Sunday, October 05, 2008

Retro Review: The Catcher in the Rye

I never had to read Catcher in the Rye in high school. Like 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, I read Catcher because it had a cool reputation, and felt like I needed to have it under my belt if I wanted to maintain any credibility as a half-cocked beatnik intellectual.

Unlike 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye isn't science fiction. It is set in the stark reality of the 1940's. Even though the story is set thirty years prior to my birth, I'm not sure I've ever related to a main character the way I did to Holden Caulfield, the teenage narrator who has just been kicked out of another in a series of high-class private schools. I don't relate to Caulfield's social status, or his east coast environment. What I relate to is his relationship to the world around him.

It actually took me about two-thirds of the book to decide I liked it. The story is told in first person, and after a while I got the distinct feeling that I was spending a weekend with the kind of person I hate talking to at parties: people who hate everything and everybody, and won't shut up about it.

(OK, I realize that I've already told you that I totally relate to Caulfield, and also that he reminds me of the kind of person I hate talking to at does that mean I would hate talking to myself at a party? Perhaps that's an existential question for another time...)

The narrative picks up shortly after Caulfield has been expelled, and follows him as he kills time for three or four days until he has to return home. One by one, he encounters a number of characters from his past, old roommates, classmates, girlfriends, and a few other sad souls along the way. Each of these encounters is half-cocked and quickly runs out of gas. The novel is almost a stream-of-consciousness rant from a frustrated kid who pretends to hate the world in order to cover up the fact that he cares about it so much. Caulfield claims he doesn't like anyone he encounters, though his actions suggest a deep desire to be accepted by them, and even when he encounters someone he doesn't admire, he still feels horrible when he realizes he may have offended them with his aloof persona. Everything he says is designed to promote an insensitive image, when in reality he's hypersensitive to everything he comes into contact with.

I think that's what I like about the book the most: Through Caulfield, Salinger illustrates a very human need to be accepted and loved, while simultaneously hating ourselves for it. Most of the time, it feels like the world doesn't care about anything we do, and we wish we could return the favor. We wish we didn't care, either. But we do, and that fact eats us up.

In that way and others, Caulfield is no different than anyone, especially in our teenage form. He lives in Pete Townshend's "Teenage Wasteland" as a smart but unmotivated underachiever. He doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, and isn't sure how to make a career out of the few things he does genuinely appreciate. In a way, he's wise beyond his years, but still to young to understand the true meaning of what he knows. He seeks out advice from people around him, but doesn't really listen to them.

One of the most powerful sequences in the book is when he seeks out his old teacher Mr. Antolini, who sits him down and tries to talk some sense into him. Antolini is one of the few people who seems to understand Caulfield, and is deeply concerned about the path his former student is taking.

"I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall," he says. "But I honestly don't know what kind."

He goes on to share a pretty deep proverb from a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel:

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.

Sadly, even this powerful exchange ends badly, and you get the feeling that this valuable advice is lost in the confusion.

Caulfield's anchor is his little sister, whom he finally seeks out late in the book. Phoebe is the only person who seems to be able to cut through his wall and get him to open up about everything that's tearing him up inside. After farting around in clubs and badgering old girlfriends and school buddies for three days, Caulfield sneaks into his parent's home to see Phoebe, and when he breaks down at her bedside, the reality of his character comes to life in a heartbreaking way.

It's sad that one of the only reasons I've ever heard of this book is because Mark David Chapman had a copy of it on him when he shot John Lennon. Understanding that infamous connection was one of my primary motivations for reading it. I don't know if Chapman related to Caulfield or if he was just nuts. It probably doesn't matter. But considering how Caulfield's character turns out, it's sad Chapman had to opt for the path he did.

It's very possible that without the benefit of a Lit professor or outside research, I have missed some critical theme or message in this book. But that's almost intentional. I didn't want to look for what everyone else had already picked out; I wanted to find what I found on my own, and that's what I've written here. So there's a pretty good chance that everything before this is just me transposing the plot and character on my own life. Some might say that's what literature is about. I'm just warning you in case anyone is reading this as research for a book report.