A Single Explosion of Candor

or, A Literary Quest
by Goodman Carter

At 14, the title of Catcher conjured up images of an "adult" baseball novel that my uncle gave me when I was younger after seeing my bookshelf filled with 40 Matt Christopher books. (The baseball novel was banned by my mother.) I can honestly credit this misunderstanding — even though I realized before I read it that it wasn't about baseball — as the reason I eventually decided to read it a few years later. I was finally ready to graduate from the YA sports books and Newberry award-winners, and in doing so, I reached something that was foreign to me: the idea that the narrator of a book could talk like a normal person. In a conservative Christian family, I lived in the world of the actual omniscient third person: God as narrator. The idea that Holden Caulfield was given the liberty of telling his own story didn't seem right, but that was what magnetized me to it. I took from it what most people did: Holden's angst, non-conformity, and struggle with life.

Fast-forward: during the summer before I turned 16, I was reading Catcher once a month and had finished all the Glass family stories. I was running dry on material, so I asked my mom to drive me down to the main branch of the Denver Public Library. She was already worried about me spending too much time at our local branch. (Unbeknownst to her, one week was spent lurking in the stacks and reading Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," which was also banned from our house.) I was exhausting the interlibrary loan borrowing staff, and most of my requests at the time were J.D. Salinger esoterica. That was the reason for my trip.

The library was beautiful. My mom was going to go down there since it was near her campus, and she (graciously) gave me $10 to start making as many photocopies as I could. I had printed out a bibliography of all the stories and had started going through the old periodicals Salinger were published in: the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier's, the New Yorker. I found out that he had even written a story for Cosmopolitan before it became Cosmo. I started gathering the volumes to photocopy them — the librarians probably thought I was schizophrenic, piling so many books up at once.

Some of the volumes in the periodicals section were missing pages, and after a little searching, I realized that the Salinger volumes were the worst offenders. People had ripped out pages and kept them. I didn't fault them for wanting to take them home, since I had the exact same desire, but what was someone going to do with only 20 pages of "Hapworth 16, 1924"? In place of the articles, there would be pages of beverage ads and suggestions on which items to purchase to become a cultured member of society. But most of them were still there. By the end of the day, I racked up a $25 photocopier bill, printed out and folded on A4 paper.

The stories were incredible. The first one that caught my eye was "The Heart of a Broken Story." The self-referentiality and cleverness was something I loved about Salinger, and this was exactly that distilled into a few pages. They were all beautiful, and it was more than just the hunt that made them rewarding. I finished the stories that week and realized there was no more.

But there was more. When I ran out of Salinger to read, I started reading my first works of literary criticism: Eberhard Alsen's Salinger's Glass Stories As a Composite Novel, An Adventure in Vedanta: J.D. Salinger's The Glass Family by Som P. Ranchan, and other weird books that I didn't really get. I even tracked down a far away library's copy of a novel by a man on the J.D. Salinger mailing list I was subscribed to who had died a few months before. I was into the Beats and the Transcendentalists and all that, but Salinger was my first literary love.

I kept searching, trying to see if I could track down photocopies of some of the periodicals the library was missing. What I got was so much better. An interlibrary loan search showed a book on the east coast that seemed illegal. I requested it immediately from ILL.

The volume was called 22 Stories. and it was perfect-bound and published by "Train Bridge Recluse." All of the stories were mine. I had them for a week.

or, An Icy Appraisal
by S. Future

In Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, there's a character who, trapped, decides to talk himself out of suicide by putting up an advertisement: all people who've had suicidal thoughts should contact him for an interview. The plan seems foolproof: logically, those who've successfully killed themselves won't contact him, so only people who've decided to stay alive will come over the phone lines, and they'll have nothing but good advice to keep the gentleman from taking the final action: who else, honestly, would have any kind of useful advice on the subject?

But the plan backfires: the only calls the gentleman gets are from failed suicides, people who could find no good reason to remain alive in a broken society, but who lacked the courage or the technical skill to carry out their escape. All along the line are voices from beyond the grave.

J.D. Salinger's goal, from the beginning of his career, was to become the next F. Scott Fitzgerald: to dominate the "slicks," to capture the public attention through pithy short fiction, to create prismatic prose, the kind of sentences that, rather than faithfully shuttling light from memory or research notes to reader, decide to break it in transit, to apologize by dazzling. By the end of his career as a publishing writer, all measurable standards showed that Salinger had reached the goal, with his last stories effectively commandeering the issues of the New Yorker in which they appeared. (Imagine that for a moment — an issue of the New Yorker stripped to event listings and fiction, nothing else considered as important for the week, straight-up golden age.) Yet Salinger's position as Fitzgerald's literary heir went deeper than questions of success, early or sustained, questions of cultural reach, questions of style.

The basic plot of a Fitzgerald story details the collapse of a dream. But the means by which Fitzgerald constructs his dreams — ersatz pirates kissed in the illustration, Beauty descending to Earth as a flapper to meet Anthony Patch, the union of flesh and spirit in the person and lips of Daisy Fay, even the insane never-filmed late screenplay in which the hero calls the girl by way of St. Peter at some kind of MGM-glitzy celestial switchboard — the construction of the illusion is equally important, even more interesting than the exact mechanics of the collapse. Salinger's work is like this: affected seven-year-olds seeing into the future, the Jesus Prayer getting hearts in rhythm with God, Seymour's hair jumping in the barbershop. The same kind of constructed, fitful visions, punctured for the grudging sake of roundness — Zooey doesn't go into Seymour and Buddy's room for years after S's death, except when he needs a tennis racket — but essentially allowed to stand as visions.

And visions don't stick around. At the moment Gatsby kisses Daisy, she becomes real for him, and the rest of the plot follows from that. J.D. Salinger — who, it bears mentioning, died Thursday — could never accept that — or, more charitably, never experienced that. The entire plot of Seymour: An Introduction, widely regarded as the beginning of the end, hinges on Buddy Glass overcoming the conviction that visions can't hold up under examination, allowing himself to give away Seymour to an uncomprehending public, God bless him. It's significant that Buddy never doubts his vision of Seymour — he doubts that readers will want to stick around for it. But it's also significant that Salinger keeps having Buddy bring the subject up — that something is on his mind.

From the beginning of Seymour:

... to push on and make my point here — and I don't think it's the kind of point that will survive an interminable buildup — I found out a good many years back practically all I need to know about my general reader; that is to say, you, I'm afraid. You'll deny it up and down, I fear, but I'm really in no position to take your word for it. You're a great bird-lover. Much like a man in a short story called "Skule Skerry," by John Buchan, which Arnold L. Sugarman, Jr., once pressed me to read during a very poorly supervised study-hall period, you're someone who took up birds in the first place because they fired your imagination; they fascinated you because "they seemed of all created beings the nearest to pure spirit — those little creatures with a normal temperature of 125."

In short, he's writing for the in-crowd, and well he knows it. He hasn't yet decided to be bothered by it.

It is not cool to like J.D. Salinger's writing after a certain point. He was, by all accounts, a bad guy for anyone outside his immediate circle of family and friends to know — the child-brides, the alphabet jumpers, the flirtations with Scientology, the lawsuits, the urine-drinking. His protagonists are, if not solipsistic, at least abnormally concerned with the state of their souls; when other people intersect their lives, it's as sources of potential guilt or detached amusement. (Try reading the part of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters in which Seymour talks about how his mother-in-law is "unimaginably brave" because she tries to live life without any "understanding of or taste for the main current of poetry that flows through all things." Seriously, try it!) Everyone in a Salinger story is rich; everyone likes New York hotel restaurants; the greatest intrusion the world makes on the hermetic Salinger universe is battle fatigue from World War II — which is something, but which makes being into Salinger today a risky proposition.

But consider that Salinger was a "writer's writer" in the sense that he wrote about writing — basically all of the later Glass stories from Raise High The Roof Beam on hinge on one character discovering writing, either collected or generated, by another. Writing is the hero of the Glass stories; this is no mean feat.

Writing is the hero; publishing slowly becomes the antagonist. You should never talk to cops because anything you say can, and generally will, be used against you — once you publish, you can no longer take the Fifth when it comes to critics. You end up being the kind of person whose writing it is not cool to like unless you cut it out, quick, and make your play for that American classic, the unfinished Symphony, the if-only guessing game. Spiritual writers are caught in Fitzgerald's trap: at the moment the dream comes true, at the moment the story is written and released, it begins to decay. This is what's irritating about spiritual writers: they have to choose whether to go to heaven or to be honest, to reveal the work, to enter history and the cycle that leads to death. This is what's infuritating about Salinger, and why, despite the ghoulishness of it, you can't truly view his death with regret. He's chosen to make it the beginning of the end of his story.

Seymour, again:

Please, dear general reader, as a last indulgence (if you're still here), re-read those two short passages from Kafka and Kierkegaard I started out with. Isn't it clear? Don't those cries come straight from the eyes? However contradictory the coroner's report — whether he pronounces Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide to be the cause of death — isn't it plain how the true artist-seer actually dies? I say (and everything that follows in these pages all too possibly stands or falls on my being at least nearly right — I say that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.

So who wins: Salinger's scruples, or the sense in his stories that writing — that fiction, that telling stories to people — matters? Do we get the solipsist, the self-obsessed, the Stalinesque "evil" Salinger, or do we get another unpretentious bouquet of early-blooming parentheses? Do we get another explosion of candor — the kind of explosion that can, straight-up, change lives and throw fuel into the boiler of whatever's left of the American visionary tradition — or in the end, was it more important for Jerry to go to heaven? Does writing matter to anyone but the writer or doesn't it?

All of us are waiting at the other end of the telephone line for the voice from beyond the grave to give us the answer. — S.F.

or, A Heartfelt Goodbye
again by Goodman Carter

Salinger was a spiritual writer. The focus of his fiction was chronicling how the physical world relates to the spiritual, and his focus on this makes it easier to understand his hermeticism. Seymour and Teddy don't seem to belong in the physical world at all other than as bodhisattvas. Franny's despair was caused by the disconnect between the spiritual and the physical. Her epiphany only comes when Zooey relates the two: the Fat Lady is Christ Himself. Holden longs for innocence and purity, but the world has already taken its toll.

Salinger was a spiritual man. His beliefs shifted radically from Zen Buddhism to Vedanta Hinduism to Kriya yoga. After that, he searched even stranger places: Scientology, Reichianism, Greek Orthodoxy, and charismatic Christianity. His difficult yet relentless search shows us that Salinger was a man who believed that his place in the world was as a pilgrim. The physical for Salinger seemed only a means to an end: his soul's salvation. Seymour's retreats for days at a time in meditation mirror his own retreat from the world.

It's difficult to overstate the influence that Salinger's writing had on me. Not only did he initiate me into the world of literature, but his spiritual writing changed the course of my life. I prayed The Jesus Prayer from "Zooey" for months at a time long after I rejected evangelical Christianity, meditating on the meaning of the simple words. I studied Zen koans trying to hit myself in the face hard enough to enlighten myself. I'm searching still.

Did Salinger find what he was looking for in the end? We can't possibly know. We do know that the work done by his body is finished. But his spirit is with us. — Goodman Carter

IV, and Final
or, Sentiment Cannot Stand
again by S.F.

The Salinger trick: describe something beautiful, something you believe in. Then throw in a charming yet concessionary detail. Zooey doesn't go into Seymour's room for years after S's suicide, except once, when he's looking for a tennis racket. It's a good trick; use it, writers. If those left behind don't publish the rest of his stories, that's his legacy.

I can't say anything else about J.D. Salinger; I don't know who he was at all, who he became over 45 years of silence. No autobiography but fake autobiography: there's something to that. — good night, JDS 1919–2010

Posted by future on Sat, 30 Jan 2010 23:29:12 -0500 -- permanent link

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