After reading David Denby’s “The New Yorker” review of the documentary about J.D. Salinger, which has recently been released for public consumption, I felt somewhat smugly satisfied at my lack of desire to see the movie myself, although I am a die-hard fan of the author. When Salinger died in 2010, I mourned the fact that I would never get to meet him, even though his legendary reclusive behavior had already relegated that fantasy to the drawer of forgotten dreams, where lies also my lovemaking with Russell Crowe, getting drunk with Frances McDormand and writing a screenplay with Emma Thompson. (The fantasies change year to year, but some, like the Salinger one, lasted decades.)
When I am asked what my favorite novels are, I inevitably—though rather shamefully, because Salinger is not considered one of the greats of literature—put “Franny and Zooey” at the top of the list. I also vaguely remember writing a letter to Mr. Salinger when I was in my late teens, after reading—you guessed it—“The Catcher in the Rye.” I never mailed the letter. I knew even then not to take my fantasies too seriously.
My love affair with Salinger has endured half a lifetime, and Denby is right in acknowledging how Salinger spoke so intimately to those of us who recognized in his work a kindred spirit. Denby likens such commonality in rather vague, and therefore anti-Salingeresque terms, speaking of a similar distaste in the “crass energies of our business civilization.” I’m not sure I know what “crass energies” means, and why does Denby narrow Salinger’s target to business civilization? Salinger’s work was about hypocrisy and dissimulation in every sphere of society, and his critiques were fundamental ones. But Denby’s acknowledgement does remind us that Salinger was a social critic whose singular voice was exactly what some of us readers, especially young people, felt was our own.
Much like the films of Eric Rohmer that showed young people grappling with metaphysical doubts and anxieties, Salinger’s work spoke of the complexity of feeling with a simplicity that might irritate those who prefer to think that complex issues should be handled with complex language. But for so many of us, especially young people (of which we all, after all, have been at one point), Salinger’s language pricked the point, gave it ordinary substance, and made it relatable in a way that gave his writings a feeling of an ordinary conversation about something of great importance. This is not easy to do. When it’s done well, it’s extraordinary.
“Franny and Zooey” is my favorite book because of this preference for plain speaking while still getting at the nub, much like Eric Rohmer’s “Le Rayon Vert” is my favorite film because of its own way of searching for profound life lessons in ordinary, and sometimes banal, situations. Even now, when I feel particularly disgruntled with life, with societal insistence on being just so, to say the right thing at the right time, to play the game or lose your place, where honesty is always trumped by manners, I remember the words of Zooey to his sister Franny when she, too, thought it wasn’t worth the effort. “Do it for the fat lady,” he tells her. We may feel alone, especially when dealing with the absurdity of pretense, the hypocrisy or just the sheer lack of honesty in society, but we are not alone. Just look. That lady is one of us.