Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey is one of those secondhand classics that I spent years collecting (seriously, you should see my classics shelves; they're great) which then spent years collecting dust. Now that I'm back to challenging myself to read a classic read per month, I'm happy to be diving back into those particular shelves.

Franny and Zooey contains two sections: one from Franny's point-of-view and one from Zooey's, Zooey being a nickname for Zachary. In the first section, Franny's boyfriend comes for a visit but during dinner Franny slowly goes to pieces and by the end of supper she has collapsed. In the second part of the book, Franny is home after suffering the nervous breakdown during dinner with her boyfriend. Pale and tearful, she spends her time alternately crying and sleeping on the couch while her mother tries to feed her chicken soup and her brother attempts to talk her into understanding the source of her distress in order to knock her back to her senses.

There were two particular things I got out of the reading of Franny and Zooey. The first was that it's definitely a product of its time, with long-winded, philosophical dialogue and a bit too much superfluous swearing. The swearing felt unnatural to me in a way I don't recall thinking the swearing in Catcher in the Rye came off, possibly because it was Holden thinking or saying all the swear words in Catcher but the people around Franny who used a rougher mode of speech when she was the one going to pieces. Most of the characters chain smoked in public and private, as well -- something that seems odd in today's mostly smoke-free environment. The fact that religion and/or philosophy was at the core of Franny's breakdown also felt like it was a very time-sensitive thing. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Salinger did seem to enjoy writing about breakdowns, didn't he?

The second thing I got out of the book was that, yes, I do believe Salinger was pretty impressive. If you can tolerate the idea behind the book, which is a bit odd (the cause of the breakdown) and put up with the long-windedness of the dialogue, it's actually kind of hard to put down. I have a 1980s copy and by that point it was in its 45th printing. 45th!!! That's any writer's sweetest dream.

I had to become accustomed to Salinger's style, I confess. At first, the dialogue just exhausted me. But, then I found myself sucked in, partly because the Glass family's history was slowly revealed and it became clear in that onion-peeling plottish way that everyone was deeply affected by the loss of the eldest Glass son, Seymour, who was the kindest of the children and apparently the most sensitive as he died by suicide. I had no problem whatsoever keeping the Glass children distinct in my mind because the characterization was so sharply drawn, even though only Franny, Zooey, and their mother actually appear in the book.

Highly recommended - I do like Salinger. I'm one of those people who fall on the love side of the love/hate polarization of Catcher in the Rye readers, so while there were things I found awkward about Franny and Zooey -- the basis for Franny's breakdown being so weird (although, in the end, it's implied that the book was more of a mechanism for expressing her grief -- at least, that's how I saw it) and all the uncomfortable swearing, for example -- I found the Glass family fascinating and I wanted to know what would happen. What caused Franny to fall apart? What was Zooey trying to accomplish as he talked her through her breakdown and brought up the book that started it all? The ending is fabulous. In just a few pages, after you've finally gotten the idea that Franny's obsession with the book may be connected to her trauma over the loss of Seymour, at least tangentially, Zooey does something that helps to moor her and you just want to give him a hug for doing something so wise and comforting.

Somewhere, I've also got a copy of Salinger's Nine Stories, which I recall being stories of the Glass family. I'll have to see if I'm right about that. If so, I'll seek out my copy because I'd definitely like to read more about the Glass family.

In case you're wondering, I took a raft of photos of Franny and Zooey with various backgrounds and chose the one with Izzy partly because it's a moody book and both the cat's face and the lighting in this particular frame look kind of moody, partly because I just like pictures of cats with books.

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  1. I read this so long ago- and I just couldn't find it as interesting as Catcher in the Rye. Maybe now, some twenty years later, I'd be able to understand it better- or at least appreciate. Curious to see if you like Nine Stories just as well- perhaps I'd try those.

    1. I enjoyed it but definitely not as much as Catcher in the Rye. As I was reading Franny and Zooey, I was actually aware that there was a fine line between my ability to tolerate it and not tolerate it. I noticed a friend had abandoned and thought, "I can see why." And, yet I enjoyed it, especially the farther I got into it and I loved the ending. I'm curious what I'll think of Nine Stories, too. Will have to find it. I'm probably going to read Steinbeck for this month's classic choice, though.


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