Wry Dept.


Has The Catcher in the Rye lost its luster with time?

Get a Life, Holden Caulfield - NYTimes.com

It's tempting to say that we've collectively outgrown the book, but I'm not sure about that one.

I bumped into The Little Maroon Book in my parents' library when I was still in my single digits, and given how sober and forgettable it looked I might well have not opened it until I was actually assigned to read the thing in class. The laugh that escaped me when I read the words "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" could have been heard two houses down the street. That did it; I sat down and read the whole thing over the course of a weekend. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the first "adult-level" book I'd read, soon followed by such industrial-strength material as Last Exit to Brooklyn and Naked Lunch. My feeling is that Rye is one of those books that not everyone has to like, but it seems like a good idea to encounter it at least once and develop an informed opinion about it. The same for Lord of the Flies, or Slaughterhouse-five.

I've come back to the book many times since then, and I can see why it's become that much harder to connect with if you're a kid. Its post-WWII setting has dated badly with time; it references a lot of things many people have never experienced directly or even heard of (Brown Betty, anyone?); and, yes, there's Holden himself. The whiner.

It's been said that the protagonist of a book should be someone you a) admire b) want to see what he does next c) can get a good laugh out of. Preferably all three at once. I wasn't sure if I even liked Holden at all — I'm still not sure — but the example he embodied was what mattered more. He was stuck right in the middle of being a "kid" and being a "grownup", in a society where you were either one or the other (maybe that's part of the reason for the slackening of the book's impact, when it's possible to live an adolescent lifestyle well into your thirties), and found both positions distasteful. He didn't want to be either one, because the only way he could see himself growing up was by becoming, as the SubGenii would put it, one of the Pink Boys. He'd lost his brother, and was terrified of losing his sister — not just to death alone, but to the devouring maw of adulthood. It's only after he realizes that she idolizes him, stupid behavior and all, that he also realizes his idealism has been creating more problems for him than it solves.

So is the problem that all the kids today are rat-racers? I dunno; that sounds like a cheap way to avoid talking about the book as such. That and books go in and out of fashion much as anything else does, and sometimes they wane permanently. Few people today, aside from nostalgia merchants, remember the Bobbsey Twins; heck, even junior-detective Danny Dunn (from the 1970s) is passé. I suspect a lot of that is because there's that much more recent and relevant material being pushed out to younger readers — the article mentions Harry Potter — and so the older stuff, good-bad-and-dismal alike, is all shoved under the rug and invisible save for a small lump.

One other thing comes to mind — namely, that the whole concept of the alienated antihero may well have been a limited-run engagement to begin with, and probably burned out of its own accord. Maybe the fact that young people no longer connect as readily as they used to with Holden isn't a bad thing; maybe it's a sign that, as Lester Bangs once put it:

... the twin concepts of nihilism and the antihero have had it. What began with The Wild One and James "nobody understands me" Dean, ran with increasing vehement negativism up through the Stones and Velvets and Iggy ... [I]t may be time, in spite of all indications to the contrary from the exterior society, to begin thinking in terms of heroes again, of love instead of hate, of energy instead of violence, of strength instead of cruelty, of action instead of reaction.

Just as I typed that word heroes, into my mind sprung the one thing that has been living inside that word as of late: our leopard-headed friend Guin, the guy who stuck his neck out for everyone and was the first to be part of any plan he could think up. Maybe there's still also room in the definition for Holden Caufield; there's no small heroism in his dogged determination to not let the world outside of his classrooms and apartment walls turn him into the very thing he despises so much. In an age that valued toeing the line more than ours does, this was more heroic, I suppose. Today, the rules are laxer; people can have massively successful careers without even so much as donning a tie — and so Holden's squirming on the hook seems doubly dated in that light. But maybe that's only clear to people who understand they have a choice in the first place, and that it's not between (as Allan Bloom put it) quick fixes and dull calculation.

I don't know that I admired or even particularly liked Holden. I do know that without him and the book that features him I would have been a lot less empathic for people who feel stuck in their own frustrations, who walk around with the nagging itch that something is wrong, that they are missing out, that things are not as they should be. Rye was Salinger's argument that such feelings are the substance of life itself — the substance of all our lives — and that it's just as bad to be devoured by them and try to let them rule us as it is to ignore them completely. But if there are better books that say the same thing, then by all means let's have them come to the fore, too. And not simply turn away entirely from that dilemma and bury it under a forced smile that one day has no choice but to crack in half.


Tags: books Laughing Man links




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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Uncategorized / General, published on June 21, 2009 2:07 AM.

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