If you’re tuning in for the best of the Big Read, prepare for a disappointment. This week, there is genuine news from book world: Salinger is dead. By Hattie French
Of course the news reports have gone on and on about two things only: the classic status (with occasional plot summaries) of The Catcher in the Rye, and Salinger’s notorious hermit-like existence.
Two things wrong with this approach, in my view:
Firstly and obviously, Salinger already has a backlog of spinning to do when he is eventually buried – as the last thing (presumably) he would have wanted was for his name, face, and personal habits to be broadcast internationally. I saw one report which discussed the man’s habit of eating peas in water for breakfast. The press vultures had stripped the whole story to the bones within twenty-four hours of Salinger’s death and moved on to the next, with no apparent sense of irony.
The irony deficiency is what rendered the whole affair distasteful in my eyes. If Paxman had done just one snarky comment on Newsnight about how much Salinger would have hated all this fuss, it would have been acceptable.
Instead they had Jay McInerney describing Salinger’s lifestyle as “increasingly concerned with yoga, with a succession of quasi-religious … and dietary enthusiasms” and Will Self mentioning his taste for “younger and younger lovers”. Still, Salinger’s not complaining, I suppose, so why should I?
The second objectionable thing about the reporting of Salinger’s death was the hyperbolic eulogies being mouthed for The Catcher in the Rye. Now there’s an overrated, overread novelette for you. It has the virtues of being short, easy to read, and turning up on must-read-before-you-die lists, so it’s sold approximately 65,000,000 copies – about ten million per decade,
I’ve read it, and I was frankly disappointed. What’s so special about Holden Caulfield? He’s just another teenager wrestling with self-loathing and egomania and puberty. So he has a lucid and identifiable narrative voice, so he speaks for the “eternal adolescent gestalt“. So what? Teenage angst is, on the whole, pretty one-dimensional and quickly loses any appeal (unless you’re a teenager, in which case, commiserations and good luck).
Salinger not worth his salt
No, I don’t think Salinger was a remarkable writer. For one thing, his other works are damned with faint praise, and he seems to have run through his store of subject matter pretty quickly. I’d say Salinger’s retreat from the world was at least partly due to his failure to live up to expectations after Catcher.
I suppose in 1951 it was all a bit bold and shocking – the swearing, the prostitutes, the rebelliousness. Sixty years later that’s nothing. Read The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and eventually you’ll reach a scene where a man has dug his own fly-blown brain out with a spoon. And in my view this is a better book than Catcher, although both star disturbed adolescents trying to exert control on their worlds, and failing. The Wasp Factory has a plot, with twists and developed characters and murders and everything. The Catcher in the Rye has nothing that I’d call a plot. Just lots of mooching and discontent.
Moreover, Iain Banks is going strong on 24 top-notch novels and has created a rich futuristic universe in the Culture series. No shortage of ideas there.
A better class of adolescent…
I’d pick Iain Banks over J.D. Salinger every time. If you don’t fancy The Wasp Factory (and who could blame you), try The Crow Road. It’s much funnier and less grisly (although the opening line is, famously, “It was the day my grandmother exploded“). It’s so intricately plotted that I’ve read it repeatedly and yet it surprises me every time with its depth. And the central character, Prentice, is a masterful portrait of a young man struggling with family, university life, and his obsession with his dazzling second cousin Verity. Oh, and a mysterious disappearance.
Like a lot of people, I count The Crow Road as my favourite novel by Banks – one of my all-time, top-ten favourite books, in fact – and it’s definitely more rewarding to read than The Catcher in the Rye. Mind you, so are a lot of things. Rest in peace, J.D. Salinger 1919-2010, now the reporters are finished with you.