Thursday, October 20, 2011

112. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Written in a conversational and informal tone, devoid of the refinedness that characterises first person narrative form, The Catcher in the Rye (1945; 214) is a book that explores human behaviours and relationships, and the falsities that have clouded our daily lives, making us impostors or phonies of our true selves.

It is this true self that Holden Caufield - a sixteen year old boy and son of a lawyer - sought after in a world of phonies, so that when people displayed outright deceit, refusing to be who they are or making others know what and how they are, he became physically affected. Caufield has just been thrown out of Pencey for flunking all his subjects. He had previously been thrown out of Whooton School and Elkton Hills for poor performance. But his parents, believing in the importance of education has always put him back into school whenever is thrown out. However, Holden Caufield's story is about his life told within the period of his journey from Pencey to his home in New York. In telling us this we get to know Caufield's foibles and dislikes; his intolerance of phoniness, of pretence, of lies and misrepresentation and therefore of the world as we have it now. And Caufield sees these phoniness everywhere and in everything. He sees it in an audience that clap for a not-so good pianist; he sees it in Jesus's disciples; he sees it in urban- or city-living; he sees it in too good actors; and needless to say, in school. So for instance he doesn't like actors because he believes they cannot act like people; those who are good are the worst because they know that they are good and that spoils everything.
I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that's fun to watch. And if any actor's really good, you can always tell he knows he's good, and that spoils it. [117]
They didn't act like actors. It's hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but they were too good. When one of them got finished making a speech, the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was, it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other. [126]
And it could be said that, the author, not wanting to be a victim of his character's dislikes produced a conversational narrative form that mimics actual speech; for as I earlier said, it is devoid of any inverted sentences and elegance that pervades and characterises most writings. Here, we get to read all the slangs, swear-words, 'dirty' words, generalisations and exaggerations and the sexism that shaped Caufields speech and most of our speeches, a result of our environment. It is this narrative style that hooked me for it made the story flowed smoothly. 

Caufield considered that school and all will turn him into an adorer and worshipper of wealth, which he also found to be phoney. He speaks of moving out and finding a job that will provide him daily sustenance while living in cabins and all. Here he seems to be preferring the naturalness of pastoral living to the complexities and lies surrounding urban living.
Take most people, they are crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. [130/1]
He sees school as a make-believe factory where everybody sort of tried to fit in by denying his true self and those who stick to their true self are labelled and rejected. He sees this as a predominantly male behaviour developed in their days in school where everybody pretends to care so much about something even when they do not give a dime. 
You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime. ... it's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. [131]
He is also a guy who could not stand rules and dogma. For instance, he does not understand why his Oral Expression teacher does not want his students to digress in the telling of spontaneous stories. He argues that shouting Digression when a person deviates from his chosen story line is not the best because for most of the time 
you don't know what interests you ... till you start talking about something that doesn't interest you most. [184]
As Caufield is 'frightened and confused and sickened by human behaviour' he also sought help from people he believed he could trust, like Mr Antolini, his former teacher at Elkton Hills. And even though Mr. Antolini tried to define his problem and advise him on what to do he ended up complicating it with his own 'perverse' actions.

However, filled with generalisations and exaggerations, one does not know where Caufield's subjectivity ends and where his objectivity begins. For instance, Caufield is quick to use 'always', 'never' and such absolutes to generalise for the whole that which he had observed in just a person. His generalisation with women in most cases is also a sign of his age. But what one cannot take away from him is that he has a keen sense of understanding of his environment and how much people are never true to themselves. As Mr. Antolini rightly puts it, Caufield is
looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. [187]
Caufield's life is one we have all gone through before, albeit with different level of awareness and/or at different intensities. It is one that has destroyed many, those who couldn't adjust to what the system demands but still lost their footing and their direction, and has also turned others into genius, those who did not adjust but found their direction and their footing in the world. With time we forget their troubled lives and focus on their achievements, the latter I mean. This book is already a classic. I enjoyed it.

14 comments:

  1. I enjoy this as well when I read Nana holden is the original angst teen in my eyes,pleased you liked it as well ,all the best stu

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  2. I remember liking this one when I had to read in in high-school, but I don't think I would find the same sort of fascination for it now. I guess I have grown up and can't really appreciate the plight of an angsty teen as much as I could when I was one myself! Fantastic review, as usual, Nana :)

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  3. @Stu, yes. I guess every one will enjoy it as a teen but this will reduce or vanish as an adult for fear of having a child who'll behave like that.

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  4. @Zibilee, what I find is that some parents don't want their children to be as they were when they were in their teens. And therefore as an adult it is difficult to appreciate Caufield. After we've come to appreciate and understand life, we adjust and work accordingly, acting in accordance with its dictates. This is what we want to put into our children rather than making them find their own paths.

    What Salinger did well was to bring out what worried Caufield.

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  5. I haven't read this book, but it sounds like I'll have to remedy that! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

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  6. Astute analysis, Nana! Been a long long time since I read it. I was probably too young to recognize all the social and cultural commentary (and skewering) going on, but man you really spotlighted it well.

    I think you'll find in his short stories these themes and satiric perspectives honed and condensed into even more powerful and provocative statements.

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  7. Thanks Anna. Most people who've read it says they enjoyed it when they were young but not necessarily when they became adults. So you might base it on these.

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  8. @EnriqueFreeque: Thanks very much. I'll be in search of his short stories too. Looks like this particular one is known by most.

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  9. Nana, thanks for this review.It's made me want to go and re-read the novel. But why did you want to bring up the bit about "witches' teats" -the very first quote- to YOUR READERS' special attention? Ouch!!!

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  10. @Ejinma, I don't know oo. It just hit me badly. It's like the things we'll say to each other when we aren't serious. And that's how I read it.

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  11. I also loved this book when I read it as a teenager. I think that at the time of its publication it was a great liberation for writers in general to know that such a style was possible. I remember that I was mesmerized by it: among so many "orthodox" readings you had to do, this one stood out as original and funny.

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  12. @Stefania, thanks for the explanation.

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  13. I have not read this book. I hope to do so sometime but you know, so many books and whatnot... As usual, an accomplished review. Witches teats! hehe

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  14. Sure? I thought this book has been read by all.

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