Wednesday 24 February 2010

J.D. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1958
Review number: 1397

I was intending to re-read The Catcher in the Rye anyway, but just happened to do so at the time when Salinger's death was announced (which will give you some idea of how long it takes to get from making notes on a book to publishing the review on this blog). Reading it was interesting in light of the comments on the author and his famous novel which followed. Is it still relevant, or has it become a museum piece? Although Holden Caulfield, narrator of the novel, is thought of as an icon of teenage rebellion, what he does seems pretty tame in an era in which there are many schools with gun and knife checkpoints at the entrances.

Catcher in the Rye has one of the best opening paragraphs in twentieth century fiction, which instantly establishes the mood and style of the novel and the character of the narrator. Holden Caulfield is alone on his last day at the expensive boarding school which has expelled him, indecisively moping around while the rest of the school is attending the annual match against one of the school's great sporting rivals. Then, at the end of the first chapter, he does something really unrebellious, something more Goodbye Mr Chips than what the reader would expect from Catcher's reputation: he goes to visit one of his favourite teachers (absent from the game himself due to illness). Acts of destructive vandalism, while stereotypical of teenage rebellion, are not really Holden's style: his is a much more passive revolt.

One thing that Holden can do is see through the kind of rubbish that adults tell children to get them to conform. When his headmaster tells him that life is a game, which you have to play by the rules,  Holden reflects (but doesn't point out: not very rebellious!) that this is all very well if you're playing on the side which has all the star players. Rules tend to work for the privileged, not the underprivileged. However, insights like this are quickly followed by passages which show Holden's childishness: petulance, crudity for the sake of it, showing off: all part of the narrative style. Salinger was much older than his narrator, and this is partly a device to distance himself from Holden (but hasn't stopped many people assuming that Holden speaks with his author's voice). It also reminds the reader that Holden cannot be expected to act as an adult would, but it often made me feel that he was being portrayed as about twelve or thirteen rather than the sixteen he is supposed to be, even though ideas of what behaviour should be expected at different ages have changed over the last sixty years.

So the rebellion is almost as out of date as that of Catcher's near contemporary youth culture icon, Bill Haley & the Comets' Rock Around the Clock - described in Bill Haley's rock and roll hall of fame citation as "an anthem for rebellious Fifties youth". But the novel has other aspects which are still of interest. One of these is its style, which has been hugely influential. It is slangy, confiding, and informal; there are touches like the conclusion to the description of Holden's dead brother, where he addresses the reader directly as though they are a friend with whom he is having a conversation: "You'd have liked him." This makes the reader feel particularly close to Holden, and is probably one of the reasons why the novel has much of the impact that it does have. The combination of style and attitude must have been devastating in the fifties, particularly for the younger reader.

A piece in the Guardian suggested that Holden's rebellion is not against adult society (which is described as a "lazy" interpretation of the novel) but against the sexualisation of culture. The former is a battle won up to a point - it now seems that teenagers are encouraged to rebel in a way that is manipulated by consumer marketing: rebel if you want, as long as you conform to buying our products. Fighting sexualisation is a battle distinctly lost, by any comparison of now with fifty years in the past, which makes Holden seem a more romantic figure, as lost causes always are. However, I don't agree, because the evidence in Catcher that Holden is against sexualisation is at most sparse (his argument in chapter six with his boarding school roommate Strindlater after the older boy's return from a date with a girl Holden knows, principally - which occurs at a point when Holden is fast approaching his third expulsion from a school), while in almost every chapter Holden is seen attempting to talk to a girl or a woman in the manner of someone inexperienced with the opposite sex. His actions on arriving in New York suggest that he knows that he should be interested in girls but doesn't yet quite know the point of them. (That it is a different woman in each chapter gives the novel something of an episodic character).  So Holden's attitude to sex is actually another piece of his seeming immaturity. So sexuality is important to the novel, and if anything it is suggesting that segregated schooling stunts the growth of the personality, which is almost the opposite of fighting the sexualisation of culture: this suggests that this interpretation of Catcher is perversely against what the text of the novel itself.

This is the third or fourth time I've read Catcher in the Rye. I've always perhaps been too old for it, and was never really a teenage rebel. I'm also of an age where my ideas of teenage rebellion are fashioned by punk, not the musings of a posh American schoolboy who would be older than my parents if he were a real person. So the novel has never really spoken to me. One comment I saw in the coverage of Salinger's attempts to prevent what would have effectively been a sequel from being published last year (from someone who was a fan) suggested that the difficulty of imagining Holden ten years older was one of the author's reasons for retreating from the world. Leaving aside the implicit suggestion this makes that Salinger would never be able to come up with another character, it is certainly true that it is hard to see Holden Caulfield a married with children forty year old - or the grumpy baby boomer pensioner he would have to be today. His teenager status is an inseparable part of his character; the difficulty of thinking what he would be like at other ages suggests a certain two dimensionality which would explain why he appeals or fails to appeal depending on how much the reader shares or identifies with that particular character aspect.

I should perhaps note that this is the only copy of Catcher in the Rye I have read, and, like all the earlier British editions, it is expurgated, which must reduce the impact and make it seem tamer by contemporary standards than it would do otherwise.

But even so, I would rate Salinger's famous novel like this. Style: very good. Narrator: childish and obnoxious, for the most part. Relevance: peddling out of date rebellion. Personal appeal: low. My overall rating: 5/10.

Friday 12 February 2010

Neal Stephenson: Anathem (2008)

Edition: Atlantic Books, 2009
Review number: 1396

What is Anathem about? It is about theories of consciousness. It is about quantum mechanics, particularly the many worlds interpretation. It is about the importance of pure science, how theoretical research can have practical benefits. It is about the philosophy of the relationship between the material world and thought. It is about how philosophy can be enjoyable; it is full of discussions which are essentially infodumps modelled closely on the Socratic dialogues of Plato (three of these are mathematical enough that the full discussion has been relegated to an appendix). And yet it is not pretentious in the way that science fiction about philosophy can be, in the way that (say) Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men often is. Anathem has a message, something to do with the philosophy of science, but precisely what that message is is not entirely clear, at least on one reading.

There is a lot of science fiction and fantasy which is principally about world  building: developing a fictional background in order to expound a particular idea. These worlds range from Tolkien's Middle Earth at the fantasy end to  Larry Niven's Ringworld or Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg at the hard science fiction end. And there is a lot of ver original world building in Anathem. The society on Arbre - clearly, from the note on the first page an alien planet despite the use of words such as "human" in the text - has a subculture: the "Avout". They live separated from society in what is a "math": a cross between Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study and a (secularised) closed order of monks, an academic ivory tower to the highest degree. Within these walls, a discipline is maintained so that the outside world does not disrupt the avout from their studies: they only mix with the outside once every year, decade, century, or milennium, depending on how far into the math they have enclosed themselves. The discipline does not just control talking to people from outside (or nearer to the outside, in the case of the inner divisions of the math), but the availability of written material too, and the avout do their best to ignore signs of the outside world such as tall buildings sited near the math, or the flights of aircraft overhead. I'm not convinced that the whole culture is viable economically, but it is at least unusual as a setting for a science fiction novel.

Novels which put in a lot of effort on the background - and the three writers I have mentioned are cases in point - tend to be rather sketchy on characterisation. But in Anathem Stephenson scores reasonably highly on this aspect of the fiction writer's art as well. The narrator, Erasmus or Raz, is a young Fraa (the avout are Fraas if male, Suurs if female). The plot is about how he grows up in response to some amazing events (the typical science fiction/fantasy plot, but you can't have originality in everything). He and his friends are believable, and different from one another, and this makes it easier for those readers not so interested in the philosophiy which is such an important part of the novel.

I found the ending rather disappointing; the day to day life of the avout was to me the most interesting part of the novel, even though it contained much less action. The events which disrupt this life, even though they prompt the revelation of ancient secrets and show the reader how and why the avout culture originated, are not themselves very original. Certainly, they are fairly commonplace in the science fiction genre, and they on't really make a satisfactory completion to the plot.

One thing which is common throughout Stephenson's writing career is that intelligence is good in his novels. Anathem is particularly unsubtle in this respect, but in this world of Big Brother, of American politicians who have never heard of half the countries in the world, of bankers who think that hedge funds would never fail to produce huge profits, this is a message which deserves to be heard.

Though Stephenson is an author I like a lot, and though there is much to enjoy in Anathem, I came away disappointed - 6/10.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938)

Edition: Persephone, 2008
Review number: 1396

This wonderful novel nearly disappeared without trace; the introduction to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day explains how, after being a big success when first published, it was forgotten until eventually a reader requested a reprint. Persephone publishes books on the suggestion of readers, mainly to promote forgotten female writers. This sort of enterprise, it seems to me, relies quite heavily on second hand book stores: browsing, which has never been convincingly implemented in online sellers to my mind, makes it possible to be attracted to items which have never been heard of before, or to see something that sparks a glimmer of recognition ("that was one of my mother's favourite books", for example). While it is still true that just about every book which - like Miss Pettigrew - sold a reasonable number of copies in the last 150 years or so will be represented by a physical copy in some second hand bookshop in the UK, more of these wonderful places are disappearing in response to the online competition every month; even towns like Cambridge don't have as many as they did only five years ago.

Miss Pettigrew is a somewhat unsuccessful nursery governess, whose first name (Guinevere) is the only romantic thing about her. On the day in question she is sent for a new job by an agency, but when she arrives, she finds not a harassed mother with small children but a beautiful, worldly young lady, a dancer and actress who is clearly not the sort of person Miss Pettigrew is used to working for, nor the sort of person her upbringing suggests she should associate with or like. And there are no children in sight, though it quickly becomes clear that Delysia La Fosse (a stage name, obviously) is seeing at least three men.

Miss Pettigrew quickly accumulates new experiences: standing up to people, having an alcoholic drink, going to a cocktail party, visiting a night club, and so on. Not at all the life she is used to and mostly things that a conventional nursery governess should have had neither the opportunity or the desire to do. But she doesn't feel out of place, and is accepted, and enjoys herself immensely, while her position a outsider gives her an ability to see what is going on under the surface and then act - in a very nursery governess sort of way - to bring about the changes she judges best for those around her.

In short, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a version of the Cinderella story. It is funny and enchanting. It might be considered rather on the light side; if it came out today, it would probably be considered "chick lit". This particular edition adds  an interesting introduction and some delightful, stylish and appropriate illustrations (though I don't like the way the one used on the cover has been coloured - it looks rather garish to me). All in all a most enjoyable experience - 9/10.