“If you truly want to understand me,” I said to my long-term girlfriend one day, “you must read ‘The Catcher In the Rye’”.
She stared at me blankly. We had been together for about five years by then, so a peek into my tortured soul probably wasn’t a particularly effective incentive. Then again, in my defense, Salinger’s masterpiece does not really need one.
A story without a plot, the novel follows the iconic Holden Caulfield over four days as he travels around New York after being expelled from his boarding school. In four days, his holidays begin, and going home before that would mean telling his parents why he is home. So he whiles away time in various places across New York, and we travel with him, watching films, meeting people, going to bars and generally watching life. And by the time the novel reaches its conclusion, we realise that we have grown up in many ways – even though Holden may not have.
Essentially a rites-of-passage novel, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ virtually defines the phrase ‘bildungsroman’ in modern literature – and with good reason. Observing a boy trying desperately to grapple with the complexities of life, while constantly letting his frustrations out on the people around him, we see ourselves in every one of his dilemmas. The genius of the novel lies in creating a completely irreverent yet not totally unsympathetic character as its protagonist and narrator. He is not a bad person – he believes in charity, loves his family – but is rebellious, insolent, extremely judgmental and believes himself to be above almost everyone around him. So while we see him go through many a life lesson, his sheer refusal to learn them, along with a strict contempt for pretty much anyone around him, simultaneously creates a distance which avoids uncomfortable sentimentality while actually underlining the growth even more acutely. Salinger does not need to explain the morals of the story – Holden’s scorn for it, while lampooning them, ironically highlights them also. In the process, although he may not have really matured, we witness a much better, un-manipulative and thought-provoking story than can be expected from this genre.
The novel is peppered with incidents that illustrate this complex, confused character, without having anyone explain him to us. We see him urge a prostitute to have a conversation with him before the night progresses; we see him feel sympathy for nuns; we see him watch ducks blissfully with his sister; and gradually we begin to recognize this confused boy, raging a war against the world, as a former shadow of ourselves.
Teenage years are a particularly difficult time in everybody’s life. While we don’t actually have more problems at that time, we seem to think we do. Every high is higher, every low is lower. Our gross misjudgment of our problems comes partly from our incomprehension of their long-term magnitude and partly from our frustrating inability to articulate them in such a manner that they can be resolved. This is apparent in every one of Holden’s quirks: he hates most of the people around him, but he cannot explain why. He gets irritated and restless at a party, but is at a loss of words when asked for a reason. He hates hypocrites (‘phonies’, as he calls them) but does not really understand the term.
Salinger’s brilliance is that by having such a narrator, he does not need to – and honestly, cannot – explain these feelings. And yet, somehow, we know. We understand. We shake our heads, smiling ruefully, recognizing our younger selves in Holden’s desperate rants and confusions. We relate to his idiosyncrasies, because we have also had them. And we know that one day he will leave all this behind, and grow up to become a more sorted, balanced individual. We don’t know when – it may not happen by the novel’s end, or by the end of the year, or maybe even in the next ten years. But we know that he will one day, eventually, grow up.
We know that because we did.
I had the privilege of reading this fine work of art when I was a teenager, and, over fifty years after it was written, I felt this novel was written just for me: it spoke in my language, it voiced my feelings, it gave shape to my teenage angst in a manner I could not. Ultimately, it helped me understand and control my inner Holden, and become a more mature and sensitive person.
And for that, Mr Salinger, my girlfriend will forever be grateful.