Salinger's style evolved over the years before his self-imposed silence, but his stories share an 'uncanny, hypnotic readability'
by Chris Power The Guardian, Friday 11 May 2012
JD Salinger, who died in 2010, last published a piece of fiction in the 19 June 1965 edition of the New Yorker. He was 46. Other than Jean Sibelius it's difficult to think of another artist of such stature who maintained an elective silence for so long. Rare statements from the author suggest that during his reclusive half-century, spent largely in Cornish, New Hampshire, he continued to write about the Glass family, the New York clan that had, by the last decade of his public career, become the sole focus of his work. As yet, however, no new material has emerged.
The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, its singular narrator, Holden Caulfield, having previously appeared in several stories beginning with Slight Rebellion off Madison (written in 1941, published by the New Yorker in 1946). Catcher, after a slow start, came to be considered by many a landmark American text to rank alongside The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it was with the shocking and strange 1948 story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, that Salinger first and properly arrived. Here Salinger's literary inheritance, from Ring Lardner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway (the pair met at the Ritz during the liberation of Paris), fuses with an existentialist tone absent from his earlier stories. As in For Esmé – with Love and Squalor (1950) we are presented with a psyche afflicted by wartime experience. Esmé's Sergeant X, a soldier who, like Salinger, has fought on the frontline all the way from Normandy to Bavaria, sits in the requisitioned house of a Nazi official, in the "harsh, watty glare" of a naked light bulb, and recollects an afternoon spent with a precocious girl in a Devonshire tearoom. This act of remembrance, prompted by a letter (Salinger's stories rustle with letters, and teem with precocious children) rescues Sergeant X from his despair. In the final line of Bananafish, by contrast, 31-year-old Seymour Glass shoots himself in a Florida hotel room beside his sleeping wife.
Over the next 17 years Seymour and his family colonised Salinger's imagination. After Teddy (1953), the story of a pre-teen genius and Zen Buddhist which is essentially a limbering up for what comes next, Salinger narrowed his focus to the nine members of the Glass family: ex-vaudevillians Bessie (Irish) and Les (Jewish Australian), and their children, Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Waker, Walt, Zooey and Franny. Aside from Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut (1948) and Down at the Dinghy (1949), Seymour's death is the event that haunts the Glass stories. "'This whole goddam house stinks of ghosts'" Zooey tells his mother, while Buddy writes to Zooey that although they've "talked and talked, we've all agreed not to say a word." In these stories, jarring with the manic suicide we encounter in Bananafish, Seymour emerges as a Christ or Buddha-like figure, an exemplar of the Zen philosophy Salinger became deeply attracted to in the late-1940s.
Salinger uses his alter ego Buddy Glass, the narrator of these stories, to smooth over the discrepancy, admitting in Seymour: An Introduction (1959) that the character in Bananafish is in fact more of a self-portrait. Buddy's increasingly non-narrative attempts to chronicle Seymour's life become challenging to read with Seymour: An Introduction and Hapworth 16, 1924 (1965), in which a short introduction by Buddy gives way to a 30,000-word letter written by a seven-year-old Seymour. Both are subtle, skilfully composed documents, but labyrinthine with digression and qualification, and denuded of narrative momentum. "I'm anything but a short-story writer where my brother is concerned", Buddy confesses, but knowing the effect is aimed for doesn't make it less arduous to read. As Arthur Schwartz wrote in 1963, "like Whitman's catalogues, such detail can become boring." Nevertheless Salinger was, as John Updike noticed in an otherwise unfavourable 1961 review of Franny and Zooey, at least trying to evolve, and his "refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers".
Indeed the 1957 story Zooey, disparaged by Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion (who called it "self-help copy") as well as by Updike, seems to me one of Salinger's best stories (although it "isn't really a short story at all", according to Buddy, "but a sort of prose home movie…."). Set entirely in the Glass family's Manhattan apartment on a November Monday in 1955, it describes Zooey's attempts to help his sister weather a paralysing spiritual crisis. It features one of fiction's greatest mother-son dialogues, an intricate dance of love sheathed in layers of hostility, while the story as a whole, as Janet Malcolm notes, has "a deceptive surface realism that obscures its fundamental fantastic character." The more time spent in that cluttered apartment – where Bessie wanders in her robe, Franny beds down on a couch, and the newspapers and buckets of a repainting job lie everywhere but the painters remain mysteriously absent – the more it feels like a zone outside normal reality; a Mount Olympus or, in Malcolm's description, "a mountain fastness." The story describes a day, to borrow a phrase used elsewhere by Buddy, of "rampant signs and symbols": the final conversation between Zooey and his sister, in which he impersonates Buddy while speaking from Seymour's still-connected telephone, brings the four most sensitive Glass children together in a complex and resonant act of love.
Salinger's long later stories contrast in many ways with the focused economy of his classic 1953 collection, Nine Stories, but all his best work has what David Lodge identifies as "the uncanny, hypnotic readability that is the hallmark of his writing". He can address profound subjects with prose that has, in Salinger's own phrase, "precisely the informality of underwear". Throughout the extended dialogues and within the restricted spaces he favoured – gridlocked limousines, tearooms, beds and bathrooms – the reader is held, both mentally and physically, by the power and humour Salinger was capable of before he – and Buddy – gave up on "the old horror of being a professional writer, and the usual stench of words that goes with it".