The 1951 iconic novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger has been in the news recently because of a new book out, Sixty years Later: Coming Through the Rye, by Swedish author Fredrik Colting. Salinger's lawyers filed a lawsuit, saying the book is a sequel and infringes on Salinger's copyright.
Colting has responded, saying that his novel is not a sequel but rather "a complex and undeniably transformative exposition about one of our nation's most famous authors, J.D. Salinger, and his best known creation, Holden Caulfield." The book "explores the famously reclusive Salinger's efforts to control both his own persona and the persona of the character he created," according to the brief.
Colting also says his book "scrutinizes and criticizes the iconic stature of Salinger and his creation by comparing the precocious and self-satisfied 16-year-old Holden with a 76-year-old version of himself fraught with indecision and insecurity."
I happened to come across The Catcher in the Rye at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport a few months ago. I hadn't read it since I was a teenager. I'm such a major fan of Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, though, that I was curious how I'd respond to it now that I was a writer. I read most of it on the plane and only returned to finish it this weekend.
On the plane, I fell into the humor and the vivid first-person narration by teenager Holden Caulfield. He's returning to New York City after getting kicked out of Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania. He doesn't want his parents to know, so he's hanging out in the city, visiting friends and staying in hotels and on couches for a few days until he plans to show up at home as if everything were normal. However, nothing is normal.
About a third into the book, I became frustrated. The story would stop often and Holden would digress and explain some side issue at length. Where I wanted to see what Holden would do, which would reveal his character, instead I had to endure a great deal of exposition. In fact, I was reminded why I found Salinger's later published work uninteresting, such as Seymour, An Introduction. Almost all of it was exposition. What people do is far more interesting than fact after fact.
As example, in Chapter 16, Holden digresses about Laurence Olivier in Hamlet for most of a page, and then there's three pages of Holden's memory of going to a museum when he was his sister's age. He thinks about the two nuns he met earlier and he thinks about Sally's mother. I just wanted him to meet Sally.
An important action in this chapter, though, is he comes across a kid singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." The kid singing this song makes Holden feel less depressed. The song later becomes important when Holden's little sister, Phoebe, asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. Holden recalls the line and imagines thousands of little kids playing in a field of rye, "And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff." He has to catch the kids before they fall over. He's the catcher in the rye.
Like the precocious kids in the Glass family, little Phoebe happens to know the line Holden remembers isn't from a song but a misspoken line from a Robert Burns poem. The real line goes, "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." Holden's whole notion of life and society by this point is a misunderstanding.
When I finished the book this weekend, I realized all the great stuff comes toward the end. Essentially refusing to be a part of adult culture even though he tries to pass himself off as an adult in one bar after another, Holden slowly spirals into severe depression until near the end of the book, I started worrying about him. This guy might do something bad to himself and not even see it coming. It even made me pause to consider Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed John Lennon on on December 8, 1980. Chapman had The Catcher in the Rye on him and claimed it would explain his perspective. Maybe it shows that Chapman thought everyone was phony and that Chapman didn't understand his own spiral down.
One of the great passages in the book is near the end when he goes to the apartment of Mr. Antolini, his former school teacher. He and his wife deeply care about Holden and let him spend the night. Before Holden goes to sleep, Mr. Antolini counsels Holden that he's headed for a fall, "a special kind of fall, a horrible kind," which soon happens. Mr. Antolini tries to be Holden's catcher, perhaps, but Holden doesn't take in all that Mr. Antolini says, including a line from a Wilhelm Stekel poem: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
Holden tells Mr. Antolini one of the things he hated about a speech class was that no one was permitted to digress. If you did, classmates could yell out "digression!" As Holden says, "The digression business got on my nerves... The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all."
Mr. Antolini tells him differently, saying if the digression is the most interesting part of a speech, shouldn't the speech's subject be what was the digression? A few pages later, the teacher says that the best creative and educated people "tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end."
People are eagerly awaiting what Salinger has been working on for almost forty-five years since his last publication. Now 90, he reportedly has been writing novels. My fear is that the novels won't be as interesting or as disciplined as his short stories. Rather they'll be meandering and expositive like Seymour, An Introduction. Perhaps Fredrik Colting's book will be a siren for Salinger to write--or edit--vividly again. Maybe it'll remind Jerome David that he's taken himself too seriously for many years, and he's fallen off a crazy cliff. He needs catching. My hope is that Salinger takes his own words above as a truth. May he express himself clearly and with passion. May he follow his thoughts through to the end.
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