In this skimpy looking book – in the words of JD Salinger himself, Franny Glass acts all weird in the weekend of the Yale game. Dizzy, feverish, and obsessed with a tiny book that she can`t put away. Zooey Glass, on his side, walks around with a theatrical adult air about him, ruminating over a letter refolded one-too-many times, and both come together at their home in New York, in November 1955.
As you will immerse in the life of the Glass family, a family of five boys and two girls, all former prodigy children, it will be easy to get carried away by the playfulness of JD Salinger`s style. But in essence, this book is not about family, breakdowns, suicide, or just an impeccable exercise in short-novel writing. This book is about the quest for transcendence. As Buddy Glass puts it, this book hinges on mysticism, in the most clever and addictive way. Initially two separate books published two years apart – 1955 and 1957 respectively, the leifmotif binding Franny and Zooey is existential ennui. As Franny explains to her boyfriend, Lane: “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 so sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, your conforming just like everybody else, just in a different way”.
As we progress in the story, we learn that Seymour, their eldest brother, committed suicide 7 years ago while vacationing in Florida, with his wife – he is the focus of another story, not featured in this novel “A Perfect Day for Bananfish”, and a recurrent theme in various Salinger stories. The second eldest brother, Buddy, is a writer-in-residence, although he never got his B.A., and the narrator of the second part of the book. Boo Boo is the next-eldest of all the children (and the eldest sister), married with three kids. Next in line are the twins, Walt and Waker: Walt died in an explosion in Japan, while on mission with the Army of Occupation, and Waker is a Roman Catholic priest, on mission in Ecuador at the time of our story. And by the way, we learn all this through a footnote, courtesy of Buddy Glass.
No plot? No problem
This book doesn`t really have a plot but comes together in the most harmonic way. Franny stumbles under the smallness and pettiness of mundane things, and collegiate egos. Zooey, a successful actor, lacks the direct guidance of his elder brothers, and finds it difficult to guide Franny, his younger sister. So what binds it together?
- The Glass family: mostly painted through dialogue, this family is fascinating. All the characters are unique yet similar;
- Existential ennui: each character, short of Mrs. Glass, has it. It manifests differently in each character but it`s achingly familiar, at least as far as I am concerned. It`s the major theme in the novel that keeps everything together.
Characters that stand out
Mrs. Glass, their mother, is a force of nature that pushes her children to live in the moment, and be more pragmatic. Like most mother`s do :). She`s endearing. Critical, intrusive when it comes to her children`s life, judgemental, persistent. She enters rooms both verbally and physically, has an indeterminate age, and a strong opinion on most things. In short, a delight. She`s the only one in the book that has a firm grasp on reality, and doesn’t seem marred with existential dilemmas. Maybe she`s just too busy for that. I guess raising seven children gives you a different perspective on life.
Mostly stitched together as a character from her own behaviour throughout the book and Zooey`s reminiscence of her as a child, Franny is a great character, a great depiction of the young opinionated woman who might very well be your baby sister, yourself, or that annoying friend who always takes the high ground in your debates. I loved it when Zooey remembers her as a kid, storming in with the Bible after deciding she doesn’t like Jesus any more, because of the incident in the temple – when he gets all mad and throws the merchants & co. out. Had a similar moment myself, as a kid.
About the end (no spoilers)
How do you end a book without a classical plot? Well, you could very well not end it, for sure the theme allows it. But Salinger gives us a happy end, by figuring out for ourselves if Franny detached herself from the little book or if she learned how to pray incessantly, like the pilgrim preaches.
Story-in-story is a major technique used in this book. Zooey is narrated by Buddy Glass, the eldest surviving brother of Franny and Zooey. We also have the letter from Buddy that Zooey has been re-reading for the past four years, the story of the book that Franny is obsessed with, even the very detailed genealogy of the Glass family.
The book that Franny is obsessed with – a little book that documents a pilgrim`s journey through Russia, on a quest to learn how to pray incessantly, also makes for an interesting story trigger.
The dialogue is brilliant, between Zooey and his mother, Buddy and Zooey (through the letter) and between Franny and Zooey. It`s vibrant, brilliant, and playful. It paints the characters quite well and in true Salinger style, it touches upon heavy topics in a light and colourful way.
This novel touches upon major themes, such as religion, existential ennui, emotional heritage, sybling love, or suicide. The characters are built through dialogue and psychological autopsy (reminiscence about past events and feelings). The surroundings are overwhelmingly character-centric: there is nearly no description of surroundings unless it`s in direct connection with a character`s movement. Which is brilliant and it makes the novel quite light. If I had only one word to describe this novel, I would go with playful.
To read or not to read
It would be a crime against literature and the human spirit to not read this book. I`m a little bias because I love Salinger but I really do think that anyone with a mind, and anyone that wants to be a writer of any genre, should read it 🙂
The quote to remember
A very, very hard pick. All the letters sprinkled in the story would deserve a full quote. But I will go with this (which speaks volumes of Zooey`s way of talking and thinking): “Yes, I have an ulcer, for Chrissake. This is Kaliyuga, buddy, the Iron Age. Anybody over sixteen without an ulcer is a goddam spy”.
The lesson to learn
Peace of mind, presented in the book as a decoupling of the mind from the ego and the body, has more to do with meditation than any religion. The Way of a Pilgrim – the book that Franny is obsessed with, puts forward the Jesus Prayer, as a way to pray. But the method itself has more to do with Eastern meditation practices than Christian dogma. So if that`s for you, then give it a try. For real.