Hopefully you will have noticed the recent change in the format of our Book Talk programme. We now focus on a theme for the month and I’m no longer obliged to read and review two of the latest releases. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading, far from it, but it has enabled me to go back and catch up on some of the literary classics I’ve missed along the way. A couple of months ago I looked at Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. This month it’s The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger. Both of these books have acquired cult status and yet I’d never got round to reading them. Now I have and both have failed to live up to the expectations generated by the mystique that surrounds them. Why should that be so?
Slaughterhouse 5 I knew was supposed to tell me about the horrors of warfare but it made nowhere near the impression on me as Birdsong did. Somehow the message didn’t get through and I had to read up on it afterwards. It was the same with The Catcher in the Rye, which is about teenage angst, boredom and rebellion – or so it told me on one of those comment cards the booksellers in Waterstones attach to their favourite books. I guess I kind of got that once I’d read it – but there had to be more to it and so once again I was obliged to consult external sources. And when you have to do homework on a book because you don’t ‘get’ it first time round, it sort of takes the edge off.
The story is told by Holden Caulfield, a middle-class teenage schoolboy in post-war America. He has just failed his academic year and is being sent home. He is fearful of breaking the news to his parents and spends the next couple of days meandering aimlessly around various locations in New York in an effort to avoid facing them. His problem is that having failed scholastically through a complete lack of interest in anything he has no practical vision of the future. He has romantic fantasies but in the end they amount to nothing.
I think I’ve come to this book too late; I should have been reading it when I was an angst-ridden teenager myself and then it might have resonated with me.
I come from a class of people liberated by the breakdown of the social barriers that existed prior to the Second World War and like many others of my era, I struggled to come to terms with what that meant. Cue the chaos of the 1960s. Instead of my future being mapped out for me, I had the luxury of personal choice about what to do in life and for a long time I hadn’t a clue. I even tried my hand at writing as a means of expressing myself but I made a hash of it and had to give up. Then I invented my identity through work and life acquired some kind of meaning.
Reading Catcher in the Rye now I recognise many of the problems that Holden Caulfield faces: I’ve been there, but I’ve moved on. Rather than hearing how bad things can be, I’ve reached a stage in life where I want answers and SaIinger’s depiction of the future as a depressing and hopeless place is not what I believe or want to hear. As a writer I’m often told that my characters need to embark on a journey at the end of which they experience change. If Holden Caulfield goes on such a journey then it takes him nowhere and he is no further forward at the end of it than he was at the beginning.
[Image courtesy of joblo.com]
It was my frustration at this apparent lack of progression that convinced me I must be missing something and prompted my extra-curricular research. Where was the message in the book? And who was ‘The Catcher in the Rye’? Caulfield misquotes the line from the poem by Robert Burns ‘If a body meet a body…’ but what does he mean by it? Let’s deal with this first.
Wikipedia tells us that Caulfield ‘pictures himself as the sole guardian of thousands of children playing an unspecified ‘game’ in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. His job is to catch the children if, in their abandon, they come close to falling off the brink; to be, in effect, “the catcher in the rye”. Because of this misinterpretation, Holden believes that to be “the catcher in the rye” means to save children from losing their innocence’.
This is another of Caulfield’s romantic fantasies. He wants to prevent others from experiencing the transition to adulthood that he himself is finding so traumatic. It’s a noble cause that might give his life meaning.
A few pages later, Caulfield visits Mr Antolini, his much-admired English teacher. He advises Holden that
‘wishing to die for a noble cause is the mark of the immature man, while it is the mark of the mature man to aspire to live humbly for one’..
I think we’re supposed to put two and two together here and conclude that Caulfield’s attitudes are still those of an adolescent. Once he realises that life isn’t about dying for a noble cause and starts the mundane process of earthly existence he might achieve something worthwhile. The problem is that this means jumping off the very same cliff he wants to prevent everyone else from going over.
All of this brings to mind another book I read recently of the same era. Stoner by John Williams was also written in the post-war period and if ever someone lived humbly for a noble cause then Stoner was that man. It’s this more rounded and complete view of humankind that leads me to believe that of the two books, Stoner is by far the greater achievement.
As a catalogue of the horrors of disaffected youth Catcher in the Rye does a great job. But it left me frustrated and wanting to tell Holden Caulfield to ‘Get a life!’, even if it was the kind endured by Stoner and yet which was ultimately so rewarding.
N. E. David
N. E. David’s debut novel ‘Birds of the Nile’ is published by Roundfire.
To find out more visit his website at www.nedavid.com