Thursday, 25 June 2009

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I felt a bit of a fraud reading 'The Catcher in the Rye', it's almost as if you have to be an angst ridden teenager to read it. It is spoken about as one of those books that's supposed to help you understand the meaning of life but although I read it first time around as a teenager I did not have a strong memory of what happens in the book, other than the meeting with his little sister. It felt like I had merely metaphorically ticked it off the 'The Books you are Supposed to have Read' list. I read a news article recently linked to someone's blog about Salinger coming out of wherever he is in recluse to try and prevent the publishing of a sequel to 'The Catcher in the Rye', and I was struck by this quote from him; "There's no more to Holden Caulfield. Read the book again. Holden Caulfield is only a frozen moment in time." And on reflection that is exactly right. And it is right that the author should be the person who decides such things, and it is right that Holden does not need a future.
As I read it I was reminded all the time of 'L'Etranger' by Albert Camus, a novel that I read during A level french. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, describes in minute detail what he does over the two days, and his emotional reactions to everything he experiences. He most definitely experiences his own existence as being an 'outsider'. He refers to other people consistently as 'phoney', sees them pretending to be friendly or interested when they really aren't. And at the same time he seems desperate to make contact with other human beings. He seeks out the company of a boy he does not particularly like, chats to people on the train, in cafes and in bars, and he makes a date with a girl he knows, but mainly it seems to keep himself from being alone. In other ways it also made me think of 'We have Always Lived in the Castle' because it is a book that lets you inside someone's head, into their thoughts, with total honesty. There is not much to say about the story. Holden has been expelled, not for the first time, and decides to just leave school rather than wait out the final few days in anticipation of his father's angry reaction to the news. He thinks a lot about his brother who has died, he obviously still experiences the loss quite acutely. After a night and a day of hanging around, not really knowing what he wants or what to do, he goes to his home in secret to see his sister. She seems to be the only person who understands him, or at least that is what he feels. Theirs is the only real close relationship that he has. He makes a decision to 'run away' and forge a life for himself on the periphery of society, somewhere where he can pass unnoticed, and it is her reaction to this decision that changes him. She packs a bag and announces she is coming with him. It is almost as if being forced to think about her, rather than himself (as he has been doing rather intensely the rest of the book), makes him appreciate the value of their relationship and it puts his rather negative view of human relations in some perspective.
In a way this is partly what the book is exploring, how hard it is to know other people. Or the process of learning how to know other people. Young children are very egocentric, they don't really think about other people except in relation to their own lives and experiences. It is part of adolescence that you begin to really look outside yourself, but also to be inside your head more, to reflect on your own thoughts and behaviour. Holden is described as a rebel and an anti-hero but I did not see him like that at all. He is just an ordinary teenager. I guess when it was written (1951) there was no such thing as 'teenagers' and it was quite unique to be writing a book based on the experience of such a young character, not a child but also not an adult. I think it stands the test of time because it continues to speak to the young people who read it. The disarming honesty is both what made it shocking at the time but is what ensures it's enduring appeal. We do not need to know Holden's future because you are left with the certainty that whatever it is he will not be going through life thoughtlessly.

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