1.23.2015

Franny and Zooey, by Salinger (book review)

I loved this book.

Upon finishing this book, I was immediately seized by Book Evangelism. I wanted everyone in my life to know how amazing this book was, and I took to Goodreads to find out who else had read it, who else had loved it, and who was just waiting to be converted.

I was in that blissed-out trance state of Book Infatuation and it was inconceivable to me that — wait for it — perhaps not everyone liked this book.

Until I realized one of my friends hated it. She didn't put it on her  "books to be hurled from me at great velocity" Goodreads list (a list title which, God help me, I now dearly wish to copy), but she one-starred it, which is the Goodreads equivalent of a death wish (the same rating I gave to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for the record).

Honestly, though, I can see why someone might fairly hate this book.

It is billed as a short story and a novella, but it's not, not really. It's a morality play, or a parable, or possibly a religious text. So if you want actual plot, I have to say this falls a bit short. 

I found the Glass family (the two main characters are sister and brother, Franny and Zooey Glass) to be rather precious and unbelievable as well. It is a family with seven extraordinarily precocious children who go about doing things like starring in child trivia competitions and memorizing Epicictus. Also they speak in italics all the damn time. It's annoying as hell, godamit.

The whole lot of them would fit right into a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, this whole book reminded me vividly of a Wes Anderson movie. And if you hate Wes Anderson movies, well, it's hard to blame you (though I, personally, enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel very much, thank you.)

All that said: I loved this book


I loved the unbelievable stylized Wed Anderson characters. I loved that Zooey smokes cigars and Franny wears a shorn-racoon-skin coat (what IS that?) and they live in a house cluttered with ephemera from their child-star days and laze in the bath for hours reading their latest script because (of course!) one of them is a promising television actor who is soooo disillusioned with the superficiality of the medium today, while the other is perseverating on a 19th century Russian prayer.   

I loved the theology. If my theology could be distilled into book form, well, there would be a few top contenders, but Franny and Zooey would be right up there. 

Franny spends most of the book (and so does her brother) lashing out against the perceived self-centered, ego-driven, superficiality of the world. And then a passage like this is dropped in (italics redacted):

“You keep talking about ego. My God, it would take Christ himself to decide what's ego and what isn't. This is God's universe, buddy, not yours, and he has the final say about what's ego and what isn't. What about your beloved Epictetus? Or your beloved Emily Dickinson? You want your emily, every time she has an urge to write a poem, to just sit down and say a prayer until her nasty, egotistical urge goes away? No, of course you don't! But you'd like your friend Professor Tupper's ego taken away from him. That's different. And maybe it is. Maybe it is. But don't go screaming about egos in general. In my opinion, if you really want to know, half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren't using their true egos. Take your professor Tupper. From what you say about him, anyway, I'd lay almost any odds that this thing he's using, the thing you think is his ego, isn't his ego at all but some other, much dirtier, much less basic faculty. My God, you've been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher — or, for that matter, college professor — and half the time you find a displaced first-class automobile mechanic or a goddam stonemason. Take LeSage, for instance — my friend, my employer, my Rose of Madison Avenue. You think it was his ego that got him into television? Like hell it was! He has no ego any more — if ever he had one. He's split it up into hobbies. He has at least three hobbies that I know of — and they all have to do with a big, ten-thousand-dollar workroom in his basement, full of power tools and vises and God knows what else. Nobody who's really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for goddam hobbies."

Yes. Yes, this. (1)

One of my favorite religious thinkers is Thomas Merton. I just spent half an hour ransacking the house for his book New Seeds of Contemplation only to realize I had lent it to a friend, so I can't quote it for you (unfortunately. It is an excellent book!), but the book contains a passage called "Things in their identity."

 In this passage Merton argues that to conform to the will of God isn't to surrender your you-ness, your identity. It's not like the Borg. Surrendering to God means becoming Christlike, which is the same as becoming Christ-willed, which, in my reading of Franny and Zooey, is what Zooey Glass means when he says "real ego."

And no, I don't think this connection is a stretch in this context. Franny is saying the Jesus Prayer over and over ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner") in order to give up her ego, as she has been railing against ego for the whole book.  Her idea of giving up her ego seems to be collapsing in a puddle on the couch doing nothing but praying and having mystical experiences. 

Zooey (and again, I read Zooey as a fairly transparent authorial self-insertion) argues against this conception of ego, adducing Emily Dickinson and Franny's own talent for acting as his examples. Franny recently walked out on a prominent role in a theatrical production because of her flight away from "ego." This is what he says in response to this abdication, in a passage not long after the one I just quoted:

“You were good. And when I say good, I mean good. You held that goddam mess up. Even all those sun-burned lobsters in the audience knew it. And now I hear you're finished with the theatre forever — I hear things, I hear things. And I remember the spiel you came back with when the season was over. Oh, you irritate me, Franny! I'm sorry, you do. You've made the great startling goddam discovery that the acting profession's loaded with mercenaries and butchers … Why're you making me tell you things you already know? Somewhere along the line — in one damn incarnation or another, if you like — you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You're stuck with it now. You can't just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act.”

Bam. Yes. 

And those 'sunburnt lobsters in the audience' Franny has been complaining about? Zooey reminds her of what their older brother Seymour (the Franny and Zooey equivalent of Narnia's Aslan, by my reading) once told each of them before performing on the above-mentioned child trivia radio show:

“I remember about the fifth time I ever went on 'Wise Child.' … I started bitching one night before the broadcast. Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, from where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again … This terribly, terribly clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don't know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense …

… But I'll tell you a terrible secret — Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddam secret yet? And don't you know — listen to me, now — don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? ...Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”



Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. 



So if you want a novella with actual action other than dialogue (and smoking. There's lots of smoking.) and believable characters who aren't authorial self-insertions or thinly-veiled Christ figures, skip this book. But if you're into some thoroughly decent theological insights wrapped in a Salinger story that reads like a particularly smoky Wes Anderson film, step right up. Read this book! 

Five stars from me.


(1) I disagree with Salinger about hobbies, though I understand what he is getting at here (we should ideally do the work we are called to). But not everyone can do the work they love for pay. And even among those who can be paid for the work they love, it is often important to find another way to be with the world. 

As I groped around trying to explain these feelings, I of course found that Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings had treated it much more fully, in discussing Henry Miller's book To Paint is to Love Again.

Henry Miller: "I turn to painting when I can no longer write. Painting refreshes and restores me; it enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to write. So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself."
Maria Popova: This, of course, is a strategy that many celebrated creators used — Madeleine L’Engle read science to enrich her writing and Einstein, who termed his creative process “combinatory play,”, is said to have come up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks. But it also makes sense under more formal psychological models of how creativity works, all of which require some form of incubation period, or what Alexander Graham Bell called “unconscious cerebration” — a stage during which “no effort of a direct nature” is made toward one’s creative goal and the mind is instead allowed to perform its essential background processing.

Read the whole article on hobbies as a way to enrich creative life here.