by aengelson | January 29th, 2010
So J.D. Salinger died.
News travels fast from New Hampshire to Hanoi these days. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Salinger fan, but The Catcher in the Rye influenced me as writer in more ways than I’d like to admit.
I don’t have specific memories or stories about the first time I read it. More a sort of general feeling about the freedom of being young and smart and free–and reading a book about being young and smart and free–and learning to think for yourself and swinging punches at a world that didn’t really care much about you or what you were interested in. It was a time when I fancied being a writer or a journalist. It was when I was heading off to college to become the person I now am. It was a time when I began to realize that books could do more than lift you up and make you noble. Books were sometimes bad for your character, but those books made life more liveable and bearable and fun.
I don’t even know if all of this came to me specifically from reading The Catcher in the Rye. But now that I’m muddling my way through writing my first novel, I think about The Catcher more and more. Though my characters and setting are very different, that Caulfield voice–cynical, chatty, intelligent, unknowingly poignant and wise–is an influence I can’t shake off or ignore. Any American writer hoping to write about youth in the first person has to eventually come to terms with Holden Caulfield. And particularly in my instance: my book happens to be set in the mid-twentieth century (what the hell was I thinking, I keep asking myself). It’s hard not to slip into that voice.
In some ways, Salinger’s book is more than just a novel. It’s a cultural symbol–like the Mona Lisa or Marilyn Monroe–bigger than all it contains, significant not just for its content, but what it represents: coming-of-age, rebellion, the evil pleasures of reading. Even the cover of the book itself is iconic (at least the edition I have–and I think it’s pretty much stayed the same through its many printings). It’s austere, free of the hyperbole or the marketing or the bullshit that graces most book covers. It says: this book needs no introduction. In some ways it’s contemporary American culture’s ur-book: the book you’re supposed to read when you’re first discovering what it is to be reader and an adult. It’s also a touchstone. How many times have reviewers labeled a debut novel “A Catcher in the Rye for our time?” I swear there was a blurb that said exactly that on the cover of Generation X, but I can’t check, since my copy of Coupland’s novel was lost in a flood and I had no need to replace it.
But I still have my battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which I think I stole from my dad’s bookshelf.
The fame that attached itself to Salinger’s book, like some sort of toxic mold, was the kind of fame-for-fame’s-sake that drove Salinger into seclusion and near-madness, and which I would guess he despised for its shallowness. In a word, it’s phony. Salinger left the world at a moment when fame is everything. What we value today is simply measured by how many people instantly recognize it. That’s all. Be it Paris Hilton or Avatar or The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes what’s famous is good, as Salinger’s book is. But it’s not a prerequisite. I suppose it never really was, but today what is celebrated seems more hollow than ever.
Inevitably there will be talk of what Salinger had been been writing during his 50-year New England exile. I have to say I’m a little creeped out about the idea of a safe full of a dozen unpublished Salinger novels or stories. There’s something disturbing about that–in a sort of Jack Nicholson in The Shining sort of way. But perhaps, like Emily Dickinson, the vast body of his work will see the light of day after he’s passed on. But whatever is locked in that safe won’t have quite the impact of The Catcher.
For more about Salinger, check out a a great story of how my friend Erik scooped but then failed to scoop the story of the publication of Salinger’s story Hapworth 16, 1924 in book form. The New York Times Book Review‘s Michiko Kakutani has some thoughts on Salinger, although in the article she uses the word “limn,” which I believe should be permanently removed from the book reviewer’s lexicon. It’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. I mean, who besides book critics ever uses that word?
What a phony.