Fifty years ago this September, in 1961, J.D. Salinger published a slim volume containing a short story and a short novel that had both appeared previously in The New Yorker. The book was Franny and Zooey. It appeared ten years after the publication of his best-seller The Catcher in the Rye.
Franny and Zooey is the first book-length treatment of the Glass family. Salinger had already introduced some of the family members in stories such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Down at the Dinghy”. Now, the mythic Glass clan is fleshed out. The family history is revealed for the reader, and all the family members enumerated – the parents: Les and Bessie; and the seven children: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker, Zooey and Franny.
Franny Glass is presented almost entirely in dialogue. The youngest of the Glass family, she’s a student at an unnamed Eastern college. She is attending a football weekend at her boyfriend Lane Coutell’s school. It is the Yale game, so his school is of the Ivy League variety.
During lunch with Lane at a restaurant, Franny expresses her disenchantment with phony college intellectuals and the egotism that abounds in her school’s Theatre department, which caused her to quit her involvement. She also reveals that she has been reading a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s a work by a simple Russian pilgrim that describes his spiritual quest, and how he learned to say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
The Jesus prayer is to be repeated continuously until it becomes as much a part of the unconscious functioning of the body as the beating of the heart. After a period of time, the constant repetition of this prayer will lead to a form of spiritual illumination, similar to the meditation on “om” in Buddhism or Hinduism.
Franny suddenly becomes quite ill – it appears that she is in the throes of a complete nervous or spiritual breakdown. She is pale and perspiring, and at one point she goes into the bathroom and cries for about five minutes. Upon returning from the bathroom, she is okay for a while, but then faints. Lane Coutell takes her into the restaurant manager’s office, and then goes to fetch a cab. She is seen at the end of the story in the office, lying on the couch, silently repeating the Jesus prayer.
Zooey Glass, Franny’s brother and the second youngest of the seven Glass children, picks up the story on the Monday after the disastrous Saturday of the Yale game. Franny has returned to her family’s apartment in New York. The second story in Franny and Zooey opens with Zooey sitting in a bathtub and reading a letter from his older brother, Buddy (who is, curiously, also the story’s narrator).
Bessie, the matriarch of the Glass family, then enters the bathroom, uninvited by Zooey, and a conversation ensues which is conducted through the drawn shower curtain. Bessie smokes a cigarette and worries about Franny’s fainting spell. Zooey sits in the bathtub, fields his mother’s questions, and peppers her with sarcastic comments.
Zooey then gets dressed and goes into the living room, where Franny is laying on the couch under a blue afghan, accompanied by the family cat, Bloomberg. In a lengthy dialog, Franny complains again of the egotism inherent in the world of the theatre. Zooey then launches into a tirade in which he questions her motives for saying the Jesus prayer.
Zooey’s criticism of Franny ends up with her in tears. Zooey retreats to the sanctuary of the old bedroom of his brothers Seymour and Buddy. Seymour has been dead for six years. He committed suicide while on vacation with his wife in Florida. Buddy is now a writer living in seclusion in upstate New York.
On the door of the bedroom is a large poster board covered with hand printed quotations from world literature and religion, from the Bhagavad Gita to Kafka. The quotes were all penned by Seymour and Buddy when they were precocious young children. Buddy and Seymour had also undertaken to educate both Franny and Zooey in the ways of Eastern religion when Franny and Zooey were young, and although Zooey expresses some resentment at this, he still reveres his brother Seymour, who has the status of a saint in the Glass family.
After a time spent reflecting on the quotations in Seymour and Buddy’s room, Zooey calls Franny on the private telephone that Seymour and Buddy had installed in the bedroom years before. He pretends that he is Buddy, and for a while Franny falls for the ruse, before she realizes that she’s talking to Zooey.
Zooey relates a story about the Fat Lady. All of the Glass children appeared at one time or another on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child”. One day when Zooey didn’t want to shine his shoes before going on the show, Seymour told him to do it for the Fat Lady. Seymour never told him who the Fat Lady was, but in Zooey’s imagination she sat on her porch all day and listened to the radio. She had very thick legs, and cancer.
Franny reveals that Seymour had also told her to be funny for the Fat Lady. Her imagined Fat Lady also had cancer. Buddy then tells her that all of her audience when she is acting is Seymour’s Fat Lady. All the phony intellectuals and pompous professors who she has been complaining about are the Fat Lady. And that the Fat Lady is Christ.
At the end of this conversation, Franny experiences joy. It is as if she began in spiritual ignorance in the first story, and through the Jesus prayer and the revelation of the Fat Lady, she has achieved a sort of enlightenment. The story ends with Franny falling into a deep, dreamless sleep in her parent’s room.
Salinger’s technique as a writer up to this point was to provide as little narrated detail as possible. His stories are told through dialogue, through letters, through telephone calls. It is left to the reader to flesh out the appearance of the characters, and catch the important details in their conversations. Franny follows this technique.
In the story titled Zooey, however, Salinger begins to change his style. First, the narrator, Buddy, is garrulous and much given to digressions and parenthetical expressions, even in his short introduction. This contrasts to the story titled Franny, in which spare narration gives way to dialog, and the story advances on the conversation of the two characters.
Salinger also gives us a wonderfully detailed description of the Glass family apartment:
There was a Steinway grand piano (invariably kept open), three radios (a 1927 Freshman, a 1932 Stromberg-Carlson, and a 1941 R.C.A), a twenty-one-inch-screen television set, four table-model phonographs (including a 1920 Victrola, with its speaker still mounted intact, topside), cigarette and magazine tables galore, a regulation-size ping-pong table (mercifully collapsed and stored behind the piano), four comfortable chairs, eight uncomfortable chairs, a twelve gallon tropical fish tank (filled to capacity in every sense of the word, and illuminated by two forty-watt bulbs), a love seat, the couch Franny was occupying, two empty bird cages, a cherrywood writing table, and an assortment of floor lamps, table lamps, and “bridge” lamps that sprang up all over the congested landscape like sumac”.
All this before any mention of the overstuffed bookshelves and the books spilling out of them.
Thus Salinger, in the Glass family chronicles, has moved on from his earlier, spare style. To create his iconic family, he utilizes a more robust prose. Descriptive passages abound. The conversations of his characters are now filled with references to Buddhism, to the Bible, to Greek philosophy. The critical response to this shift in style, at the time, was not overwhelmingly positive. John Updike, in a review appearing in the New York Times wrote: “This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.”
But, don’t we as readers feel the same as Salinger? I too love the Glasses. Artistic moderation will not suffice to bring this eccentric family of geniuses to full light. We need Buddy’s ramblings, we need Zooey’s cigars and sarcastic remarks, we need the chain smoking Bessie to really get into this family’s collective head. We need to stand in awe of the poster board collection of quotes from world philosophy that the 12 and 10 year old Seymour and Buddy carefully printed, in India ink, with no smudges or erasures.
This was a family, led by the oldest brother, Seymour, that thirsted for knowledge. Adult knowledge. Seymour and Buddy were reading classics of literature before the age of 8. They had full command of the Eastern (as well as the Western, but the preference was for the Eastern) canon. They instructed their younger siblings in this knowledge. They were the smartest kids by far on the “it’s a Wise Child” radio show.
Here are kids – kids that are like miniature adults – that unselfconsciously read every book they can get their hands on. They discuss religion, philosophy and poetry at the dinner table, never with any thought of being too “brilliant”, or of toning down their conversation for people outside of the family. They are unabashed intellectuals.
When I first read the book Franny and Zooey, I thought – wow! Here are young adults who have read vast amounts of literature. Zooey can quote a text verbatim after a single reading. Both siblings are proud of their level of knowledge, and ready to do verbal battle over the ideas in the books they have read. What a refreshing change from the anti-intellectual culture that I grew up in, where constantly reading books was considered odd, and thinking about the world around you was considered suspect. And if you studied Eastern religion, you were officially a wacko, and small children would follow you around and call you names.
Reading this book was liberating for me. I could now carry Doestoevsky, Kafka, and Rimbaud around at school, and no longer hide them under a math book. I now talked openly with my friends about books and ideas, and not what was on the next test, or who was likely to be Homecoming Queen.
When you are between the ages of 8 to 18, your thirst for knowledge and your love of books is at its most intense point. The Glass family were heroes for me at this age. I wanted to be a guru like Seymour, and a writer like Buddy. These of course were not the career paths being pushed by my high school guidance counselor, but I let her advice to become an economist or political science major sort of wash over my fevered brow without ever cooling my true desires.
On this level, the Glass family can be a role model for anyone who wants to pursue a literary, intellectual or spiritual life. The siblings show how you can sustain yourself in this pursuit without compromising your core beliefs.
On another level, Franny and Zooey is about communication. Franny tries to communicate her dissatisfaction with the Theatre Department at school. Lane Coutell is more concerned with getting to the game on time, so the two do not communicate. But Franny does communicate with us, the reader.
Zooey Glass talks with his mother through a closed shower curtain. They trade barbs. They barely communicate. Bessie Glass is unable to connect with Zooey about her concern for Franny. Zooey can only criticize his mother. The two do not communicate, but again, Bessie communicates to us, the reader.
Zooey goes into the living room where Franny is resting. He pontificates, she starts crying. Again, no communication.
But then Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s old room, and through the device of the private telephone he is able to get through to Franny, even after Franny realizes the ruse – that it is really Zooey on the line. But she doesn’t hang up. And they talk about the Fat Lady, and at the end they communicate and Franny achieves a sort of joy. The telephone represents a special means of communication, much like the voice of God.
Finally, Salinger presents a search for spirituality that is not tied to any one sect or denomination. The Jesus prayer is just as good a way to achieve a state of enlightenment as mediation on a Buddhist mantra. For the Glass siblings, who have seemingly read all the religious texts in the world, each religion is valid, and all religions are similar. The important thing is to embark on a spiritual quest, regardless of which religious group helps you to make the quest. The siblings have found that each quest leads to the same place, and that God is God, whether you call him Christ, Allah, or Buddha.
In the beginning of Zooey, the narrator, Buddy, tries to decide if this is a spiritual story or a love story. He says in the end that it is a love story:
… I know the difference between a mystical story and a love story. I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.
And it is. Franny discovers that she must love all of her audience – the phony teachers, the Lane Coutells, her ego-driven fellow actors. She must love them all, because they are all the Fat Lady, a singulary unlovable person who she must love nonetheless, as she represents Christ. Love is thus unselective. We love all people, just as Christ did. This is the way to enlightenment that Salinger points us toward in this slim but magnificent volume.
(This is the first of four posts celebrating J. D. Salinger’s fictional Glass family, members of whom appear in several of his best stories and novellas. This is the first Litkicks collaboration by writer Michael Norris and artist David Richardson since their Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines series in 2010. The next entry in this series will appear on Thursday.)