I finally read The Catcher in the Rye which had been on my to-read list since, like, forever. The novel has a somewhat controversial image (several shooters, including the guy who killed John Lennon, had claimed to have been influenced by the book). Let me begin by stating what I knew about this book before reading it and what I expected from it.
I knew that the book is about teenage isolationism and how the main character, Holden Caulfield, is unable to relate to other humans. I knew Holden is not generally likable. I also knew that the novel didn’t have much of a plot. I expected that I would relate to Holden, united by the fact that I don’t relate to many people either (I’m not sure if that’s just me or a common human trait). I also thought it would have some radical philosophies since it inspired people to shoot and all.
The most noticeable thing while reading it is obviously the language. It’s full of strange expressions (American teenage lingo, I assume) which get a bit annoying after a while. The prose also has touches of dreadful passivity and monotone and you would get the feeling that Holden isn’t even trying to make his narration interesting. But then again, Salinger does make his tremendous writing skills visible through all this; and I don’t have the faintest idea of how he managed to pull that off, it’s just magically interwoven into the text.
I think it would not be an understatement to say that The Catcher in the Rye disturbed me to the core and simultaneously amazed me in several delightful ways.
Firstly, Holden. What a character, with his generalizations and his hatred for “phonies” (which, in this context, refers to everyone except himself and few others)! It would seem that he dislikes everyone who does not abide by a set of principles. These principles are not clearly mentioned anywhere, but most of them have to do with preserving innocence in some form or other. Anyway, it’s easy to dislike Holden. Throughout the novel he says negative things about people around him. Even when he’s praising someone, he has to do it against some negative generalization of others. For example:
She was terrific to hold hands with. Most girls if you hold hands with them, their goddam hand dies on you, or else they think they have to keep moving their hand all the time, as if they were afraid they’d bore you or something. Jane was different. We’d get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we’d start holding hands, and we wouldn’t quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were.
If you’re like me, you must be having mixed feelings about the above quote. The earnestness is evident. In fact, the entire book is full of stuff like “It was. It really was.” Whatever Holden’s faults are, he is extremely honest and direct and earnest with everything he talks about.
Here comes the scary part: you realize that Holden is like your raw and uncultured inner self which judges people, loves and hates without bounds, and also alienates you from everyone around. For the first time, you get an outsider’s perspective of that self and you realize that it is sort of ugly. In short, the novel might make you dislike yourself or human nature in general.
The author takes depression and isolationism to scary levels. This reaches its pinnacle while Holden describes his plan to run away from his life.
What I’d do, I figured, I’d go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I’d bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I’d be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know me and I’d get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everybody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life. I’d build it right near the woods, but not right in them, because I’d want it to be sunny as hell all the time. I’d cook all my own food, and later on, if I wanted to get married or something, I’d meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we’d get married. She’d come and live in my cabin with me, and if she wanted to say anything to me, she’d have to write it on a goddam piece of paper, like everybody else. If we had any children, we’d hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves.
Things are not all that dark, however. Mr. Antolini states it beautifully in his advice to Holden:
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
In my efforts of figuring out what really makes Holden tick (he seems uninterested in everything and without purpose), I feel that he is obsessed with preserving innocence in the world, as is evident from the following extracts:
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.
I kept walking and walking, and I kept thinking about old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she’d see the same stuff I used to see, and how she’d be different every time she saw it. It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
While I was walking up the stairs, though, all of a sudden I thought I was going to puke again. Only, I didn’t. I sat down for a second, and then I felt better. But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that’d sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed. I hardly even had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I was afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I’d written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.
I’m still in the process of digesting this book and all I can say is it’s brilliantly disturbing and definitely worth reading.