Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher is a Keeper

J D Salinger 1919-2010 (AP)

The antidote to the cult of celebrity is dead. J D Salinger, famous for shunning fame, has left quietly at the age of 91. He was the last bastion of restraint in the face of the global domination of glitter culture. So many live vicariously through the often spurious achievements of a few surgically-modified performance bots instead of getting out there and living their own story now. Ours is a world where a diminishing number of entertainment behemoths ferociously gobble up every project suggestion within range regardless of genre. A world where Posh Spice is hired to design a building and Sylvester Stallone opens restaurants and holds exhibitions of his ghastly paintings. The thought of a writer retiring from public life after one novel and a couple of collections of stories is a joyously refreshing one.

This affectionate and empathetic piece in the New York Times, reminds us of just how prescient his shunning of sycophants and the monsters they sustain proved to be. To paraphrase Kerouac - after Salinger, the deluge. He will have had no idea how much he will be missed.

It did not take me long to find my copy of The Catcher in the Rye today. Not because of any organisational prowess - my books are all still mostly in boxes due to a lack of adequate shelving - but because I found it the other day when I was looking for Middlemarch. I sat down to read a few pages and got hooked all over again. 

Catcher was probably the first modern novel I ever read. I'd read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind earlier that year. I guess I must have been thirteen. I can't remember how I heard about it. The Pants family bookshelves contained mostly condensed books and the odd classic. The Pants parents were not big readers then. Pa Pants had some copies of Playboy under the Pants matrimonio and occasionally bought National Geographic for the coffee table. Ma Pants subscribed to Reader's Digest and contributed The Australian Women's Weekly to the coffee table. 

The copy I read probably came from the local library. I remember being tickled by the word 'sonuvabitch'. It took me a while to work out what it actually meant. I went to a single-sex school. I showed the word to some of the other girls and we all giggled into our hands over it. Bitch was not a term that was in common usage, except of course where Miss Wilson was concerned.

The world of Holden Caulfield was not of a kind I'd ever encountered before, fictional or otherwise. It was a place of secrets, perhaps like the box under Pa Pants's side of the bed. It was a world in which a kid operated autonomously and was angry. He was out and about, doing as he pleased and just being. I must have found it attractive because I tried it myself a few years later. I went AWOL just before my exams and holed up in the shared house of some older friends. They smoked dope and had one of those Che Guevara posters on the wall. My episode ended similarly. I conformed and went to university but there has always been something in me that felt 'in this world but not of it' too. And there are still plenty of times when I don't want 'any goddam stupid conversation with anybody'.

I'm entirely in sympathy with Salinger's hermitage and his fierce defence of it. You do not forfeit your right to privacy by having written a popular novel. He must have felt entirely vindicated by Holden's assessment that the world largely comprised 'phonies'. How fortunate that he was able to realise the ambition voiced by his juvenile narrator to obtain 'a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life'. It is wonderful for him that he was able to do it, that the fortune gave him the power to make good on his desire for permanent severance from stupidity. 

There's no rule that says if you strike a chord with the public you have to go on playing until they tell you it's time to stop. It seemed such a sane use of opportunity to continue writing with absolute freedom and no obligation.  How many, having tasted adulation on that level, can take the spoon out of the jar? Perversely, this peculiarity contributed to the status of Salinger's one published novel. The more the public demanded, the less the author complied and the perennial sales of Catcher strengthened the keep to impenetrability. Salinger's death throws into sharp relief how rare a quality self-determination of that calibre is.

People have been talking about their favourite lines from Catcher today. Here's mine,

'Don't ever tell anybody anything.'