Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer of the Re-Read #2: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

You may be wondering (and I say this because I'm sort of wondering the same thing myself) why I would bother writing about a novel that most likely you have read. And honestly, I don't know. You think I plan these things as I go along? 

Enter Holden Caufield, our hapless, teenage narrator who does everything as he goes along ("What I thought I'd do was..."). Never thinking anything through, always shooting off his mouth: you know, your average, self-centered yet self-clueless teenager.

Maybe reading The Catcher in the Rye at the same age as the narrator is necessary to fully appreciate the book. At the time, although I loved the book and thought that Salinger "got it" (to my memory, at least) I didn't fully embrace Holden as an extension of me, nor did I fully relate: even I didn't want to associate myself with someone so annoying (of course, I probably was just as annoying too, and didn't realize). But still, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who read it as a teenager, like actually read it, and not skimmed through the important parts in class for major plot points (hey, I was a high school student too), and couldn't relate.

The most obvious example of Salinger's perfect distillation of teenage-ism is Caufield's inherently contradictory nature. Everything he says is taken back, or qualified, or qualified in a way that basically is a negation. The only exception, of course, being his dead brother Allie. 

Granted, death in the immediate family will fuck anyone up. So it's easy to see why Holden's behavior is a sort of worse-case scenario of a moody teenager, which I think is why even at the time I thought Holden really acted more like a little kid than a theoretical peer of mine. But looking back on him now, I can see maybe with clearer eyes that in essence, I really was a Holden, because I was a teenager too. 

So why did I want to read The Catcher in the Rye now? Well, for one, I saw an English copy at a Book Off while in Japan and I think it made me nostalgic and a little homesick. I also think it's interesting that it's one of the books Haruki Murakami (boy, it always comes back to him, doesn't it? I gotta institute a No-Murakami month or something) decided to re-translate it into the Japanese. But I've known that for a long time, and it wasn't until about a month ago that I knew I wanted to re-read it. Maybe I had a conversation with a friend about it. Hah, hope you enjoy my non-answer, hapless reader. I really should just delete this whole paragraph. 

Things that surprised me about the novel: The similarities between now and 1950s-America. Somewhere in our American tapestry of culture or education is this brainwashed notion that 1950s-era America was somehow more wholesome than any other era. Something about that post-war era (and the now-we-Americans-try to-ignore-it start of the Cold War) keeps propagating this notion and manifests itself in our movies and TV shows (whether as pastiche or cliche) as the squeaky-clean America. I don't know why we Americans see the 1950s as the purest slice of Americana in our history, but there it is.

And obviously this is not the case, but it was still surprising to see that even kids in the 1950s were scratching "Fuck You" in the walls of their schools or to read about the high school kids having sex (or lying about doing it) or that a 1950s 16-year old would be trying to get away with underage drinking at bars and paying for a prostitute. Obviously it's all the same and always will be, but it was weird how I too unconsciously bought this weird stereotype that pervades our national conscious.

My question to you, readers, especially the non-Americans, is your relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, if you've read it, and how relatable it is to your own teenage experience. We consider it now (despite the protests that continue even today by weirdo parents who can't honestly communicate to their kids about sex and swear words) to be a paragon of American literature, a solid member of the literary canon, so I'm curious to see what non-Americans think. 

Anyway, that's about all I have to say on the matter. It was definitely worth the re-read, and I think in another 10 or 20 years it'll be worth another re-read. And then forcing my teenage kids to read it, if the novel has somehow fallen out of favor when my kids are in high school. I wonder how relatable it will be to my kids then, considering how different we can assume our culture will be in another 25 years.

[Next up on Summer of the Re-Read: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Another indisputable (and deservedly so) member of the American literary canon.]

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