans here and there.

Everyone is a little embarrassed and little snobby about admitting to a love of J.D. Salinger. His works have the stink of adolescent revelation to them, and if you cop to a continued love of his writing, then surely you must be on the arrested side. No one has a massive, rebellious, mental freak out like a teenager. What? Loving Catcher in the Rye at thirty-six? You're still doing that art thing you did in high school, aren't you?

(A waiter once asked me what my tattoo was all about. I told him and he let out a rye laugh. "How old were you when you got that, like seventeen?" "No," I said, "Thirty-four.")

Then there are the snobs. Those who read Franny and Zooey cover to cover on one October night and were never the same. Those who trolled the microfiche for old New Yorker publications, those who read biographies and charted Glass family trees and chronologies.

The first thing I ever read by Salinger was A Perfect Day for Bananafish. I was seventeen. Nine Stories was perched on my sister's shelf and I was drawn to the cover, with its nine autumnally hued squares.

At the risk of sounding indelicate - it blew my mind.

I can't remember if I gobbled up the last eight stories right away or not. The realization that there were other stories referencing the Seymour from Bananafish was one of the most exciting ever. There was a family of them; a troubled, anxious brood of geniuses. I poured over Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.

My reading of The Catcher in the Rye came late by comparison. I read it my sophomore year of college and, to be honest, wasn't as carried away with it at I was with the other stories (Don't get my wrong - it is a beautiful work, fully deserving of its high position in the continuum of great literature.) Salinger's sharper gifts lay within the Short Story. These miniature literary bursts offered a slim keyhole through which one could peek in on his characters. An overly realized universe (like, say, in a novel) can sometimes trample the the imaginative possibilities outside of the text. Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, Down at the Dinghy, and Hapworth 16, 1924 all provide a sidelong glimpse into a very specific landscape, while allowing for speculation beyond the page.

His other short stories hit me hard. One of the first things I ever adapted for the stage (totally unauthorized, mind you) was Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes. We prerecorded the script into a radio play and then made the audience sit in the dark to listen. The central focus in PMaGME is the dialogue (mostly monologue). If there was one thing I learned from reading Salinger it was how dialogue is a function of action. What a character says, what they don't say. What is emphasized. What isn't. Like music, there is a cadence and lyricism to their patter. Salinger is famous for his goddams and italics, forcing the reader to mentally inflect the way a his character is speaking. Some people hate that, but it's part of what made his work so readable. The push for emphasis gave the inhabitants of the Salinger universe a vibrancy. They were alive. You could hear them, as if in the next room.

There is something cinematic and almost documentary like about his stories. Every room in the Glass apartment, every high ball glass, every white glove is no small part of the larger story. Every item has own character. In Teddy, the title character says "Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions". It's almost a condemnation of poets...but then, on page 75 of Zooey, a list of the contents in the bathroom medicine cabinet [which includes "aspirin, anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole...the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy ("Call Me Mister")...a girl's boarding-school class ring with a chipped onyx stone] throws out hints as to objects' histories, their wear, their implied emotional life. They hold the Glass family in place, insinuating a past. Someone had to have gone to that musical - was it Les and Bessie? Did they take Franny with them? Was it the last time they saw Seymour alive?

In scanning other responses to Salinger's death, most of the comments I've noticed (usually in reference to Catcher) concentrate on how isolated and out of place his characters are. Holden, Seymour, Buddy, Franny, Zooey, or Teddy all stand off from the world, alienated. I agree that this is a running theme, the general anomie that accompanies a suspicion that the world is an unfair place, that other people are insensitive and unethical. But the true heartbreak of these characters is that they WANT to be a part of the world, and can't figure out how to do it.

For artists (or any creative person), a nearly impossible challenge is developing a sense of individual voice. When one is trying to chisel out an authentic experience, one possible response is to reject the world out of frustration. Often times this is touted as a champion goal, once freed from expectation the sensitive soul can finally be rid of all those phonies out there. But what we're reading in Salinger's books is the bootless attempts made by the alienated and sensitive souls to be a part of the world, to be accepted by it (much to their denial at this implication). Why are these characters compelling to me (to so many others)? These misfits are frustrated by the world, and as much as they fight to get away from it, there is still a desire to fit somewhere.

I don't think this is an uncommon conflict for anyone. I want to be me - Screw you, world! Please don't leave me, world!

One of my favorite things to mention in class is how a name can illuminate a character. I talk about it in reference to Clarice Starling. The choice of her last name is no accident: A starling is small bird with tiny feet, known for its determination. Hannibal Lecter is the same: Lecter is a play on Lectern - a podium used by priests and teachers. It's pretty English 101 stuff, but it gets the point across.

The choice of Glass as a last name could not be more perfect: Glass can be beautiful, sturdy, and protective. Depending on the type it can clarify or distort vision. When broken, it can be sharp and dangerous.

When Salinger died, it was as if Seymour died all over again. Even though I have been out of the habit of reading him for years, (except a brief re-ignition while writing Minnesota Normals) his presence is in my life pretty much every day. I never met him. Never wrote a fan letter (I did fantasize about it - I think we all did - writing a letter that would entice him out of hiding, confirming, at last, the Glassy specialness of us.). But I shared him with my best friends. I asked him for guidance in my writing.

I don't care about what a whacko he was. I don't care what hidden let downs exist under every inevitable over turned stone. Those things don't matter to me.

They're probably going to try to make a goddam movie out of some of his books. They will fail. Terribly, and much to the glee of fans everywhere. The best we can hope for is an homage like The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson got it nearly right there - and even incorporated the the longing to be a Glass with the character of Eli Cash (Again great last name). All he wanted was to be a Tenenbaum - but he could never be. Always on the outside, looking into a vibrant, failed playground.

The only book I have never read to its completion is Seymour: An Introduction. I can't bring myself to finish it. Because then, as a friend of mine once said, it will truly be over. I keep a copy of it around. I thought maybe I should - seeing that its father is dead now. But I won't. I'll leave that little slice of immortality untouched.

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