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J. D. Salinger

I picked up this book because I loved A Catcher in the Rye when I was a teenager and re-read it several times, but I hadn’t tried anything else by Salinger. Franny and Zooey is the story of the Glass family, seven brothers and sisters who were all prodigies as children and regular participants on a radio quiz show called ‘It’s a Wise Child’.

The book is actually divided into two separate stories, originally published two years apart. The first follows Franny’s visit to her boyfriend Lane at college, and the second, much longer, piece describes Franny’s return to the family apartment in New York where she has a kind of breakdown brought on by her obsession with a religious book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Her mother Bessie and her older brother Zooey are there, trying mostly unsuccessfully to help her and cheer her up, while the other siblings are constantly subjects of conversation and reminiscence, ‘stalking in and out of the plot with considerable frequency, like so many Banquo’s ghosts’, so that the reader learns quite a lot about their different characters and the Glass family history.  Rather strangely, the book is supposedly narrated by another brother, Buddy, who isn’t actually present for most of the book. Buddy has a witty and over-elaborate style of narration, semi-serious and semi-playful. He is a teacher who sometimes feels as if he hasn’t lived up to his childhood promise:

On especially black days I sometimes tell myself that if I’d loaded up with degrees when I was able, I might not now be teaching anything quite so collegiate and hopeless as Advanced Writing 24-A. But that’s probably bunk. The cards are stacked (quite properly, I imagine) against all professional aesthetes, and no doubt we all deserve the dark, wordy, academic deaths we all sooner or later die.

Although a short book, Franny and Zooey somehow feels very detailed and dense, and I felt as if the seven siblings, their past and present, were very fully imagined. I felt completely involved in this world of unusual characters, of a kind I’ve rarely read about before. Since reading this, I’ve found out that Salinger wrote several more stories about the Glass family, including Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenter, Seymour: an Introduction and For Esme: With Love and Squalor, all of which I now really want to read.

Franny and Zooey are interesting and both quite troubled people. The book explains how their early life as precocious children has affected them. As well as appearing on the quiz show, they were immersed in mysticism and Buddhism from an early age by their older brothers, Buddy and Seymour, which seems to have left them feeling quite different from most other people. They are both self-conscious and unable to feel comfortable with themselves because, as Zooey puts it:

those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all… On top of everything else we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really gotten off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do.

Zooey, an actor, isn’t quite so badly off, but Franny is so critical of herself and other people that she is almost unable to do anything at all. While away at college, she has lost faith in all her professors, her fellow students and actors in her theatre company, seeing them all as predictable and fake.

I’m just so sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everyone that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting… I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.

She has become obsessed with the ‘Jesus prayer’ from her treasured book, repeating over and over again the words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner’.

Franny and Zooey is partly about mysticism, how other people try to persuade Franny away from her quest, and whether this spiritual way of life, the attempt to live without any ego, is wonderful or misguided, a symptom of her breakdown. The book is equally about an unusual family and the relationships between siblings. It’s a difficult book to describe as it’s mainly composed of conversations. The action that takes place is mainly in the change in Franny’s thoughts and feelings over the course of the book.

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