Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reader's Diary #189- J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey (up to "Zooey")

People who take themselves too seriously are easy to criticize. There are at least two ways to go about this; satire and cynicism. The only difference between the two is humour. Mordecai Richler's novels and the A Mighty Wind movie, are two of my favourite examples of satire. What's yours?

Salinger is a great example of the cynic. Who could forget Holden Caulfield's "phonies" from Catcher In The Rye? Franny and Zooey continues on with that theme, but instead of being critical of adults and the establishment, Franny and Zooey seems to narrow its focus to the educated. No, it's not an attack on the intellectual, but it does seem to differentiate between being wise and being well-schooled, sincere with phoney. (It reminded me of the chapter on "Credentialing Versus Educating" in Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead).

The first story, "Franny", may not be the thrill a page that some people go in for, but it's entertaining nonetheless. Basically set around a dinner conversation between a young university-aged couple, it could be easy to pass off the work as "philosophy-lite". But it's so much more than that. Yes, Franny rants about her professors, the shallowness of actors, and generally anyone she feels who puts on airs, while wrestling with the frivolity of life, but behind it all, what makes the story interesting is the character herself, and the mystery of her mental condition.

Initially the story appeared to be about Lane, Franny's boyfriend. It opened with Lane waiting at a train station for Franny to arrive. The first glimpse of Franny is through a letter she had written to Lane, and my impression of her wasn't great. Full of grammatical errors and allusions to Lane's education suggestions, Franny came across as less intelligent than Lane to say the least. But then the story began to turn 180 and it suddenly revolved around the newly arrived Franny. Furthermore, I could see her growth (still in progress) as a thinker, and more importantly how she had surpassed Lane (who appeared stalled and shallow as the story went on).

As Franny and Lane began eating, it quickly became apparent that all wasn't right between them. Lane initially monopolized the conversation by bragging about a paper he had written, but Franny quickly moved from showing disinterest, to challenging and insulting him, to taking over. Their relationship came into question for me, but then it started to seem more about Franny herself. Not only was she outgrowing Lane, she seemed to be outgrowing her former self.

At least that's my conclusion. Salinger is clever to make Franny's frame of mind a mystery. Clearly she is stressed (even taking a moment to cry in the bathroom), but whether it be about Lane or herself is never spelled out. Added to the mystery is when her development had taken place. I'm under the impression that the reader is witnessing a person grow at that very moment (i.e., that she didn't have conclusions prior to the meeting with Lane). She comes to some mighty revelations and wrestles with some pretty hefty thoughts in a short time frame, and towards the end appears to have a nervous breakdown. Personally, I believe Salinger simply condensed what many of us go through over a longer time frame into the course of a meal. Distancing herself from Lane may just be a symbol of our resistance to change, whether that resistance comes from inside or outside sources. And maybe the breakdown at the end is Salinger's way of suggesting that we should take philosophy slow.

Looking at it now, it reminds me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When you look at the way Franny wrote to Lane in her letter, it is clear her esteem needs weren't met. When you look at the way she judged people with prejudice, it is clear her self-actualization needs weren't met, yet she is trying to meet her self-transcendence needs, the one at the very top of the hierarchy, the one that some people never meet. Skipping the lower needs was a recipe for disaster, putting those at the very bottom, her psychological and safety needs, in jeopardy.

(Sorry about this)


Barbara Bruederlin said...

It's been about 100 years since I read this book. I don't remember all that depth, but I probably didn't analyse it all that carefully.

John Mutford said...

I hadn't heard of it until I picked it up at a used book giveaway last year. Until then I only knew Catcher In The Rye.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The Catcher in the Rye is another one I want to reread. Especially since finding out it was banned in the school division where my husband went to high school. But then I think they also banned To Kill a Mockingbird.

John Mutford said...

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've never read "To Kill A Mockingbird". My pop-culture blindness I guess. What about you, any obvious classic that you've missed?

Anonymous said...

Oh my God! You've never read To Kill a Mockingbird?! Do, you will not be disappointed.

Have you ever read Breaking Smith's Quarterhorse? Sorry I cannot remember the author. How about Medicine River by Thomas King? King writes the radio serial, Dead Dog Cafe that's on CBC. I don't know if you've ever heard it but I think it's hilarious.

I should not act so snotty about To Kill a Mockingbird. There are lists and lists of books I should have read but have not.

I have never read Black Beauty. I realize it's a children's book but when I tell people I haven't read it, I often get a double take. Never went through the whole wanting a pony stage.

John Mutford said...

Toccata, I know, I know. It's my shame. I'll get there eventually- so many books, so little time. I haven't read Breaking Smith's "Quarterhorse" either. I have read a Thomas King novel, though not the one you suggested. I read "Green Grass, Running Water" and that was very enjoyable.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

My list of missed classics is about 100 miles long. But the one I really want to read is Trainspotting - perhaps not considered a classic, but I think highly significant in the pop-culture sense.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, I did read that one. But you've at least seen the stage version of it, which is more than I can say. And who knows, maybe future scholars will consider it a classic. It's so hard to predict what books, movies, and music of our generation will be considered classic by future generations.