Friday, January 29, 2010

RIP JD Salinger

I see that J.D. Salinger has just died. I hadn't realised he was still alive. You know how it is with people who are known for something done long ago. He had long been labelled a recluse, although that seems to be metropolitan shorthand for 'lives in the country and and is not slavishly obsessed with getting his photo in the New York Times', or possibly just 'doesn't take journalists as seriously as they take themselves.'

In any case, he was still alive, and is now dead. Thomas Pynchon and Harper Lee are also still alive, but I had to look them up as well.

His great work, by general consensus, and almost his only work of any consequence, is, pof course, 'The Catcher in the Rye,' that handbook for disaffected adolescents through which they try to live experiences and think thoughts that they don't quite know how to have in real life. I wasn't an adolescent when I read it, and my reaction was not quite so unconditional as that of some critics.

It's hard to get an impression of how it felt to read it in 1951, but it was probably fresher and broader in scope than a lot of what people were reading. But even then, compared to the great American writers of a few years before, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and others, it is stiflingly provincial, stuck in its own little self-referential world, wherever the character goes. By contrast, 'To Kill a Mockingbird', though set entirely in a small country town, has a sense of light and space, of being aware of the world, that 'Catcher in the Rye' simply does not have. It also seems to me to be a far better novel.

While in critical vein, I didn't really understand the insistence on the central metaphor, which is done to death, tediously presented to the reader as something new, over and over again (as in the books of Jose Saramago, where a simple and transparent idea is set before us through a dozen very slightly different narrative images over hundreds of pages). And then that central image is blown up by the explanation of the misunderstanding. Perhaps the point is to show that the vacuity of his existence is even greater than was previously apparent.

I didn't intend to be quite so negative when I sat down to write this, but I realize that my imporession of the book was rather poor. I shall now reread it, and write about it again, if I find I can be a little more upbeat.

No comments: