Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, Salinger enjoyed a demigod status as one of the great Jewish scribblers of the post-War years. Not just Catcher but all his books were required reading, and over the course of one's adolescence, as you progressed from Catcher to Nine Stories to the Glass family saga, it marked the various stages of passage in your own literary coming of age. And the Glass family in particular seemed to capture and idealize the sensibility of the milieu in which I was raised -- mixing the high and low culture of New York City (the Glass parents were vaudevillians after all), all polished off with such fine literary flair. Salinger's deft touch and the witty banter of the Glass siblings was the epitome of what passed for high literature, at least as enshrined in the pages of The New Yorker during the Wallace Shawn era. In our puerile fantasies we were all potential stars on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child.” Salinger was a demigod indeed and we read and reread his stories reverentially, hoping to catch glimmers of ourselves in the pages.
But compelling as I found the saga of the Glass family back then, I must admit to having been perplexed by the nature of the personal crisis Franny was undergoing. To my boyish thinking she was in the midst of an emotional breakdown -- a diagnosis similar enough to that voiced by her family and boyfriend -- the causes of which seemed largely inexplicable. I was inclined to read the story in psychological terms, which left me groping for some way to make sense of why exactly she seemed so fixated on reciting the Jesus prayer. It was if the poor girl had been whisked away by a cult and was now in need of a good deprogramming. Not that it's ever easy for an adolescent to make sense of such things, particularly for those with limited spiritual inclinations of their own; yet even though the wellsprings of Franny’s angst left me more or less befuddled, it did little to diminish my regard for the book as a minor masterpiece, nor my estimation of Salinger as a stylist who seemed peerless.
Fast forward 45 years. I've just put Franny and Zooey aside and find myself completely underwhelmed by the quality of the writing, at least to the extent the book is to be judged as a work of realistic storytelling. The three main characters seem quite poorly drawn, verging on caricature, certainly when compared to the level of realism Salinger was capable of and in fact achieved in his great portrayal of Holden Caulfield. The whole set up of the Glass family comes across to me now as contrived and ham-handed – those adorably precocious children, chain-smoking, name dropping and besotted with spiritual ennui. It’s a cultural mash up of the first order - a dash of Flaubert, with a daub of the Buddha together with a heavy sprinkling of Eloise at the Plaza, something that seems to have been custom tailored to appeal to sensibility of The New Yorker and its readers but falls woefully short in terms of creating a plausible family dynamic or half-way believable character driven drama. Far from the glitter and glamor that so appealed to me in my youth, the Glass family today strikes me as utterly transparent as a writer’s artifice – merely an expedient means of cramming as much high-brow speechifying as possible, which reflects the author’s own world-view, into the limited space of a short story or novella -- a way to show and tell at the same time, through the overly clever dialog of his garrulous Wise Child characters.
But what is now most interesting to me about the book is the spiritual crisis that lies at the center of both stories. Setting aside the Glass family as an obvious contrivance, this is clearly Salinger’s crisis and he’s hiding in plain sight behind each of his straw man characters. In the mouths of Franny and Zooey the dialog may sound far from credible, but in the mouth of Salinger the words resound as frightful truth. And this is a crisis of the highest order, a spiritual crisis and artistic crisis rolled into one, as Salinger at this point in his career is on the verge of self-banishment, from the spritely world of Gotham City to the dark recesses the New Hampshire woods. In fact, you can see or read each of the Glass siblings as a stand-in for a different aspect of Salinger’s troubled soul – the despondent and suicidal Seymour, the reclusive and elusive Buddy, the precocious and glib Zooey and naïf ingénue Franny – all battling and babbling for their chance to be heard. Fortunately Seymour didn’t prevail, at least in real life terms, but Buddy's reclusive impulses were soon to overtake all others, with decidedly negative results for Salinger’s published output for the remainder of his lifetime.
“An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s”, as Zooey counsels his sister in one of the book’s final passages. Written in the late 1950’s, there’s a wonderful prescience in those words, anticipating how Salinger himself was destined to spend the next few decades, writing and rewriting his novels for an audience of one. As he told the New York Times in one of his final interviews: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
More and more it seems to me we do writers a disservice when we judge their work strictly in terms of genre and traditional notions of literary merit. Literature be damned – it belongs in the classroom and nowhere else. Franny and Zooey may be decidedly second rate in terms of the quality of the story telling but there is a greatness in its pages all the same, that at least is the conclusion I’ve come to on rereading. Even a story that's served up under the label of realistic fiction need not be the least bit credible in order to be deeply compelling, as a testament to the author's struggle to fully engage with his or her version of spiritual truth.