Book Number Seven
When J. D. Salinger died, I went to my bookshelves and found my copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I read it once when I was a teenager. Who didn't? It didn't have the profound affect on me that it's supposed to have on every adolescent reader, but I appreciated it. (Again, who didn't?) It's One Of Those Books. What I also found, thanks to the womanchild who has excellent taste in reading material, was Franny and Zooey, which I hadn't read.
Franny and Zooey are brother and sister, who along with their older siblings, spent their childhood as famous wunderkind on a radio quiz show called "It's A Wise Child." All of their lives, they have been coached to both fame (by their parents, former vaudevillians) and high intellectual and spiritual achievement (by their older brothers, one of whom has killed himself). They have been pumped up with their superiority all of their lives and find it to be a sham. Zooey, the brother, is now an up and coming television actor. Franny, a college student, is in the middle of a nervous and religious breakdown. The book is about the brother confronting his sister about her collapse.
As you expect from Salinger, both characters are alienated and fed up with the world and hunger for something deep, sublime, ecstatic and real. They are both likable and annoying, sick of the pretentiousness and ego they see both around and in themselves. That they do point their disgust at themselves keeps them from being completely unbearable. Zooey is just rude to his friends and family. More than once, I wanted to tell him, "Don't talk to your mother that way. I don't care if she is annoying," or "You're not helping your sister that way." As he talks to her, his efforts seem to become a series of insults designed to wound his hurting sister. Zooey does want to help his sister though, and how he does to a certain degree is by increasing the distance between them. After a frustrating face to face discussion, he calls her on the phone pretending to be the brother who took responsibility for guiding and shaping their education.
Franny's nervous collapse has involved an obsession with a book about a Russian pilgrim delving into praying without ceasing as a path to enlightenment. As she seeks her own enlightenment though, her disgust with the world around her has grown. Zooey targets this in his telephone confrontation with her. He recalls to her how their father, in their radio quiz show days, would push them to shine their shoes, look their best, be their best for "The Fat Lady." Each of them had developed their personal image of "The Fat Lady" as a sad, sick and somewhat pathetic character who derived joy and meaning from having their radio appearances.
He tells her, "I'll tell you a terrible secret -- Are you listening to me? There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddamn cousins by the dozens. There isn't anyone anywhere that isn't Seymour's Fat Lady. Don't you know that? Don't you know that goddamn secret yet? And don't you know -- listen to me, now -- don't you know who that Fat Lady really is? ... Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."
When a book gets something so right, even when the characters are so bloody annoying, you have to love it.