Archive for July, 2007

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Booklog: Franny and Zooey

July 30, 2007

Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger
Read: 7.3.07
Rating: Very Good

I suspect that most readers have a work of fiction they turn to for comfort and rely on for encouragement; Franny and Zooey has, for many years, been mine. I suspect that the time is coming when it will be replaced by some as-yet-unknown book, but Franny and Zooey has served me well for six or seven years, and I will be sad to see it supplanted.

I typically read Franny and Zooey right after reading The Catcher in the Rye, during the summertime, when I am in a state of mental disarray. I admit that it is often reading The Catcher in the Rye that puts me in a state of mental disarray — or at least pushes me further into one — so it’s only fitting that Franny and Zooey should be part of the solution. If The Catcher in the Rye is an dear choleric friend whose monologue reveals the sadness of life, Franny and Zooey is the older, more detached, friend who has “been through it” and can offer a charming, almost inspirational antidote.

That being said, Franny and Zooey does not hold as much meaning for me as it once did. The revelations at the end, that the fat lady is Christ himself, for example, now seems a little silly, and a lot unhelpful. Now the earnestness of Salinger’s prose, which is hopelessly clever and heartwarming, is the main attraction. I do not grow tired of the narrative voice adopted by “Buddy Glass,” nor do I lose any affection for the two main characters. It’s an affection that Salinger himself clearly shares: I can’t think of a writer who is more obviously fond of his characters, which makes his narrative voice of the loving older brother a particularly good choice.

Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, in a way that most works of modern fiction don’t dare to be. The personal religious hodge-podge adopted by the Glass family is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, specifically in that it rolls religion and the making of art into one giant ball, rolling it towards the phony disappointments of life, trying to knock them all down at once. The target is familiar from The Catcher in the Rye, with the adversarial word here being “ego” instead of “phony.” Like its predecessor, Franny and Zooey rails against the superficial, the surface, and anything that you could call “the earthly.” My paraphrase of the problem is: “What can one do without feeling like a terrible phony? without hating it?” The “answer,” or at the very least the coping mechanism, presented here, is this:

The artists only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

Singleness of vision. A sense of personal goodness, and the ability to pursue it despite the phonies that surround you, and the phoniness that is within in. Is this a satisfactory nugget of wisdom? I used to think so, and I still do think it’s helpful. But I think it’s appropriate that as I age, I find more enjoyment in Salinger’s art itself than in his pronouncements about what it should be.

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Correct!

July 20, 2007

Emerging from weeks of inactivity, I decide to take a quiz, the results of which approach the reason for my weeks of inactivity:


You’re Mrs. Dalloway!

by Virginia Woolf

Your life seems utterly bland and normal to the casual observer, but
inside you are churning with a million tensions and worries. The company you surround
yourself with may be shallow, but their effects upon your reality are tremendously deep.
To stay above water, you must try to act like nothing’s wrong, but you know that the
truth is catching up with you. You’re not crazy, you’re just a little unwell. But no
doctor can help you now.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

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Booklog: The Natural

July 9, 2007

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
Read: 6.27.07
Rating: Fair

Sometimes a book disappoints, either because it does not live up to the expectations I held before I began reading, or because it displays signs of promise early on only to falter towards the middle and/or end. Alas: The Natural was disappointing in both ways.

As moviegoers know, The Natural is a baseball story. What the reader should know is that the novel on which the movie is based is less a baseball story than a quintessentially American tale of myth, heroism, and failure — topics that are perfectly suited to post-war era baseball, the Golden Age of America’s greatest sport. In this near-mythic setting, Malamud chronicles the rise, fall, second rise, and final fall of his folk hero, Roy Hobbs, in a winning (at first) style that attempts to create a folk mythology with vernacular-laced, stripped down diction. The style takes some getting used to, but after a few early successes, I took to it, and it seemed that Malamud had really accomplished something. Take this sentence for example, that describes the third strike that the young Roy Hobbs tossed to strike-out “the Whammer,” baseball’s leading hitter:

The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.

This is very nice, and I underlined with great relish, looking forward to another 200 pages of Malamud’s folk hero-mythology.

So what went wrong? First of all, Malamud has no ability to describe the sport that is his main subject. When his style strays from the mythic into the descriptive, it’s clear that he hasn’t really understood baseball and how it is played or spoken of. It’s possible that his slang is accurate — hard to tell, since it’s fifty years old — but when he writes about the game itself or the people who play it, it’s hard to read. A deeper problem is that Malamud’s folk mythoheroic style is dense and murky by default, especially in regard to his characters and their motivations and thoughts. Roy Hobbs is clearly meant to be a vague figure, but this is very problematic, for his choices and his character, especially his love affairs, are what drives the book’s plot and meaning.

The Natural‘s failures are oddly appropriate to its structure, and analogous to its hero: it begins with an appealing strength and freshness, and surges during its early career, only to stumble when it should clinch. The book’s final act is a disappointing failure, which is richly ironic, given that disappointment and failure are the book’s main themes.