I. SALINGER – A REINTRODUCTION
As you may know from other recent essays, I’ve been stifled lately by an existentially-troubling repetitive stress injury, and temporarily without the use of my right hand. I’m just beginning to bounce back now. This condition has given me an unprecedented surplus of free time, and deprived me of the means by which I generally fill time. So instead of writing and working, I’ve been reading and thinking.
Atop my neglected reading pile, a few weeks ago, was Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (2011), loaned to me by my father. I admired this book, with some reservations. Slawenski, the proprietor of the website Dead Caulfields, is too reverential, even defensive, about his subject. But his analysis of Salinger’s writing is sound, and his account of Salinger’s life is serious and poignant. After finishing the Slawenski book, I picked up Salinger: A Biography (1999), by Paul Alexander, but I gave up on this one after about a hundred pages. If Slawenski is too respectful, Alexander goes much too far in the other direction; his book (at least the first quarter of it) is a leering, sensationalized affront. It reads like a celebrity exposé, and seems strangely unconcerned with Salinger the artist. So I put that aside, and spent some days reading sixty years of articles about Salinger, after which there was nothing left to read on the subject but Salinger himself.
I didn’t revisit Catcher, with which I feel an ongoing familiarity. I reread the later Glass stories, in order of original New Yorker publication – “Franny,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “Zooey,” “Seymour – An Introduction” – and found them far more meaningful than when I last read them, as a teenager. Now as then, I preferred “Franny” and “Carpenters,” with their rich humor and brilliant idiomatic dialogue, to the formless theological wandering of “Zooey” and (especially) “Seymour.” But that didn’t stop me from tackling Salinger’s last published story, which I’d never previously attempted. “Hapworth 16, 1924” took up almost the entire June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker,and was never published in book form. It consists of a seemingly endless, impossibly verbose letter, written by Seymour Glass at the age of seven. It makes “Seymour – An Introduction” look like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
When my father wrote his thesis about Salinger, he got to “Hapworth” by searching libraries for the 6/19/65 New Yorker. Entering my username and password at the magazine’s online archive was less romantic. Anyway, “Hapworth 16, 1924” is an uphill climb, and not a very rewarding one. But I found it more readable than expected, after all I’d read about its impenetrability. I can’t say it’s good, but I still found it strangely compelling – maybe because the story sort of dares you to find it so, dares you to keep reading, despite offering none of the usual incentives. It’s deliberately unengaging. I know I would find it intolerable if it were not written by J.D. Salinger. But it’s unavoidably a key work, the overture to four and a half decades of silence. It does reward the patient devotee with some interesting puzzle pieces. It’s better to have read “Hapworth” than to read it. I followed it with a much-needed dessert of Nine Stories, in their hilarious, heartbreaking, precision-crafted beauty.
II. SHANEY AND HOOEY
Shane Salerno’s documentary film Salinger, which opened last Friday, is accompanied by Shane Salerno and David Shields’ 700-page book Salinger, which was released last Tuesday.
Salerno is a Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include Armageddon and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. (You may lower your eyebrow.) But he proved his seriousness by spending ten years and two million of his own dollars researching, writing, directing, and producing Salinger. The publicity around the project has emphasized that it’s filled with top-secret revelations, wrought by unprecedented access to sources close to Salinger.
David Shields’ signature work is Reality Hunger, which I haven’t read. According to Wikipedia, “Reality Hunger consists of 618 numbered passages…Approximately half of the book’s words come from sources other than the author. Because of Random House’s lawyers, attribution for the quotes is given in a fine-print appendix at the end of the book, but with Shields’ encouragement to cut those pages from the book so as to preserve the intended disorienting effect.”
Uh-huh. This disorienting effect haunts Salinger, the book. Numerous reviews have described it as “engrossing and exasperating.” It purports to be an oral history, derived from Salerno’s decade of interviews, but along with the transcribed comments there are quotes lifted from books and articles, confusingly presented in the same format. The book has no authorial voice; when Salerno and Shields want to editorialize, they just include themselves in the Rashomon of speakers. Buried near the end of the book, there are brief biographical notes; they tell us, for example, that Richard Stayton is the editor of the Writers Guild magazine, but we’re given no reason to accept his seemingly intimate knowledge of Salinger’s youth. Ironically, the anonymous speakers are better-identified, because in lieu of names they’re given useful descriptions, such as “Childhood Friend.” There is no index. The attributions are paltry. These guys didn’t really write a book; they published their research.
Occasionally, the oral history format takes a welcome break. There’s a highly readable, nicely-structured analysis of Catcher, written entirely by Salerno. It’s not the most brilliant analysis of Catcher I’ve ever read, but at least it’s an analysis of Catcher. On the other hand, the absolute nadir of the Salinger book is an unspeakable chapter in which David Shields rewrites every one of the Nine Stories, in the second person, stopping to ask questions like “Why are you so fixated on very young girls, especially young girls’ feet? Does it have anything to do with using girls as time-travel machines to a period before the war and before you perforce became embarrassed about your own anatomy?” Some of the points Shields makes in this essay are worth exploring, but his presentation is, I don’t know, pathologically presumptuous.
This book takes a few basic insights and beats them to death. Salinger was traumatized by the war; therefore every fucking sentence he wrote must be about that. The basic thesis is compelling – Catcher as a “disguised war novel” – but the bravado is embarrassing. The authors suggest not only that Salinger embedded his war trauma in the novel, but that Mark David Chapman and other Catcher-citing gunmen were specifically responding to this coded violence – thereby, I suppose, in the Salerno/Shields view, interpreting it more accurately than those of us who read Catcher and didn’t kill anyone. Whether or not it’s a valid point, surely it can be made without a long replay of the grisly details of John Lennon’s death. I’ve dutifully endured that horrifying story in biographies of John Lennon, where it belongs; its inclusion here is Salinger’s worst descent into vulgar sensationalism. (The book’s description of the concentration camp liberated by Salinger’s division is much more disturbing, but fair enough, because that horror is directly relevant to Salinger’s story.)
If you find J.D. Salinger endlessly fascinating (I do), don’t let these grievances keep you from the book. Despite everything, there is much to savor. Some of it is indeed new. The number of known photographs of Salinger is hereby increased. Associates who have never spoken about him do speak about him here. The bombshell is that five new books by Salinger will be published, beginning in 2015, but that broke early, and it was old news by the time Salinger arrived in bookstores and cinemas.
Reading the Salerno book, I felt a little bad for Kenneth Slawenski. He’s mentioned only once, on page 25, in what is maddeningly presented as an oral-history “quote” from Shane Salerno. He names Slawenski’s book for the express purpose of decrying its “dozens of errors about Salinger’s war record.” Maybe so; I don’t know, and Salerno only cites a couple, which are mainly semantic. Regardless, it seems to me that Slawenski is Salinger’s important recent biographer, and that his voice belongs among the hundreds here. I mean, Slawenski’s book had its flaws, but it was infinitely better than that hack job by Paul Alexander – who is quoted extensively by Salerno and Shields, is identified as “an advisor to this book,” and on whose book the Salinger film is ostensibly based. Well, shit.
III. PARIS 8, 2013
By the time I was standing in line to see the film, on Sunday, my expectations had been pummeled into oblivion. The reviews, with varying degrees of disgust, have been close to unanimous. In the Times, A.O. Scott writes, “Salinger moved to the woods of New Hampshire partly to escape the intrusions and indignities of American celebrity culture. Salinger is that culture’s revenge.” Dana Stevens of Slate says it “leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders without ever getting to knock on his door and say hello.” In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers notes Salinger’s “allergy to cliché, compromise, bombast and every type of fame-whoring bullshit,” and asks how Salerno managed “to turn the author of The Catcher in the Rye…into everything he detested.” Between these bitter assessments, and my own feelings about the Salinger book, I bought my ticket at the Paris Theatre on 58th Street actually dreading the film.
And guess what – it’s really not that bad.
Yes, the film, like the book, dwells on Salinger’s personal life rather than his writing. But that seems more acceptable here, film being an excellent medium for storytelling and a poor one for literary analysis. It’s also true that the bombastic score, by Lorne Balfe, is a severe mistake, more suited to, say, Armageddon. But it’s not true that Balfe’s music blares incessantly throughout the whole movie, as several critics have claimed. It’s heavy at times, especially in the early and late sections, but for most of the running time (two hours), it calms down or disappears. Parts of the film are scored, much more successfully, with period recordings. There are too many literal sound effects; Salerno rarely misses an opportunity to punctuate a spoken line with a gunshot or a slamming door.
Critics have savaged the film’s visual devices, with some justice. But if you accept the premise of a documentary film about the life of J.D. Salinger, you have to grant the filmmaker some degree of creative representation. There’s just not much visual material to work with. There’s a handful of still photos, and Salerno found a handful more. Over the course of his ten-year, two-million-dollar investigation, Salerno found not a single recording of Salinger’s voice, and only a tiny bit of film footage – silent – of the young Salinger, in uniform, accepting a rose from a French woman on V-E Day. I found this quite moving.
Other than that, what can Salerno show? There are talking heads, sometimes in significant locations, like Chumley’s. There’s some nice cinematography around Manhattan and Cornish. There are images of book covers, manuscripts, letters, articles. There are archival film clips to suggest place and time. And then there are showier devices – like sped-up footage of a hand sketching portraits of people in Salinger’s life, and, to the loudest critical derision, “reenactments” featuring an actor as Salinger. He sits at his typewriter and pounds away; he moodily smokes while images flash on a giant screen behind him; he storms out of the New York offices of Harcourt; he pulls a fresh page from his typewriter and hands it to a little boy who is apparently Seymour Glass.
Those reenactments are risky, to be sure. But I sympathize with them, and I think that if you grant the premise of this film’s existence, they are necessary. The standard complaint is that this technique reeks of the History Channel, but that’s the point: When you’re making a documentary about Benjamin Franklin, you run out of paintings pretty quickly, and you need something to look at. These sections of Salinger sometimes made me cringe, and in general I think we saw too much of the actor’s face. We shouldn’t have seen his face at all; then we could have played along more easily with the idea that this figure was Salinger. The face is often well-hidden, but not often enough. The most common setup, with “Salinger” at his typewriter, on a stage in an empty theatre, with words and images appearing behind him, has stayed with me. It felt like theatre. It’s the kind of vocabulary a playwright would employ, to visualize a character’s inner life. Sure, it’s over the top. It’s theatre.
I do wish Salerno had made a softer, stiller film – or maybe I wish Ken Burns had made Salinger instead – but I think the critics have pounced with too much vitriol. I guess tearing this film to shreds is irresistible. This film is asking for it. It’s easy to respond with knowing jabs at Hollywood phonies. It’s easy to say Salinger would have hated it – of course he would have hated any documentary made about him, just as he hated every book written about him during his lifetime. It would have been terrible to release this film when he was alive. But he isn’t. Do we all have to hate this film on his behalf? Or can we accept it for what it is – another fascinating, frustrating entry in our culture’s ongoing struggle to understand J.D. Salinger?
IV. SEE MORE GLASS
Kenneth Slawenski suggests that Salinger’s World War II experiences destroyed him, psychically, and Vedanta Hinduism healed him. Salerno and Shields write that the war “destroyed the man but made him a great artist,” while “religion provided the comfort he needed as a man but killed his art.”
Salinger’s post-Catcher writing is increasingly preoccupied with “circulating” Vedantic principles. Most of the Glass stories still succeed as literature, but with each story, the religious fixation is amplified. This culminates in “Hapworth,” where Salinger seems to have renounced all of his strengths as a writer: dialogue, behavior, observation, humor, ambiguity, timing. The final published stories feel like the work of an unraveling, disengaged artist, turned utterly inward.
I once heard someone define optimism as checking The New Yorker every week to see if there’s a new story by J.D. Salinger. This has been going on for half a century. In terms of publication, Salinger is still only in mid-career. But when we last left off, it wasn’t going so well. What if the literary revelation of the century yields nothing but incoherent streams of consciousness about Vedantic spiritual principles? Can we put it back in the vault?
The Salinger estate has neither confirmed nor denied Salerno’s claims regarding the publication of “new” writings. Salerno’s information, he writes, has been “provided, documented, and verified by two independent and separate sources.”
He says we can expect five books. One is a novel, described as “a World War II love story” based on Salinger’s mysterious first marriage, and featuring Sergeant X (Salinger’s alter ego in “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor”). Another is “a novella that takes the form of a counterintelligence agent’s diaries during World War II.” Sounds promising, like Salinger did get back to writing from experience. Less promising, as far as I’m concerned, is a third book, “a ‘manual’ of Vedanta.” But perhaps the existence of an explicitly religious text suggests that the other books won’t be too saddled with this stuff.
The two remaining books apparently deal with the Glass and Caulfield families. The Family Glass “collects all the existing stories about the Glass family together with five new stories” and “a detailed genealogy.” One of the new stories depicts a party in 1926, at which Seymour and Buddy are recruited for “It’s a Wise Child” (this story is mentioned, as Buddy’s work in progress, in “Hapworth 16, 1924”); another deals with “Seymour’s life after death.” The new Glass stories, like the old ones, are said to be “saturated in the teachings of the Vedantic religion.” But this can also be said of excellent work like “Franny” and “Carpenters,” in which Vedanta effectively decorates and informs the writing without capsizing it.
The prospect of a new Caulfield book is a real surprise. Salinger seemed to be disgusted by public hunger for more of Holden. According to Salerno, the Caulfield book will include “a complete retooling” of “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” (an unpublished 1942 Caulfield story), along with “the six other Caulfield stories,” “new stories,” and The Catcher in the Rye itself. Perhaps “the six other Caulfield stories” (some unpublished, some merely uncollected) have been “retooled” too; they contain material which was later incorporated into, and sometimes contradicted by, Catcher.
It’s not clear whether the “new stories” feature the first-person narrative voice of Holden Caulfield, or whether they continue Holden’s story beyond the events described in Catcher. But this book – these books – represent the hope of reunion with old departed friends. J.D. Salinger has more to say, and now that he’s dead, he’s willing to say it. There’s no longer any risk that by emerging from seclusion, and telling his stories, he’ll start to miss people.