Saturday, April 28, 2012

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey
by J.D. Salinger

When I first read Franny and Zooey around five or six years ago, it occurred to me that the opening section about Franny would make an excellent graphic novel. A good artist could capture the train coming into the station, her boyfriend Lane reading her letter and anticipating her arrival, and the disconnect between them at lunch. Rereading the book now, I was pleased to discover I still feel the same way, and that I enjoyed the book just as much as the first time through. Given the ironclad nature of the Salinger estate, I doubt we'll ever see his work in any form but the books themselves, but it's interesting to think about.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, Franny and Zooey was originally published in the New Yorker as separate stories in 1955 and 1957. Though it's not exactly a plot-heavy book, it centers primarily around Franny Glass' mental crisis over her purpose in life, and the Glass family's residual grief over oldest son Seymour's suicide. Both stories are supposed to be narrated by their next oldest brother, Buddy, who is mentioned but not present during either portion of the book.

The Glass children were all once participants on a radio show called "It's a Wise Child." Because there were seven Glass children total, one or more of the kids appeared on the show regularly from 1927 to 1943. They would "answer over the air a prodigious number of alternately deadly-bookish and deadly-cute questions — sent in by listeners — with a freshness, an aplomb, that was considered unique in commercial radio."

Off and on during their broadcasting years, all seven of the children had been fair game for the kind of child psychologist or professional educator who takes a special interest in extra-precocious children. In this cause, or service, Zooey had been, of all the Glasses, hands down, the most voraciously examined, interviewed and poked at.

Zooey is now an actor, and an attractive one at that, and he's only a few steps ahead of Franny in navigating life. Though he doesn't exactly want to admit it, he's been in the same place as his sister. Their entire family is filled with people who had to figure out how to go from that precocious child to functioning adult. Some of them were not so successful, obviously.

One could write essay upon essay on this book; it is rife with character study opportunities. Loneliness, alienation (self-imposed or otherwise), success, spiritual fulfillment, family, grief — it's all here, and all in a book where the "action" is mostly through conversation and memory. It might not be a satisfying read for everyone, but I really like this book. A friend of mine recently organized a book club, and this was the first pick. Since I'm used to just talking into the internet-ether, it was fun to talk about a novel with people in the same room. (Plus, you know, snacks.)

I'd forgotten how darkly funny this book is, especially in the cutting way Franny describes her university experience. Anyone who has gone to college, Ivy League or not, has probably met a person like this:

"Well, I don't know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man's a person that takes over a class when the professor isn't there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He's usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it's a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Turgenev for about a half hour. Then, when he's completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they're all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths — pardon the contradiction."

There are certain MFA-affiliated sites and a couple undergraduate classes I took that remind me of that quote.

Zooey does plenty of talking in his portion, and he has his own good lines. His mother, Bessie, is trying to get his thoughts on the nature of Franny's breakdown, all while he's trying to finish a bath and then shave. This bit made me laugh:

"You know, I'm the only one in this family who has no problems," Zooey said. "And you know why? Because any time I'm feeling blue, or puzzled, what I do, I just invite a few people to come visit me in the bathroom, and — well, we iron things out together, that's all."

To some, it might seem a bit strange to review a "classic," but you know, we don't come tumbling into this world having magically read them all. I've read Salinger's Nine Stories, but I haven't read the one it seems that "everybody" has read, Catcher in the Rye. How this is possible, I don't know, considering one of my best friends is one of those people who has multiple copies and likes to throw them at others, insisting that they read it. My only excuse is that it's continually checked out of the library, and I haven't gotten around to buying it.

Point is, the same could be said for someone else about Franny and Zooey. With the eleventy-gerbillion books in the world (yes, my number is totally precise, shush), a person has to have some inkling as to why they would want to read a book other than that they "should" or it's a "classic." And Wikipedia is spoiler-central, which is fine, if that's what you're looking for, but old books need new, regular reviews too.

And if you have already read it, feel free to say what you liked about it in the comments.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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