For a long while, if ever someone forced me to pick a favourite author, I would say J. D. Salinger. I love the simplicity of his sentences. I love the way he conveys annoyance and miscommunication within scenes. I love that he hates phoneys. Franny and Zooey was always my least-favourite Salinger, but I thought maybe that was because I read it young and didn’t get it. I just re-read it. It was a comfort read. But it remains my least-favourite Salinger.
(Photo: Amy Attas)
There’s too much talking in this one. Sure, intellectual dialogue is one of the reasons I turn to Salinger, particularly back in my tortured youth when I yearned for long, analytical discussions. But there has to be more to a novel than characters on soapboxes. I read it imagining Salinger was going through a lonely time when he had no kindred spirit to chat with over scotch. So instead he wrote his thoughts into Zooey, who preaches pretty non-stop for 150 pages while his mom and his sister try to summon the energy to interject. This is not, shall we say, a plot-driven narrative. Maybe I would have appreciated it more as a one-man play.
But gosh darn it, I still love it. Because Salinger’s world is so complete. I am absolutely positive that you could pull any detail from his stories and he could write you a three-page backstory. I love it because the characters are just the coolest. Self-assured but struggling. Tortured and sad, but seeking light with all they’ve got. In my day-to-day life I hate try-hard phonies, but they still have power over me. I still seek their approval. Which means Salinger bolsters my fragile soul.
“Phooey,” he said, and resumed using his razor. “Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day.”
So my take-away from this year’s reading is instructions for caregiving one-on-one. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help those who are struggling in big, existential ways. Franny is in crisis, and she’s left college to lie on her parent’s couch for the rest of her life. Zooey, her older brother, is not a psychologist or a priest, and he’s not very nice. But he knows Franny, he genuinely cares about her success, and he’s not going to give up. Now, having been the girl prostrate on the couch, I know that love is not enough to cure mental illness. But it is not useless to be Franny’s mom, persistently offering chicken broth. It is not useless to be Franny’s cat, sticking to the couch even as Franny tosses and rearranges the blanket. It is not useless to be Zooey, sweating, saying the wrong thing, being a jackass, and then trying a different tact.
Going forward, I resolve to be more like a cat. And I resolve to stop answering the question “who’s your favourite author.”