Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cracks in the Glass


Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger


The acclaimed author of Catcher in the Rye, Jerome David Salinger, has produced a handful of works, one of which is Franny and Zooey, a novella in two parts. Catcher is one of my favourite pieces of fiction because it so deftly captures the atomised nature of post-War America and the sense of disaffection that many young men feel in the face of stifling societal norms. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I approached this work.

However, given Salinger’s reputation, I found Franny and Zooey for the most part a disappointment. It is a tale of an eccentric New York family, the Glass’s, who fancy themselves as the aristocrats of the north eastern intelligentsia. The precocious children (of whom the titular Franny and Zooey are two) all appeared on a radio show as kids - a trivia programme for prodigies called “Wise Child”. They have since emerged into young adulthood, the old certainties are lost, and each is trying to find his or her way in a confusing malaise.

Following a luncheon with her egotistical boyfriend, Franny suffers a mental breakdown and returns home. She is desperate to escape the demands of the public and to retreat into the life of spiritual recluse, but Zooey will have none of it. The latter part of the book sees her brother's efforts to halt her downward descent with discussions on the meaning of art and religion – with much repartee in between.

Franny and Zooey is written with the effortless style that is Salinger’s signature, with colloquial speech (like the ubiquitous "goddam") mixing with reflections on human nature and Eastern mysticism (which must have been bloody esoteric in the late 1950s!). The text also explores the duty of artists to create, and their struggle to find emotional peace amongst the churning waves of that creativity.

Salinger sketches characters with remarkable dexterity, and you are immediately drawn into their world. However, what he depicts is merely an episode in that world rather than a fully developed narrative. Considering that my edition was just over 200 pages, too much time was spent describing unnecessary details - like the bric-a-brac in the living room - and not enough on unwrapping the relationship dynamics and inner tensions of these compelling people.

I love short fiction, but this book’s brevity was a hindrance rather than a help. The usual rule-of-thumb with shorter pieces is that every sentence should count and I think JD wastes a lot of time with descriptive prose. Either the book should have been longer, or more focused, but as it stands it feels incomplete.


  1. Oh no Davey... I hate Catcher. Tis' sooooooooooo overrated!

  2. Mike, you clearly never had an adolescence.

  3. I hate catcher too

  4. People, I'm not seeing too many reasons for why we are hating here.

    Also remember what Catcher did for fiction in that it made colloquial speech okay and also completely screwed with the notion of your characters having to have coherent motivation for their actions. Holden just does stuff.

    I think a lot of American fiction today is the progeny of Salinger and because of this when you read him fifty years on he seems a little trite and dated.

  5. I have a friend who's got a crush on Lenin. He's dead. I feel there is parallel with this and loving catcher today (as a novel) for what it was in the past. As a 'history of literature' fan I could understand the infatuation with a book that is currently tedious by comparison, yet had a significant impact on xyz. But as a reader in the zen of enjoyment, I just don't like it (and felt particularly resentful about this given all the hype around the book). On a compromise note, I read half of the God of Small Things and didn't like it either. Aka: We might still have similar opinions on other literature. (Still love Arundhati's essays though)

  6. I have always loved the Franny part of the book, but not the Zooey section. I think the best Salinger story is undoubtably Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter, which may be the best piece of short fiction I have ever read. But, the second novella of that book-Seymour, An Introduction- is not the best.

    Nine Stories also has a few good ones. For Esme--with Love and Squalor and The Laughing Man are great.

    When he is good, Salinger is unmatched.

  7. Lunatic, perhaps I will follow your advice and read the whole oeuvre so I can see F&Z in the context of all of his writing.

    I have a friend who swears she wants to marry Seymour so the jury is out on that one. Although there seems to be a consensus about Salinger's short stories being some of the best examples of the craft.

  8. Micaela

    Back to Catcher - I hear your point about the different values we ascribe to literature (historical OR part of the broader trajectory of literature OR pure enjoyment; etc) The best books of course encompass all of these qualities - hence why "Crime and Punishment" is by far my favourite novel ever.

    I remember reading the preface to Lenin's What is to be Done? and the editor explained that his sole past times were playing chess and going on hikes with his wife. Although even the chess was thrown out after Vladimir deemed it too indulgent. I hope your friend knows what she is in for having a revolutionary as a spouse!

    On God of Small Things. I re-read my review of it and although I think I sound like a vindictive little shit in my criticism I still stand by my assertion that the book dwelt too heavily on vivid metaphors, and had a convoluted narrative. Considering the praise that it got I was in a sulk after grinding through it in six weeks.