Thursday, September 03, 2009

Holden on

Earlier this summer, I read this article in the NY Times about Holden Caulfied, the main character in the classic J.D. Salinger novel The Catcher in the Rye. I meant to blog it for weeks after reading it, but the words were never there and after a while it seemed, like so many other posts, the ship had sailed and I never did it. I don't know what got me to thinking about it again today, but I decided to give the article another read. The piece uses the recent court decision blocking a non-Salinger penned sequel to The Catcher in the Rye as a springboard to discuss the relevance of the novel in modern times. She uses many examples to argue the point that, while Salinger has been fiercely protective of his creation over the years, the ultimate losing battle was keeping Holden fresh for the youth of today. Many young readers today view Holden, who spends a drunken weekend in New York City sometime in the late 50s, as a whiner with no ambition who is completely unsympathetic and someone with whom they can't relate. Choice quotes from the article illustrate this quite well:

"[Students] can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City."

"In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

and my favorite...
Ms. Feinberg recalled one 15-year-old boy from Long Island who told her: “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’ ”

I was really late to The Catcher in the Rye party. It had been on my cultural radar all through junior high and high school, but it was never required reading so I never read it. I didn't actually sit down and read it until I was 20 - when I devoured it in a weekend in the last month of school when I really should have been studying for finals. I was captivated by it, for reasons I can't really articulate all that well. What I can say is that I was at a time in my life when I was feeling very "Holden-ish", in that I felt like I was surrounded by phonies and felt isolated by the life I had made for myself. Looking back, so much of it was self-pity and manufactured drama, but I think that despite all my efforts to pump up the drama of the situation, a germ of truth lay beneath it all. So seeing that feeling mirrored back at me was reassuring but became the equivalent of an echo chamber.

I really related to Holden's feeling of being an outcast in society, surrounded by people who did not have his best interest at heart. I was charmed by his honesty and penchant for being revealing. I longed for the chance to go off like he did, to wander the streets of a big city and have a "come-what-may" attitude. So reading that on the page just made me feel transported, which is what any good piece of fiction will do for you. I also remember being so exceptionally fond of the relationship Holden had with his sister - even going so far as to see shades of my own sister in Phoebe. I still recall vividly the scene where they are walking on opposite sides of the street because she is pissed at him and refuses to walk with him. I don't know why that sticks with me, but it does. Shortly after reading The Catcher in the Rye, I read Jay McInerney's Bright Lights Big City which I have designated on of my all time favorite books. Labeled by many reviewers as an update to The Catcher in the Rye, it features yet another disaffected protagonist kicked in the gut by life whose reaction to life's traumas and dramas seems much more passive than active.

I have not reread The Catcher in the Rye in ages, and I'm almost afraid to because I'm afraid that I would probably fall in with today's youth in decrying Holden's lack of ambition and willingness to blame everyone but himself for his problems. Times change, and hopefully, we change with them. But I think we can still learn by way of Holden's very poor example. Holden is the ultimate settler, allowing life to happen to him rather than grabbing it by the balls and taking charge of his life. Despite what the article said, there are still youth that feel this way, and I think that by pointing this out and using it as a way to start the discussion about not just letting like happen to you, you could end up revitalizing the novel for new audiences. Yes sometimes you have to accept the status quo, but if there's any one thing I have learned in my life it is DON'T FUCKING SETTLE. You will always regret it. And then, the next step would be doing something about, because talking about taking charge of your life is not the same as doing it, but at least the discussion would have been started.

I may have to give Catcher a re-read, but I'm totally re-reading The Amityville Horror first.

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