Thursday, November 26, 2009

I kind of still hate "The Catcher in the Rye", sort of

Last month, my friend Stan posted a very well written and thoughtful piece about J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. I left him a long comment about how much I hated the book, but also recognized that I haven't read the book since we were in high school, and that my own memories and impressions of it might be somewhat skewed. In order to fully evaluate his entry, and possibly respond with one of my own, I decided that I should read the book again, as I may suddenly (if the intervening decade or so between my last reading and this one counts as "sudden") feel differently about it.

This kind of change is entirely possible. When we read The Scarlet Letter in high school, it was a long, painful slog that took about a month and a half because you had to analyze everything, beat each chapter to death like a dead horse, and then discuss it at tedious length in a room full of peers who, in most cases, had not only not finished but most likely not even started reading the book and who, more than anything, wanted to figure out what the teacher wanted to hear more than they actually wanted to think about a moldy old classic. I'm not saying that like I'm above those kids, because I totally just wanted to know what we were supposed to learn and if we could please just move on.

In retrospect, I think 90% of high school English coursework is designed to make kids hate reading, but I'm digressing. When I had to reread The Scarlet Letter for a literature course in college, we covered the entire book in two classes. We didn't spend a quarter of the school year on it, and when I reread it early in the semester to get it over with as quickly as possible it was like reading a completely different book where someone cut out all the boring parts and reading it didn't feel like pushing wooden splinters under your fingernails. I had a chance to view the book as a whole, rather than in weekly chapters, and I got to appreciate it more as a novel written for entertainment than as an iconic classic and pillar of the American canon.

I had high hopes for The Catcher in the Rye, and was ready to have my mind completely changed, but no. I still hate it. I can't argue with Stan's main points about it because I agree with them, with one exception. Stan states in his entry:

In high school we thought it was a book about authenticity. We resonated with Holden’s perspective that we were surrounded by unreflective phonies. It verified our self perception as unique or profound in our tired self-refuting insights. We identified with his disaffections and his systemic mistrusts. We saw Holden as a champion of nerdy angst and entirely missed Salinger’s clues that our narrator was neither consistent nor well.

I'm not part of the collective "we" in that paragraph. From the first time I read this book, the main problem I had with it was that I found it completely inauthentic, and I was as disgusted by the reactions of my classmates as I was by the book itself. As soon as I started rereading it, from the very first page, I remembered exactly what I didn't like about it, and now I've spent four and a half hours slogging painfully through it just so I could be done.

For starters, Catcher is a novel with a teenaged first person narrator written by a thirty-two year old man. I've always been distrustful of people who tell me what I'm thinking and how I'm feeling, and this was true when I was a teenager as well. I'm not arguing that only teens can write about teens, but an adult trying to speak in the voice of a person they haven't been for a decade or more falls prey to nostalgia and the changes in their own perspective that time has effected. You can write as passionately and descriptively as possible about how truly awful it was to have to play shirts and skins in gym class when you had a big huge bacne pimple on your shoulder blade, but you can't really put yourself in those shoes and feel how awful it really was. It no longer seems like the end of the world because you've been through so many other, more awful things like getting fired from a job and car wrecks and having to rewrite your entire master's thesis and overdrawing your checking account and whatever else. For a teenager, it's the end of the world because high school is the whole world, but for an adult it's just one more bump on a long highway. You can try to relive it, but you'll never quite get there.

And hey, speaking of high school and teenagers, one of the other reasons why I've always hated this book is that it always seems to be the first or second volume in the Angry and Misunderstood Unique Teenage Rebel Reading List. Show me a unique little twelfth grade snowflake who's totally above it all and completely jaded with the cliquish hell of high school, and I guarantee that their favorite books will include The Bell Jar, The Catcher in the Rye, or both. It's like when you go to college, decide you're a Wiccan, and suddenly your favorite movies are "The Wicker Man" and "The Craft". Hot Topic and Torrid might as well start selling Catcher and The Bell Jar in a black and red boxed set. Having been a unique, jaded, elitist twelfth grade snowflake myself, I'm not sure how I managed to hate this book on sight, but it must be because I was somehow even more unique and more special than everyone around me.

Either that, or I had an immediate gut response to the inauthenticity of my classmates' reactions to it. Junior high and high school children are soulless, heartless monsters for the most part, and travel the schools in packs to crush the weak and the different. If you don't have a group, any group, to be part of so that you can enjoy the safety of numbers, you might as well be swimming through the shark tank with your wrists open and gushing. What I hated about this book in high school was listening to the sharks in my English class praise the fictitious Holden Caulfield's hatred of phonies and unwillingness to compromise himself when they would have fallen on a real, flesh and blood Holden in their midst like a pack of jackals, and they were completely unwilling to admit that.

This post was intended as a response to Stan's post, but I'm not sure how to classify it. It's not a rebuttal, and I fear it might be closer to a rant than anything else. It definitely feels like I pulled off a scab I was only half aware that I had, and that perhaps the feelings of teenagers are more accessible to the adults they become than I originally believed. In closing, what did I learn from this rereading exercise?

1) I cannot rationally evaluate this book, because I cannot separate my feelings about the book and people who like it from the book itself. I didn't cite any pages above because very little of what I've written is based on the novel itself. I may not actually hate The Catcher in the Rye, but instead may just hate teenagers who like it.

2) Art is subjective, and I accept that different people like different things and that it's ok for them to. Stan and I can still be friends, as we both like lots of things the other does not. On the subject of this particular novel, we'll have to agree to disagree.

3) Thank God he didn't decide to reread and post about Billy Budd. There's no way I'd ever make it through that again.


Amber said...

You have an accidental blog tourist as a big fan in MN - love the posts, thank you for sharing!

JMBower said...

Personally, I tend to agree with the "Catcher in the Rye is bunk" camp, but more for the character than the writing. I read Stan's post too..I think he had a lot of good points.

Salinger, who I otherwise quite like, was not in my opinion on top of his game in writing Catcher. If it was a straightforward look at the unique, etc, then it's just pretentious hogwash. Holden isn't a "precious and unique snowflake", he's someone who can't figure out what all the rest of us have wrestled with at some time or another: How to deal with society as an individual without losing the individuality or "selling out".

Holden completely fails at this.

And like every other pretentious suffering artist type we have known, he is too self centered to make connections between himself and the outside world so he hides behind the illusory superiority he feels.

To me, intended or not, the story reads as a tale of a delusional misanthrope who can't see beyond the end of his own nose. He can't handle rejection, he can't define himself outside of others (he is only unique as long as everyone else is phony) and he concentrates solely on the image of himself.

He is not some poor, misunderstood genius, a victim of a cruel world.

He is a tired and common archetype elitist, thinking himself somehow above a society. He is dealing with the same conflict of self vs. group all of us go through, but he writes off his failure to reconcile the two as somehow everyone else's fault but his.

I despise Holden because he does nothing more than sit in his safe little mental world casting aspersions on everyone else instead of actively engaging the world like we all have to do sooner or later. All he can do is run away. It's inherently disingenuous. Part of me wants to believe Salinger meant this to be obvious and didn't write it as well as he could have, but part of me fears Holden is partly autobiographical and Salinger hadn't really caught on to how pathetic a character Holden really was.

He wasn't strong for refusing to compromise. He was weak for failing to "be the change he wanted to see". Running away isn't strength.

I reread the book when I was older too, and went from liking it to really thinking it's a mediocre book about a pretty horrible character.

stanford said...

Joel, your last line made me (as the kids like to say) laugh out loud. It seems we can agree that Billy Bud was an unmitigated turd. It does seem like a total waste that the time in life that our society sets aside for us to recon with classic literature is seemingly when we are least able to process it. I recently bought The Scarlet Letter at a used book store hoping to give it another shot as well.

I think it is interesting how our experiences of the book as adolescents affect our reactions to the book now. There is something there about role of ambient expectation in art, especially classic art…but I’m not sure what. Part of my enjoyment of the book was that I found something totally unexpected in it while you found precisely what you expected. Sorry to essentially dare you into wasting 5 hours. I think you are right, though, that most of us who resonated with Holdon the internal monologue would have mocked Holdon the strange, annoying, inconsistent kid with the funny hat. I also like your point about how we can never recreate the horror of actual adolescence. It reminds me of an interview I heard with Joss Wheadon about how everyone made a big deal about how ‘authentic’ the teen speak on Buffy was but that would only be true if teenagers had a bunch of 35 year olds writing their material.

Justin, I think that if Holdon is an arch type the book fails horrendously. But I think that Holdon is actually ill, and all of us who resonated with him were totally missing the point. He is a broken kid who is terrified and hurting. He is not a heroic character but a tragic one. It is actually a great irony (in the way the word has come to be used) that he has become the hero of the suffering snowflake. In a way it works that in high school I though I was Holden…and it turns out I was right, but not in the way that I thought. And I think that is part of why Joel and I had different experiences of the book the second time. He got it the first time, I didn’t.

Anyway, Joel, thanks for your thoughts on the book. I found them engaging.

Joel said...

Stan said, "It does seem like a total waste that the time in life that our society sets aside for us to recon with classic literature is seemingly when we are least able to process it."

I agree with this, but I think the problem isn't with the literature itself, but with the teaching methods. This is in no way intended as a slam against any of the excellent English teachers I had in high school, as they were working within state mandated teaching guidelines, but the state mandated methods seem designed to suck all the fun and enjoyment out of reading.

In high school I was pretty much a constant reader, fitting in assigned books in my steady stream of Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Dean Koontz, VC Andrews, and whatever other crap happened to fall into my hand in the bookstore, so I can definitely say that I like reading. The unassigned books I was reading, though, I got to read without having the symbolism and the metaphors and the analogies bludgeoned into my head. It's not that a Stephen King book doesn't have any symbolism; it's that I got to read it without writing a term paper on it.

Compare that to "The Scarlet Letter". Beyond vague outlines of the plot, the first other thing that pops into my head is that there was the letter, a meteor, something about flowers or something in the woods, the minister having a brand of his own, and all of this symbolizing something very important. Or go back to reading "The Great Gatsby" in high school, and the first thing that pops into your head is either going to be "yellow car" or "green light at the end of Daisy's dock". That's because we spent weeks in a small room with hard chairs and Sarah Johnson (I think that was her name; she had brown hair and had a baby between our junior and senior years of high school) flipping her hair onto my desk while we discussed this with people who hadn't finished the assigned chapter yet and didn't want to talk about it.

There's no enjoyment there. There's no reading for fun, and there's no recognition that all these important classics weren't written to be important classics. They were written as entertainment for the masses. Shakespeare's plays were written for the rabble, not the elite, but you wouldn't know it from the five week unit on "Romeo and Juliet". High school makes literature painful, and that's why so many people leave high school and never look at those books again.