Monday, July 18, 2011
From the Dinghy to the Couch: Trauma, Neurosis, and the Transcendent in the Art of J.D. Salinger
“Dear God, life is hell.”(NS, p. 105)
One of Ernest Hemingway’s motifs for writing, especially short stories, was that of the iceberg in the deep ocean. The narrator doesn’t have to talk about what’s under the water for the unknown depths to be felt and experienced by the reader, both dimly and powerfully. The writer should instead focus on the numerous details of the iceberg above the water line. From the first story to the last in Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger, there is much that is unknown about the memorable and neurotic characters encountered by the reader. The most important details about the characters may be omitted, such as their name, or exactly why a character commits suicide unexpectedly at the end of a story, but this doesn’t prevent the reader from sensing, and feeling, the great depth of a character’s problems or woundedness. However, the overlapping characters in Nine Stories (1953) and Franny and Zooey (1961) can also help to articulate the enigmatic themes of Nine Stories through the presentation of the brilliant and disturbed family unit, the Jewish-Irish Catholic Glass family of Franny and Zooey. Using both texts, the reader may explore under the water line. Walt, Boo Boo, Seymour, and potentially Buddy Glass (though he is unnamed in the short story collection) are all introduced in Nine Stories. Salinger’s highly intelligent, sometimes genius, characters include both children and adults, and their dilemmas are often incompletely presented, though powerfully registered. Taken together, Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey highlight the failure of human intelligence alone to solve personal problems and heal psychological scars, from both warfare and ordinary family life. There is a kind of intellectual and spiritual unlearning that is presented in both works that allows the transcendent to break into human reality and redeem the awakened characters and reader, like the secret, wordless answer to a Zen koan that is finally understood.
The writer and his characters are very much creatures of New York City. Though Franny and Zooey begins in New Haven just prior to the Harvard-Yale game, the novel otherwise takes place exclusively in the east side apartment of the Glass family. Not every story in Nine Stories is set in New York City, but many of the stories present New York characters, even if they are far from New York in the actual events of the story. The intelligent and neurotic characters of J.D. Salinger are natural candidates for the New York City psychiatrist’s couch (as are all New Yorkers really), and Franny spends the entire second half of the book on the couch itself after her breakdown at Sickler’s Restaurant. The terms of her cure are debated by her brother and mother, Zooey and Bessie Glass. Franny isn’t on the psychiatrist’s couch, but she might as well be, just like the boy genius Teddy who is being studied by professionals at the end of the short story collection.
Neurotic Adults and Brilliant Children Together
The neurotic element of Salinger characters comes through vividly in his writing. The strange and unexplained personal behaviors are the tip of the iceberg that is described in great detail by the writer. Zooey Glass spends sixty-one pages of Franny and Zooey soaking in the bathtub. During this time, he smokes constantly (his movements are described in precise detail), and Zooey rereads in the tub a four year old letter from his brother Buddy, and apparently not for the first time. A sense of repetitive behavior is present in both works, and Franny’s breakdown is coincident with her constant use of the Jesus Prayer. The sense of neurotic repetition also comes through in the behavior of the short story characters, such as young Charles repeating the riddle about the walls in “For Esme-With Love and Squalor.” The riddle might have something to do with his dead parents, and, then again, it might not. Salinger’s characters seem to be in each other’s space, inside another’s walls, closer than the intimate eighteen inches of New York City. Zooey’s mother shares the bathroom with her son for nineteen claustrophobic pages, and this isn’t the first time for this kind of strange intimacy in the Glass family.
The first main character of Nine Stories is Seymour Glass, whose character and suicide still loom large in Franny and Zooey as his two youngest siblings attempt to find their way as adults many years after his suicide. Even before the strange behavior of Seymour on the beach with Sybil Carpenter, the concern of his wife and her mother for Seymour comes through in their catty, chatty phone call. The wife’s family has solicited the advice of a psychiatrist to get to the root of Seymour’s strange behaviors: “’He told him everything…The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing. What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda.’”(NS, p. 6) Seymour has some kind of psychological disorder manifest in persistent, odd behavior, though the exact psychological category is never named, or diagnosed by a professional. When the reader finally meets Seymour, he is utterly charming and refreshing, though clearly strange as advertised by his wife and mother-in-law. By this point, the reader has just as many concerns about the languorous Muriel and her narrow-minded mother. When they talk about Seymour, they reveal much about themselves as they constantly interrupt each other. The mother and daughter appear to know each other very well, and to be completely disconnected at the same time. In the narrative itself, Seymour’s wife is unnamed; she is simply “the girl,” though her mother calls her by her first name of Muriel. The actual girl in the story is called, formally, by her full name, Sybil Carpenter. Age doesn’t seem to make a person an adult, and actual children are oftentimes more mature than the adult characters in Nine Stories, and nearly always more interesting. Salinger puts children and adults together in their dilemmas, and the assumed hierarchy of age and wisdom is often removed. Sybil literally is out of bounds at the hotel when she goes to see Seymour on the beach. Her parents are nowhere in sight as the little girl wanders down the beach to talk to a strange man in a bathrobe. Their interaction is both tender and disturbing. There is an eccentric zone of intimacy with children and adults that comes up in many of the stories. Odd or non-existent boundaries mark both the dialogue and the physical interaction of adults and children: “’Sybil,’ he said. ‘you’re looking fine. It’s good to see you. Tell me about yourself.’ He reached in front of him and took both of Sybil’s ankles in his hands. ‘I’m Capricon,’ he said. ‘What are you?’” (NS, p. 12) On one level, childhood seems like a great place to be, both for the kids and the adults. But there are disconcerting elements between adults and children in Nine Stories. On another level, Salinger seems to be saying that lines between adults and children are artificial at best; that both have the same problems, especially during traumatic events like war. He also might be suggesting just how or when human traumas are first inflicted. Adult neurosis has its roots in childhood.
Inattentive parenting abounds in Nine Stories. The mother Eloise in Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut is a strange parent, even before she is completely intoxicated.
“’Can I have this?’ Ramona asked, taking a burned match out of the ashtray.
‘May I have this. Yes. Stay out of the street, please.”(NS, p. 27)
Eloise looks and sounds like a parent. She is attentive to her child’s grammar, but she is completely disconnected from what her child is actually saying and doing, much like Muriel and her mother in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” As Eloise and Mary Jane reminisce about their past over bottomless highballs and infinitely streaming cigarettes, the most important issue for Eloise is the loss of her true love, Walt (no last name), in World War II. This is Walt Glass of the Glass family whose full identity is only fully corroborated in an author’s footnote in the second book eight years later: “In order of age, Walt and Waker come after Boo Boo. Walt had been dead just over ten years. He was killed in a freakish explosion while he was with the Army of Occupation in Japan.”(FZ, p. 53) Eloise has never shared her past love for Walt, and her ubiquitous grief , with her husband, and this story introduces the element of loss and trauma as the first knot of neurotic behavior in the human psyche. “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” provides a kind of code that can be followed in the other stories. Though her daughter Ramona doesn’t seem to be a genius (like the precocious Esme or Teddy in later stories), she experiments with human relationships through her imaginary friend Jimmy Jimmereeno. Jimmy is always with Ramona, though he is invisible. Jimmy goes everywhere with Ramona, and the young girl even makes room for her in her bed when she goes to sleep. Before the story is over, she also experiments with death itself by having Jimmy be killed by a car in the street. Even after his death, she makes room for the dead boy in her bed; a repetitive behavior has clearly been established. The space needed for the dead boy’s imaginary body parallels the still unoccupied space or wound in her mother’s psyche for dead Walt’s memory. That Ramona has figured out her mother’s true source of pain is unlikely, but her imitation shows that she would understand by the equivalents she has experimented with in her own imagination. “Poor Uncle Wiggly” was the refrain that funny Walt used to say when something painful happened. Like the bananafish, Uncle Wiggily isn’t real, but he is an antidote for actual grief, when it happens in real life. “The Laughing Man” and “Just Before The War With The Eskimos” also have imaginary and childlike approximations for human grief. The fictional Laughing Man must die when John Gedsudski’s actual romance with Mary Hudson comes to a breakup. The serial story must end, just like the innocence of childhood. A fictitious war with the Eskimos is briefly referenced by a young man who wasn’t able to fight in the real war in “Just Before The War With The Eskimos.” Though he avoids the actual fighting, he spends the entire story walking around the apartment with a bleeding finger in need of some medical attention. The wounds of Salinger’s characters may be both obvious and deeply hidden, even from the character. The collection ends ominously with young Teddy talking frankly about death in the Vedantic spiritual tradition as a young girl, possibly his sister, falls to her apparent death in an empty swimming pool on a cruise ship (as predicted by the boy genius moments before).
Parallel grief between children and adults is also presented in “Down at the Dinghy.” Boo Boo is identified in the short story as the sister of Seymour Glass. There is an unidentified problem in the story, which has to do with something said by Sandra the maid. Boo Boo’s son Lionel is upset, and he refuses to leave the dinghy tied at the dock. Along with this present situation, the boy’s penchant for running away is discussed during the story: “He’s been hitting the road ever since he was two. But never very hard. I think the farthest he ever got –in the city—at least—was to the Mall in Central Park.”(NS, p. 78) The repetitive behavior for Lionel is running away. He is experimenting with disappearing from his family. Based on previous stories, the reader may wonder who has disappeared in his life. Has he lost his father? Did he die in the war? Is Boo Boo alone now in raising her son? The dialogue between Lionel and his mother is whimsical and heartwarming. The mother is more than adept at entering a child’s world; in fact, she jumps at the chance to engage his imagination. She takes on an imaginary nautical identity when she addresses her son: “’It is I,’ Boo Boo said. ‘Vice-Admiral Tannenbaum. Nee Glass. Come to inspect the stermaphors.’”(NS, p. 80) It is important to note that the imaginary role taken on by the mother is one of authority—of an admiral over an ordinary sailor. If her authority is genuine, she potentially has the power to order her son to leave his dinghy and return to the house: “’Many people think I’m not an admiral…I’m almost never tempted to discuss my rank with people. Especially with little boys who don’t even look at me when I talk to them. I’d be drummed out of the bloomin’ service.’” (NS, p. 81) However, the mother establishes her rank by performing various bugle calls “kazoo style.” With her nautical authority established, the sensitive and imaginative mother can get to the heart of the matter with her son: “’I’ll tell you what I’ll do, though…If you tell me why you’re running away, I’ll blow every secret bugle call for you I know. All right?’”(NS, p. 82) The boy is thoroughly disarmed by his mother and eventually reveals the trigger event for his permanent station on the dinghy. His father isn’t dead or missing—he’s Jewish: “’Sandra told Mrs. Snell—that Daddy’s a big—sloppy—kike.’”(NS, p. 86) Anti-Semitism doesn’t seem like a very big problem in the Salinger cosmos, especially with such a resourceful mother who can make a kite out of ordinary intolerance and hatred. This seems to be a very sweet moment of parenting in a Salinger story, but the disturbing event is yet to happen: “The better to look at him, Boo Boo pushed her son slightly away from her. Then she put a wild hand inside the seat of his trousers, startling the boy considerably, but almost immediately withdrew it and decorously tucked in his shirt for him.”(p. 86) The end of the story presents the parent as the one with the significant problem, and the story ends with this strange note of violation or inappropriate intimacy by a “wild hand.” Just when things are going so well, the reader is suddenly awakened to the character who has the big problem. So what happened to Boo Boo Glass? The evidence in Nine Stories is that the deaths of two of her brothers happened to Boo Boo.
The Crowded Genius of the Glass Family
In Franny and Zooey, all of the Glass children, including Boo Boo, are presented as more than intelligent as children; they are geniuses, child prodigies who have all been on a radio quiz show, at one time or another, from 1927-1943. They are national celebrities as children, but their intelligence may be an obstacle to having a happy life. Seymour is the greatest genius of the family, but he ends his life vacationing in Florida. In Franny and Zooey, Bessie Glass laments the intelligence of her children: “’I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be so smart as whips and all if it doesn’t make you happy.’”(FZ, p. 118) Bessie has lost two of her sons in a short amount of time, and this kind of grief was experienced by so many parents and siblings in the 1940s. Bessie’s own stoicism has failed her, and her concern for Franny as the next tragic genius to be in emotional difficulty is genuine: “Where once, a few years earlier, her eyes alone could break the news (either to people or to bathmats) that two of her sons were dead, one by suicide (her favorite, her most intricately calibrated, her kindest son), and one killed in World War II (her only truly lighthearted son)—where once Bessie’s eyes alone could report these facts, with an eloquence and a seeming passion for detail that neither her children nor any of her surviving children could bear to look at, let alone take in…”(p. 90) Trauma from death is deeply present in both works by Salinger, but so is love in highly unconventional and unorthodox forms. Before the author (Buddy Glass/J.D. Salinger) removes himself to the third person, he declares that Franny and Zooey actually falls in the genre of romance. It is a love story: “I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.”(FZ, p. 49) This presents Franny and Zooey as the couple in love, and there are strange hints about this impossible union in the descriptions of the apartment itself: “Mr. Glass’s perhaps most inspired coup as a decorator was manifest just behind and above the couch where young Franny Glass was now sleeping. There, in almost incestuously close juxtaposition, seven scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine clippings had been bracketed, at the bindings, directly into the plaster.”(FZ, p.121)
A companion story to this declaration about Franny and Zooey is perhaps the most memorable effort in Nine Stories: “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.” Love is declared in the title itself: for a teenage English girl who catches the narrator’s eye when he sees her sing in a choir in England. The trauma of loss is most direct in this story. Esme and her brother Charles have lost both of their parents, and all they have is each other, just like Franny and Zooey in the otherwise emptied Glass apartment. But the precocious and brilliant Esme is more than happy to include the narrator in the happy family, even though he is married: “Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?” (p. 95) Their conversation is intimate, playful, witty, inappropriate (based on their ages), unforgettable, and simply delightful. One could even argue that it is licit and appropriate under the circumstances of war; both characters have been through enough to have earned the strange intimacy. Perhaps Salinger is saying that you take love and affection anywhere you can get it during wartime, or in this difficult lifetime in general. Has war eroded appropriate boundaries? Or is Salinger not particularly interested in maintaining them? Though Salinger was not averse to romance with a woman who was thirty-seven years his junior in real life (Joyce Maynard), the narrator writer and the English girl part chastely with promises to write a short story and a letter respectively. They say goodbye: “It was a strangely emotional moment for me.”(NS, p. 103) Though their love is non-physical, the story itself seems to be a direct issue of their real experience of love. For his part in their love story, Zooey chastely chooses to help his sister through her present crisis as best he can as a mentor. It becomes clear that Buddy Glass, the reclusive writer of the Glass family, played just this loving role for him during his own rite of passage to adulthood.
Art and Religion: Teddy and the Fat Lady
As mentioned earlier, Buddy Glass, the reclusive writer who doesn’t even have a telephone in upper New York state (not New Hampshire), makes a brief appearance in the first person in Franny and Zooey. During this appearance, he directly equates himself, by implication, with J.D. Salinger as Zooey reads the four-year old letter from his brother: “The style of the letter, I’m told, bears a considerably more than passing resemblance to the style, or written mannerisms, of this narrator, and the general reader will no doubt jump to the heady conclusion that the writer of the letter and I are one and the same person. Jump he will, and, I’m afraid, jump he should. We will, however, leave this Buddy Glass in the third person from here on in. At least, I see no good reason for taking him out of it.”(FZ, p. 50) Three of the stories in Nine Stories are told from the first person. The first is “The Laughing Man,” followed by “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.” The last story in the first person is “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” The middle story is told from the point of view of an actual writer who is currently stationed in England during the war. But the other two are from the point of view of a boy, then a young man, finding their way in the world. Using the rubric established in Franny and Zooey to identify Buddy Glass, the argument can be made that the narrator of “The Laughing Man” is the same person as the narrator of “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” as well as “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.” The style and written mannerisms are very similar in their whimsical thinking, a shared neurotic and obsessive sense of detail, and their blending of real and imaginary people and events. Of course, they are also both written by J.D. Salinger. All three stories in the first person emphasize creativity, both written and visual, and the world of the imagination is presented as both the means of escape and the best way to cope with the traumas of real life. Art is the genuine adulthood of childhood. In his letter to Zooey, Buddy the writer encourages Zooey to find meaning in his life through acting, instead of the academic career that his mother encourages: “Enough. Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, since you fell you must, but do it with all you might. If you do anything at all beautiful on stage, anything nameless and joy-making, anything above and beyond the call of theatrical ingenuity, S. and I will both rent tuxedos and rhinestone hats and solemnly come around with bouquets of snapdragons.”(p. 69) Art seems to be the best way to remember S. (Seymour), and avoid his fate. Despite her breakdown, Franny’s interest and vocation as a young college student is also theater and acting, and the implication of her recovery at the end is that she will return to the stage, where she belongs—where God wants her to be. To be an artist is to be a co-creator with God. Both Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey end with spiritual explorations, and declarations, from both Eastern and Western religious traditions respectively.
On a small scale, this religious exploration of both East and West is cryptically addressed by the narrator in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” when he decides to no longer write obsessive letters to a nun: “I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everybody is a nun.”(NS, p. 164) Everybody has an important religious destiny, whether they realize it or not—whether they pursue it or not. What this means is perhaps more clear when Zooey explains to Franny (while pretending to be Buddy on the phone) Seymour’s theories about the Fat Lady. The Fat Lady was an imaginary woman who probably had real cancer. The Fat Lady listened to the quiz show “It’s A Wise Child” to hear from the Glass children. Though it was a radio show, Seymour encouraged the youngest Glass siblings to shine their shoes for the Fat Lady. As adults, the Fat Lady teaching is a catalyst for Franny and Zooey to acknowledge God in their most humble relationships with all other human beings; she is a bridge between the transcendent and the ordinary. Franny and Zooey reveals the immanent God in the here and now, just as the boy genius Teddy points to the transcendent reality that is all around us in the last story of Nine Stories. Everyone is the Fat Lady, Zooey explains to the sister he loves: “But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady…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.”(FZ, p. 202) The incarnate God is among us, Seymour and Zooey remind those dearest to them. Everyone is a nun. The trauma of war and ordinary life may break the strongest among us, but the damaged places in our lives can be like cathedrals that still stand in the cities, after the battle is over, and the armies go home. The psyches of Salinger characters can also be peacefully redeemed and illuminated, like stained glass windows, when the light of creativity and love hits them just right.
Works Cited List
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961).
J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories, (New York: Bantam Books, 1953).