‘I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody…’
It is difficult to think of anyone within the arts who is so closely associated with just one work and yet still heralded as a genius. Catcher in the Rye simply is J.D. Salinger and vice versa. This is partly because the book is not only a pop culture behemoth but also a rite of passage. Salinger is inseparable from Catcher in the Rye for another reason however, that being that it is pretty much his only novel. The other closest thing to a novel in Salinger’s bibliography aside from Catcher in the Rye is Franny and Zooey.
Made up of the short story Franny and the novella Zooey, Salinger’s second longest work tells the story of a pair of precocious siblings in the Glass family, a fictional, upper class New York family who were frequently the subject of Salinger’s short stories.
Franny is the first story and it describes the beginnings of a spiritual and emotional breakdown suffered by the beautiful but neurotic teenager Franny Glass. Salinger is the Godfather of the type of college literature that clearly influenced the likes of Donna Tartt and David Foster Wallace. He nails the terrified pretension and insecurity of the academically brilliant but emotional unstable American youth. Franny’s collegiate boyfriend Luke Coutell manages to be a caricature while being totally believable at the same time. It takes a writer of some skill to manage such a feat.
Zooey is much longer and features three acts. In the first, Franny’s brother Zooey Glass discusses Franny’s breakdown in the tub with their mother Bessie. Franny is in the tub. Bessie is making a nuisance of herself on the other side of the shower curtain leading to an exchange that is both hilarious but also cruel. Zooey sways wildly from being a sympathetic character to a heartless monster from page to page. This makes Zooey disorientating at times but always compelling. The second act sees Zooey confront Franny about her breakdown in a scene that is even more uncomfortable than the bathtub debacle and the novella’s denouement sees Zooey confront Franny again, this time with a more sympathetic tone.
Franny and Zooey takes a simple premise and makes it a meditation on religion, family and academia. The style moves between essay, fiction and script with ease and nobody quite describes the minutiae of human contact as thoroughly as Salinger. We are treated to each character’s inner most thoughts as their personalities are laid bare. As with the best art, there are no goodies or baddies. Just human nature with all its complications, contradictions and skeletons in the closet.
J.D. Salinger left us such an unsatisfyingly small body of work that it is important to look further than Catcher in the Rye. Franny and Zooey is the best starting point to solving the riddle of one of the great, enigmatic American authors.