Salinger’s Overlooked Masterpiece: Franny and Zooey

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Salinger had a gift for placing his protagonists in certain, very specific places from which the rest of the world is held at arm’s length. In the case of the Glass family, to which Franny and Zooey belong, he went a step further and created an existence from which the rest of the world is barred from admission. No one is seen as quite good enough, interesting enough, self-aware enough, insightful enough or honest enough to be permitted into this singularly insular family. Except, of course, for the reader.

In Franny, the short story that opens Franny and Zooey, Salinger takes us to a vantage point from which we are permitted to observe and eavesdrop on a small table in a small restaurant where on a weekend break from college the protagonist is studying her date’s attempt to coax his frogs’ legs into position so he can have a proper go at them. She, meanwhile, barely touches the sandwich that has been set before her, preferring to chain-smoke while the two of them engage in distracted, fragmented but revealing conversation.

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The precision characteristic of much of Salinger’s writing could be distracting – if not downright annoying – in the hands of a less skilled author. The temptation would be to skim past much of the descriptive detail. But we don’t. Like detectives, we’re glued to every gesture, every phrase, searching for clues, knowing that even one passage carelessly glossed over might mean missing a vital element to the story unfolding before us. We sense almost immediately upon meeting Franny that something is wrong with her – or if “wrong” is too strong, then at least unbalanced. 

This installment of the Glass family saga was first published in The New Yorker in 1955. The novella-length Zooey, set almost entirely in the bathroom(!) and living room of the Glass’ apartment, was published in the same magazine a year later. In Zooey, it is almost as though the precisely detailed descriptive passages become the plot itself as every nuance reveals a lead.

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The two stories were bound together in book form in 1961. Although Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks atop the New York Times Best Seller List, a number of reviews gave it harsh treatment. These rather peevish lines in 1961 from John Updike in the New York Times capture a general feeling expressed by others: “The author never rests from circling his creations, patting them fondly, slyly applauding. He robs the reader of the initiative upon which love must be given.”

Joan Didion crankily called the stories “spurious,” and slammed the pedantic nature of Salinger’s writing, likening Franny and Zooey to “self-help copy… for Sarah Lawrence girls.” (Ouch.) Alfred Kazin dismissed the writing as “cute.” Maxwell Geismar opined that the writing in Zooey was “appallingly bad,” and George Steiner dismissed the novella as “shapeless self-indulgence.”

Barbra and I had both, independently, read Franny and Zooey many years before we met each other. The book stayed with us (as did It’s a Perfect Day for Bananafish for me, the first installment of Salinger’s Glass family stories). Neither of us had any idea that the book had met with such disfavor when we added it our list of books to read together.

We found the work to be a quick, riveting read (and were amazed to later discover that some critics had groused that it was too long). I found myself comparing it with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for the very specific sense of place and character it portrays while remaining artistically fresh and thematically timeless. Zooey in particular is a masterpiece, and by that I mean that if writing were displayed in museums in the manner in which paintings are displayed, it would occupy a hallowed place beside a handful of other great post-modern works of fiction.

Searching the internet for positive reviews, we were gratified to find that forty years after the book came out, Janet Malcolm had come to the conclusions similar to those we’d come to. In Justice to J. D. Salinger, (The New York Review of Books, June 2001) she identified Zooey as “arguably Salinger’s masterpiece” and went on to write:

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Our view is that Franny and Zooey belongs in the canon of great American post-modern literature. Going beyond American shores in the genre, this is an excellent book to pair with a reading of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

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