Monday 20 June 2011

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."

J.D. Salinger is one of those authors who just "gets me" with his intelligent and philosophical discourse. This novel is overflowing with so many glorious passages that accurately reflect my own personal beliefs but he is far more eloquent in expressing these ideas in prose. For example, Franny expresses her chagrin at the paradox of conforming to capitalist societal norms in order to achieve success: "It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so — I don't know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much only in a different way" (26). Salinger's cynical perspicacity is a source of comfort and just resonates me. Catcher in the Rye still remains a personal and sentimental favorite that is responsible for sparking my love for literature during those impressionable teenage years. Holden Caulfield is one of those iconic American literary figures that has influenced generations and in my mind, no novel has come close to perfectly capturing the cynical, neurotic, egotistical and self-deprecating voice of a teenager in all of its heartbreaking pathos. Thus, I approached Franny and Zooey with exceedingly high expectations and Salinger did not disappointment; in fact, he managed astound me once again with his immensely beautiful prose, psychological, religious and philosophical insight into the human condition.

Even though this novel shares many similar characteristics to Catcher in the Rye with its self-conscious and highly stylized prose focusing on a coming-of-age story, it radically differs from the latter by presenting a far more deeply religious family drama. Salinger is meticulous in his writing with a propensity for infusing overwhelming subtle complexities to the story that is difficult to fully absorb and comprehend on a first reading. Initially, the novel left me baffled: what exactly is Salinger attempting to achieve here? The novel's mesmerizing style allows for a brisk read but the richly layered subtext is easy to overlook. Only after  subsequent closer readings will the intricate underlying thematic richness of the text become more apparent. Rarely do I come across an author who uses subtlety in such a fastidious complex way that enriches the story instead for merely aesthetic purposes to create superfluous ambiguity (I'm looking at you Faulkner). Salinger begins in medias res and is not interested in providing incessant  exposition to explain story events. It is mostly through the ironic omniscient narrator and dialogue between characters where the narrative context materializes.

Divided into two sections (respectively titled Franny and Zooey), the first part focuses on Franny Glass, a pensively sophisticated college student who meets up with her boyfriend Lane to attend the Yale football game for the weekend. Ostensibly, their long-distant relationship appears to be satisfactory but it is through a letter she sends Lane that contains subtle hints that not everything is going well between the couple. Lane picks up Franny at the train station and they head to a diner to get some food and martinis. Much of this section consists of dialogue between the young couple and it becomes clear that Franny is unhappy in this relationship because Lane is a pompous and conceited English major who represents everything she despises about people; specifically, those individuals who tend to be phonies and pseudo-intellectuals with bloated egos. She also happens to be undergoing a mental-breakdown stemming from a spiritual crisis caused by reading a Russian religious work that was once owned by her deceased brother Seymour. She attempts to explain the text to Lane but he is far too preoccupied with his own selfish concerns to pay any attention. It is only in the second part where the "Jesus Prayer" becomes increasingly significant to the overall thematic structure of the novel. 

Taking place entirely within the Glass family residence in an upscale New York apartment complex, the second section embellishes an odd narrative framework that is narrated by Franny's older brother Buddy who is interested in adapting his story into a "prose home movie" (47); that is, it introduces Franny's other brother Zooey and mother Bessie as they both attempt to make sense of Franny's sudden psychological breakdown when she returns home instead of spending time with Lane during the weekend. The narrative perspective shifts to Zooey where a fragmented portrait of the Glass family history and the novel's theological implications take precedence. Much of the story is influenced by literary dramatic conventions -- the setting of confined spaces, the use heavy dialogue as Zooey engages in both trivial and profound conversations with his mother and sister. The exaggerated tone and style further establish the sense of drama. Salinger is keen on exploring the nature of acting, especially pertaining to human connections and the role of "performing" specific roles; thus, the tendency to project various facades instead of being genuinely honest about oneself. Not only are Franny and Zooey actors themselves but Salinger goes on further to suggest that the aesthetic of acting carries religious connotations as well; a type of spiritual practice with its own theodicy: "detachment", "desiring" and "cessation from all hankerings" (198). Zooey engages in a complex religious debate with Franny about her improper use of the "Jesus Prayer" where religious doctrine and syncretism are in direct conflict. Why is he so upset about Franny's use of the prayer? For him, one must understand Jesus first and Franny is not being specific enough; she is paying no attention to who Jesus is and what it means to pray to him (169). In essence, she is merely acting out the role of a pious Christian instead of being truly devout in her religious convictions.

Personally, one of the most remarkable and emotionally moving moments in the entire novel takes places near the end when Zooey enters his dead brother Seymour’s old room that he once shared with Buddy; a holy place where he undertakes a religious ritual before entering. Placing a handkerchief over his head (a substitute for a yamika perhaps?), he venerates the room of his two older brothers. He notices beaver-boards of panels with a plethora of quotations from Seymour and Buddy’s favorite theologians, artists and authors. These existential and religious quotes further emphasize the novel's own religious philosophies pertaining to both doctrine and syncretism. Zooey discovers Seymour's diary and reads a passage describing the celebration of a birthday party that his family throws for him involving a vaudeville act and it is full of overwhelming joy and love but also contains immense sadness. Salinger is so skilled at creating such pathos with subtle nuances.

Franny and Zooey is one of those novels that I can't wait to revisit it again and unravel its many mysteries. Literature does not get much better than this, folks.

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

Read from June 17 to 19, 2011


  1. Love this novel. Dare I say I love it more than Catcher in the Rye? As sacrilegious as it may be to say so, I dare.

  2. Each novel has its merits but can we at least agree that they are both masterpieces? :P

    Catcher in the Rye is very dear to me for sentimental reasons but I can definitely see Franny and Zooey growing on me with time even more than Catcher.