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.

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