Zooey is . . . . a dude?
Greetings, gentle readers (all three of you). Today CWMW brings you another thrilling installment of My Summer Reading List. For many people, summer reading involves so-called “beach reads” or “chick lit” or, for a select few, the latest attempt at The Great American Novel. Given my profession, my summer reading tends towards the “hmmm, what am I teaching in the fall? when did I last read it? who has written a good article on it recently?” and usually involves nineteenth-century narratives where the heroine dies or goes crazy. And I do luvs me some crazy. But, I felt it was time to catch up on what people on this planet read for fun. And I turned my summer reading list over to a friend.
And she gave me J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. I’m not sure if I can forgive her for that. The Catcher in the Rye, my only previous Salinger experience, rocked my world in the same way it did yours. The teen angst, the sex issues, the bad words. Sweet nectar of the literary gods for my fifteen-year-old soul. I wanted to live in Holden Caulfield’s world. Being a kid from Nebraska, Caulfield’s world of New England prep school privilege was just soooo enticing and the way he roamed the city and processed his thoughts about school, society, family, and the hypocrisy of it all mirrored, in my mind anyway, me staying up late at night thinking through all the possible permutations of my life.
Franny and Zooey is a very different book. Which is good, of course. We’d hate it if our great hermit man of American letters was a one-trick pony. F&Z is a two-part novel. Franny gets the first, shorter section, wherein she travels from her womens’ college to her beau’s men’s college (not Yale, not Princeton, but whatever) and suffers a nervous collapse over lunch (her: uneaten chicken sandwich and gin; him: frogs’ legs and gin). She, like Holden before her (Holden, 1951; Franny & Zooey, 1955) can’t reconcile herself to living in a world of hypocrisy and mediocrity and rampant egos. Her boyfriend, Lane, is a pompous ass who wants her to be his mirror–a beautiful, class- and age-appropriate reflecting pool for his ambitions. She hates him. Good for her. She passes out and screws up his entire weekend planning. Go Franny.
Then we get to part two, Zooey, and things get interesting. Franny and Zooey (Zachary) are siblings. Two of five (or is it seven?) Glass children. They and theirs populate much of Salinger’s work. Wikipedia will tell you all about it. All the Glass children spent their childhoods appearing on a radio program called “The Wise Child.” They are all brilliant, especially Zooey. In his section of the story the reader learns that F&Z, the two youngest Glass kids, were raised on a steady diet of religious philosophy by their two oldest brothers, Buddy & Seymour. Thanks a lot for that, bro. B&S, having filled their minds with lofty ideals from a tender age, have given F&Z inadequate tools for dealing with their own imperfections and those of the people around them.
Back to Franny. Her collapse at lunch with Lame-O Lane-O is due in part to her reading of the spiritual text The Way of the Pilgrim, in which a lowly Russian peasant learns to say the Jesus prayer without ceasing and thus achieve spiritual enlightenment. Franny is taken with this. She wants out of her own skin. She is uncomfortable with her own ambition and her own brilliance and seeks . . . something that will help her let go. So, she starts to recite: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Over and over, under her breath, without ceasing.
Zooey takes her to task for this. He hashes through the spiritual education Buddy and Seymour gave them, telling Franny: “We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards got to us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the Tatooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tatooed, too.” Zooey tries to help his sister see that she is fleeing ego and ambition and the falsity she sees everywhere around her for something else that may be equally false and ego-filled. He tells her, “You talk about piling up treasure–money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on. In going ahead with the Jesus Prayer–just let me finish now, please–in going ahead with the Jesus Prayer, aren’t you trying to lay up some kind of treasure? Something that’s every goddam bit as negotiable as all those other, more material things?”
Zooey’s section of the book is long, over one hundred pages, and covers a time span of, oh, say, about an hour and a half. Maybe two hours. I mention this merely to give you an indication of the density of Salinger’s tale. Salinger is not about motion–or at least not of the forward-moving kind. This story doesn’t want to GO anywhere. It sits back and reflects on a family, on several childhoods, and on the adults those children have grown into (or, in the case of Seymour, the adults those children grew into and then committed suicide to get away from). I like Salinger’s style. His dialog is excellent; you feel as if you are in the room listening to these two jaded people talk about how they have a hard time coping with life. I find myself, however, thinking back to Holden Caulfield. His world, the one that was so seductive for me, is also the world of the Glass children. Zooey remarks at one point, “The trouble with me is, I don’t trust any out-of-towners in New York. I don’t care how the hell long they’ve been here. I’m always afraid they’re going to get run over, or beaten up, while they’re busy discovering some little Armenian restaurant on Second Avenue. Or some damn thing.” And, for me, it is the same way with Salinger’s writing. I am not trusted. He writes about what he knows, the hallmark of a good writer. But the world he knows–a genteel, barely-post war, New England-Atlantic seabord, upper-middle class provincialism–bars people like me from entry. Or, better, would bar people like me from entry, if it were still around. But Salinger’s world has gone, having been replaced by a commercial media culture that can’t envision students at Wellesley caring about the Jesus Prayer or anything else. I’m not saying that’s for the good, or anything, just that Salinger seems so dated. College kids still have identity crises, but in our post-post-Freudian, post-pop-psychology era, I grow rather weary of Franny’s breakdown.
I find it particularly interesting that Zooey is an actor and that, by the end of the story anyway, Franny appears to be heading down that career path, as well. Although the hermit writing teacher Buddy seems to be the most likely figure to be a Salinger stand-in, I think acting is the stand-in for writing in this book. The children all started “acting” on the radio program “The Wise Child,” performing their brilliance for an audience who could not see them or really know them at all. Similarly, I suppose, Salinger writes his brilliance in his cave somewhere in upstate New York or Vermont or wherever he is/was and makes sure, in his hermit-like way, that we cannot see or know him.
At the end of their conversation, Zooey lets Franny in on Seymour’s real words of wisdom. Even when acting on a radio show were they were invisible to their listeners, Seymour told them to shine their shoes. Shine them for the Fat Lady. Zooey has this Fat Lady “sitting on this porch all day long, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and–I don’t know.” Franny pictures her with “very thick legs, very veiny. I had her in an awful wicker chair. She had cancer, too, though, and she had the radio going full blast all day!” Seymour tells them to shine their shoes, be funny–in short, do their very best–for this Fat Lady. Franny and Zooey agree that this makes sense. This is the upshot of their spiritual education: do unto the least of these, etc. etc. “Don’t you know the goddam secret yet?” Zooey asks Franny. “And don’t you know–listen to me now–don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?. . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
This works for Franny. She can see how to make sense of her life and her ambitions by performing for the Fat Lady. She can see that the audience doesn’t have to be worth her, or to laugh at the right spots, or not laugh at the wrong spots. Franny just has to nurture her talent and let her brilliance glow. This is sound advice. You can’t change other people, you can only change yourself and how you relate to those boors you have to share airspace with.
As a reader, though, I am uncomfortable with the notion that I am Salinger’s Fat Lady. My body image issues aside, I think this speaks to my feelings of being shut out by Salinger’s world. He doesn’t want to be seen, or known–he wants to perform his brilliance for an undifferentiated sea of cancer-suffering Fat Ladies, doing his level best to entertain us because it is his god-given talent and mission. On the plus side, we get excellent literature. I can’t say enough about how well Salinger writes. But Franny & Zooey didn’t change me, didn’t let me in enough to identify with these young people and their struggle to find meaning.