Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Since I use a quote from this right here on my front page, I felt I should probably review it pretty soon. Like now.

Franny and Zooey is Salinger’s best book (in my opinion) It didn’t get as much press as Catcher in the Rye but it retains a charm for me that his other books don’t. It takes place over a couple of days at an Ivy league school, a restaurant, a bathroom in the Glass apartment, a parlor and a bedroom of that same apartment. Location is everything as Salinger always goes into great detail describing the contents of the bathroom cabinet and giving a thorough going over of the living room.

I have read this book over and over and each time I find some new angle of it that I missed before, or that I had to grow into. My copy is highlighted, margin scribbled, penciled, and underlined like crazy. Its funny as hell. (To use a Salinger phrase; he’s always saying things are ‘blank-blank as hell‘ I always do too, and I think I must have picked up some of my language from him as I have been reading him religiously since I was fifteen)

J.D. Salinger recently passed away. My mother emailed me the article from the New York Times and my best friend Jeanette wrote a quote from his short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish on her Facebook status…which I answered…with a quote from Franny and Zooey.

Salinger. After a crappy experience with Hollywood in the 40’s, he refused to allow his books to be turned into movies (BRAVO!) and spent most of his life as a recluse on his estate in New Hampshire. He only published four books and about twenty-two short stories. He avoided interviews like the plague. He didn’t like all the attention he got from Catcher in the Rye.

He’s a curious fellow and rumors abound. I like what he said once when asked to cite his influences:
“A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right.”

Franny and Zooey Glass are the youngest of the Glass kids. Wes Anderson, when he made The Royal Tenenbaums, cited ‘several New York novels’ as his influence, and Salinger’s Glass family is most definitely one. The Glass kids are child prodigies and grew up participating in a radio show called “It’s a Wise Child.” The eldest of them, Seymour, was the most brilliant, and committed suicide in 1958.

The kids are now all grown up and only Zooey is still living at home. Franny is supposed to be away at college, but has had a brief nervous breakdown in which she is questioning her belief system and place in the world. As a way to cope, she has taken a book from Seymour’s old room. A little green book that tells the story of a pilgrim wandering around teaching people how to pray without ceasing. She becomes obsessed with it and starts saying the prayer and searching for enlightenment, all the while lying on her parents sofa and hiding out from the world.

The following section is from a ‘four-year-old letter’ that Zooey, who is a television actor, is reading, while he sits in the bathtub, smoking and contemplating his next role. It’s from his brother Buddy, who not only providing some career advice, but is apologizing for forcing Zooey and Franny to contemplate a plethora of religions when they were small.

I adore this whole letter. I was deeply indoctrinated in the rigid ways and weirdo beliefs of Evangelical Christianity while also dealing with a father who filled my infant brain with various things about eastern religion.
Like Buddhism and the seven levels of nirvana which bring you from the self-centered and egotistical to pure spirituality.

When I was five.

So I kinda’ relate to this.

Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point)that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of Pure Consciousness – satori -is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. Seymour and I thought it would be a good idea to hold back this light from you and Franny (as least as far as we were able) and all the many lower, more fashionable, lighting effects -the arts, sciences, classics, languages – till you were both able to at least conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light. We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least (that is, if our own ‘limitations’ got in the way) tell you as much as we knew about the men – the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmukatas – who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted you to both know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Hui-neng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula, or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea. Along with all this, I suppose I’m trying to say that I know how bitterly you resent the years when S. and I were regularly conducting home seminars, and the metaphysical sittings in particular. I just hope that one day – preferably when we’re both blind drunk – we can talk about it.”

Zooey is one of those top five male characters of mine. He’s smart and introspective and hilarious. He spends a lot of time airing his opinions almost as if he is suffering from Asberger’s syndrome. He confidently rolls over the feelings of those around him, but is ashamed when he realizes he has really hurt someone. I think I have a knack of doing this, too, and perhaps that is why his character appeals to me the most. I can relate to Franny’s confusion, and her search for a sense of peace, but Zooey is not weighed down with too much angst, or else he has put it away from himself because it would get in the way of his living.

One of the best moments in the whole book is when Mrs. Glass is in the bathroom with her son, lamenting the fact that no one is being any help to her. (Another reason I love this – it sounds exactly like my mother) She laments that her children are scattered across the world, and that her husband is going about ignoring his youngest daughter’s nervous breakdown, and now Zooey is in the tub, refusing to talk to his sister and see whats wrong. The exchange of banter is excellent. The italics are killing.

“Sometimes I could almost murder Buddy for not having a phone,” she said. “It’s so unnecessary. How can a grown man live like that – no phone, no anything? No one has any desire to invade his privacy, if that’s what he wants, but I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to live like a hermit.” She stirred irritably, and crossed her legs. “It isn’t even safe, for heaven’s sake! Suppose he broke his leg or something like that. Way off in the woods like that. I worry about it all the time.”
“You do, eh? Which do you worry about? His breaking a leg or his not having a phone when you want him to?”
“I worry about both, young man, for your information.”
“Well…don’t. Don’t waste your time. You’re so stupid, Bessie. Why are you so stupid? You know Buddy, for God’s sake. If he were twenty miles in the woods, with both legs broken and a goddamn arrow sticking out of his back, he’d crawl back to his cave just to make certain nobody sneaked in to try on his galoshes while he was out.”
A short, pleasurable, if somewhat ghoulish, guffaw sounded behind the curtain. “Take my word for it. He cares too much about his goddamn privacy to die in any woods.”
“Nobody said anything about dying,” Mrs. Glass said.

After lots of hilarious and compelling moments in the bathroom, Zooey finds Franny and gives her an earful about how selfish she’s being, worrying everyone, and how Buddy and Seymour made he and Franny into religious freaks and there isn’t anything that either one of them can do about it now. He spends about six pages on a tirade about the Bible, and religion, and Jesus and all the other prophets, chastising his sister for her short-sighted view of the prayer and telling her she is saying it for all the wrong reasons. The way he eloquently rips her a new one is some of the best writing on religious philosophy I have ever read. I think the first time I read it I may have as a response, like Franny, lay on the sofa and wept.

Zooey, when he realizes he has hurt his sister and is feeling guilty for not being more helpful, determines suddenly to help Franny figure things out. He pretends to be Buddy and calls her from the private phone line that still exists in Seymour and Buddy’s old room.

That’s another thing I like about this book. Every room in it is a shrine to days gone by. The living room is full of ping-pong tables and old books, photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Glass when they were young, old scarred furniture and ancient radios and framed letters and awards.

The bedrooms are still kept as they were, too, especially Seymour’s old room. So Zooey enters it and after a bit of looking around and taking note of the decor, calls Franny and entreats her to tell “Buddy” whats wrong.

Of course, after a few minutes, she figures out it isn’t Buddy and perhaps its the barrier of the phone that allows Zooey to tell her a few things about what he really thinks about her state of mind, without being hurtful.

It’s a book about seeking the truth, and how our families can wound us without meaning to. Its a book about growing up, and facing facts about things and adjusting your experiences to fit in with your ideologies. I think that’s why I respond to it the way I do. I can’t really say why others like it so much, but for me it hits home.

Not that I was a child prodigy, or had a lot of brothers and sister who were. Nor did anyone commit suicide and my mom would certainly never allow her home to be a shrine to our childhood, but still. This book mirrors me in a deeper way than just it’s plot. It speaks for me. That’s all I think.

As Salinger said: It’s a love story. And it really is.



Filed under Coming-of-Age Books, Literature

2 responses to “Franny & Zooey by J.D. Salinger

  1. Hannah

    I have a paperback copy of Franny and Zooey that is in such a state of disarray its incredible. I too, have become a “child” of Salinger and catch myself speaking the way he writes. kudos to you.
    Keep the Faith

    p.s. F&Z is undoubtedly the best work Salinger ever did.

  2. You are my first commenter that I don’t know! Thank you! I feel like I have connected with someone!

    I love F&Z and absolutely agree that it is Salinger’s best work. As for talking in ‘Salinger’ – it’s true. In my head, I am always commenting and observing in phrases that sound exactly like Holden Caulfield.
    “I hope to hell not” and “he/she is a phony” are two of my favorites. I don’t comment aloud for fear of being called unoriginal, but know that I am saying it in my head. :>

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