LITERARY REVIEW

Confessional prose

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

Confessional prose

THE next best thing to something new by Salinger himself, I had hoped, would be this collection of 14 young writers responding to his work. But no: They call themselves Salinger's literary children but stepchildren would be more like it. All but two of them sound like disillusioned, ex-disciples of a guru they were once mesmerised by and about whom they now can't wait to spill the beans. The essays read like confessions from a therapy session. "I slept with J.D. Salinger when I was fourteen", writes Emma Forest in the essay, "Salinger's Daughter: Whining Bitch". "We did it in a day. He told me that I was the most beautiful, the most special, and so misunderstood. By nightfall, I was done with him. I was horrified, not long after, to discover that there were other people, mostly young people, just as beautiful, special and misunderstood as I." She is talking, of course, of sleeping with The Catcher in the Rye under her pillow. She goes on to remark, rather cleverly, that : "Salinger is the literary equivalent of a pedophile, the child's world equals good, and all adults are fake and phony."

With Love and Squalor began with editors Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller feeling that there has been only academic responses to Salinger's work and what was lacking was a fresher, more personal and literary take on him from a writer's — not critic's — point of view. So they invited a bunch of "the best and brightest" contemporary writers to "express their deep affection and deep frustration with Salinger." The title is a nod, of course, to Esme and the book cover cleverly even looks like a Salinger novel you've never read! So what went wrong? Nothing — if you ask these editors. But a lot, if you ask me, and million other readers like me, who love and respect his work now more than ever.

To Salinger and his fans, nothing would be more desirable and appropriate than for writers to maintain that "enviable, golden silence" that Buddy Glass spoke of. But if there has to be a response to his work, it should now only be one of admiration. For too long his work has been misjudged by literary critics and writers (Joan Didion said Salinger "had a tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers" — and why the hell not? if I may ask) who never really "got" the Glass stories. And more recently, so much of his personal life has been made public in two memoirs, Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World and Margaret Salinger's Dream Catcher that even to be ambivalent about him now is to miss the point of his writing all over again. "That", as Buddy wrote of Seymour, "an artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."

And though the writers in Love and Squalor claim they are concerned only with Salinger the writer and not the man (his sustained reclusiveness, the kind of a father he was, etc) it is obvious, in the way most of them are eager to renounce him, how deeply they have been influenced by those memoirs. Which is why this sneaky tribute to him, shot through with ambiguity for its subject, seems really more like cashing in on a juicy book idea on the Salinger mystique than taking a new look at his work.

But the book is not without its charms. (No book on him, however grudging, can be without it). In The Trouble with Franny, Lucinda Rosenfeld adroitly mimes Salinger's voice: "Of all the leading ladies of American literature who end up supine on sofas, nursing advanced cases of ennui, it is tortured young sophisticate, college sophomore, and former Whiz Kid, Franny Glass, curled up under an afghan in her dippy vaudeville parents' messy East Side Manhattan apartment, who made the most vivid impression on me growing up." Franny and Amy by Amy Sohn is not an essay but a neat, full-blown short story written in Salinger's style about a girl called Amy who always carries Franny and Zooey in her little handbag. The story asks: what happens to her when she meets another young man who claims to have read the book? Lovers of Franny and Zooey will read the opening with a wide grin: "Though pouring down rain, Thursday evening was parka weather, not slicker weather as it had been all week. Of the seven wet hipsters waiting on the platform of the Lorimer Street Station for the Manhattan bound train at 9.05 P.M, not more than few were without woollen hats. Amy, in a long black coat, was one of these people. After fifteen minutes the train came and Amy piled on with the other bespectacled youths. The car was mostly empty — few Brooklynites can muster up the energy to return to Manhattan after nine at night. She sat down and pulled a small paperback book out of her handbag." In The Salinger Weather, Beller, points out that "J.D. Salinger's writing is like a certain kind of weather. The SalingerWeather is one in which there is a coat. You are either wearing it, or carrying it, or wishing you hadn't brought it, or wondering if you should have. It requires pockets, secrets, privacy, a place where your hands can hide, touching a letter or some bit of memorabilia like a photo. It is heavy with the romance of absence."

With the exception of Amy Sohn and Benjamin Anastas (the author of the cult novel, An Underachiever's Diary) and his terrific essay here, "An Unexamined Life", most of the writers in this anthology have the cheek to pronounce Salinger's prose variously as "failed poetry", "brilliant writing steam rolling everything", "original without being good", "workmanlike" (!), relentlessly middleclass and middlebrow — while their own prose is artless, ungenerous, mediocre. Alexander Hemon declares Franny and Zooey as spurious spirituality: "The Fat Lady has become the Glass kid's stepmother. Her name is Oprah Winfrey." Emma Forrest, who called Salinger "a literary pedophile" does make one interesting point though, one worth considering if only for a countervailing point of view: "I don't like Holden Caulfield anymore. I don't feel that people who are phony are necessarily a bad thing. When I think of all the phonies that I have loved who have, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, lived by `the harmless untruths' or as Courtney Love sang, `fake it so real' — they are beyond fake. Courtney, Madonna, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Rex Reed, David Bowie, Quentin Crisp, any rap star you care to mention, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis — Audrey Hepburn, the phoniest and most delightful of them all. Phoniness is what kept me afloat as a teenager. And the graces, double lives, pretense and pretentiousness, are about the only things a 16-year-old girl has to live for." Hmmmm. You think she has something there? Well, that one intriguing aside apart, most of the essays here have, what Salinger once called, "the precise informality of underwear."

With Love and Squalor, edited by Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller, Broadway Books, distributed by IBD, p.194, $10.50.

The writer, a Bangalore-based freelance writer, is a bibliomaniac and a bibliomane.

Email: pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com

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