“I can’t explain what I mean.
And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, p. 110
For me, having finally finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, this quotation goes some way to explaining and encapsulating what Salinger’s novel is about. It’s an unusual book, even in today’s more easygoing and accepting society. When it was first published the novel caused much outrage and received much censorship, although to a modern reader it is not so very shocking. Sure Salinger doesn’t shy away from introducing controversial topics and using language that, in its day, was rather offensive, but I must confess I didn’t find it particularly deplorable or disturbing.
The story greatly put me in mind of Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted which I studied at University. They deal with protagonists from a similar era, from similar backgrounds with similar problems. They both represent that 1950s ‘coming-of-age’ story. Both have narrators who are questioning themselves, both manifest similar emotions and desires. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is their similarity which worried me most whilst reading The Catcher in the Rye. The fact that two unconnected authors could produce such similar narratives, to me, serves to indicate a disturbing psychology that youth of the time were suffering from. Something in that particular period of time seems to have provoked mental turmoil and a revulsion at society, an alienation of the young.
I know many people have found a great deal to relate to in both The Catcher in the Rye and Girl, Interrupted, but I am relieved to confess that I could not. The feeling of alienation from the present and uncertainty regarding what you want from the future are not emotions I have experienced. It would seem I’ve been lucky. I think I’ve often assumed that more people were like me, constant in their desires and certain of where they could find fulfillment in their future, but literature is making me realise that sadly this does not appear to be so common as I had presumed.
Holden, as a character and as a narrator, is not a comforting presence to be in. The style of his narration is rather stream of consciousness (a style I love in authors like Virginia Woolf), and although I did not find the prose difficult to read, I did find it rather self-indulgent and, thus, difficult to stomach in long periods. Holden is so completely wrapped-up in his own thoughts, perceptions of others and emotions that, at times, as a reader I felt rather suffocated by him – in the same way society and its expectations seem to suffocate him. It seemed to me that in expressing his vehement dislike and rejection of ‘phonies’ and stereotypes, Holden is, ironically, becoming more and more of a phony himself. He rocks from one thought to another, professing judgements and dislikes like they’re going out of fashion. Nothing pleases him or gains his praise. In some ways, it seems that he is going out of his way to disapprove of and dislike everything and everyone he meets. He makes the mistake of believing that in rejecting elements of society that he does not like, he is somehow rising above that society and rendering himself exempt from critique.
Where the style of narration is concerned, its casual idiomatic style that was so unusual in its day is much more run-of-the-mill today. It seems to me that in many ways Salinger was a trend-setter. Holden’s first person narration with its short sentences and colloquial turns of phrase, is reflected in many of the books enjoyed by 21st century readers.
But enough about characters, settings, narration, what did I think of The Catcher in the Rye? I return to my quotation at the beginning of this post, which now seems rather apt, “I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it”. I find it hard to explain what I made of the book. It’s an odd ‘un, as they say. I couldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading it, nor was I made to feel disquieted by it as others have claimed to be. Perhaps having read Girl, Interrupted and The Bell Jar a narrative like this has lost some of its resonance for me. Show me something new. Tell me something I haven’t read before. However, I can appreciate that it was authors like Salinger and Plath who paved the way for a more open way of writing, for more honesty in young characters and forced society to acknowledge the trials and difficulties facing the youth of that, and future, times. The Catcher in the Rye is certainly worth reading, it’s thought-provoking and psychologically interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not the most comforting or easy read due to the self absorbed narration. I won’t be adding it to my list of all-time-favourites, but I am glad to have read it and acknowledge the role it has played and the influence it has had upon literature and contemporary writing.
So, I move on. A slight deviation from the ‘classics’ in my next choice. Inspired by my enjoyment of her recent BBC television series, I will be reading Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court by Lucy Worsley.