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July 17, 2011

Rohit Reviews: Franny and Zooey

Franny and Zooey

It has been a long time since I posted twice on this loathsome site in as many days—almost two years—and far longer since I sat down and read a book in a day. And for that matter, I don't think I have ever published two book reviews in a row. Inspired, however, by completing a major Russian work that had long been lingering on my bookshelf, I went on what I yesterday deemed an ill-advised book buying binge. (Ill-advised because I have a long backlog of purchased but unread books to work through at the moment, and certainly none more are needed.) Of the four novels I picked up, JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey was the shortest, which made it an excellent candidate for my next book, seeing as how I had been suffering under the dense endless prose that accompanies most Russian novels for many months. I was expecting to kill it over the coming week and had only intended to start it when I picked it up late last night; it went by a lot quicker than even I expected.

The book is actually a collection of two previously published works, the short story Franny and the novella Zooey, which both appeared in The New Yorker in January 1955 and May 1957, respectively. It focuses, as do many of Salinger's stories, on the Glass family and in particular, the two youngest Glass children—the title characters Franny and Zooey. Franny takes place in a college town and details the onset of Franny Glass's spiritual and existential crisis. Zooey is set a few days later, at the Glass apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, after Franny has returned home in a haphazard and broken state. The novella documents Zooey Glass's attempts to assist and advise his younger sister through her nervous breakdown and existential crisis.

Franny's crisis stems from what she perceives to be an egotistical and phony world around her, and crystallizes in her fixation over the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me). In Zooey we also learn of the seven Glass children's unique childhood (all were child geniuses who performed on a radio show) and their eldest brother, Seymour's, suicide in Florida years earlier. The novella is ostensibly narrated by Buddy Glass, Franny and Zooey's elder brother, who also plays a small role in the story.

Although comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye are inevitable, especially since both depict the anger and confusion of adolescence and beyond, I am inclined to resist the comparison here based on what I remember about Catcher, which I read almost fifteen years ago. The books are really rather different, and in many ways, Franny and Zooey might be the more interesting one philosophically—at least to someone who has long since left his teens behind.

Put another way, while on some level Franny and Zooey confronts the same phoniness that so bothered Holden Caulfield, it does so with much more depth and scrutiny in a way that only someone who has experienced more of life and its inevitable disappointments can. Holden was a teenager; Franny and Zooey are both in their twenties, and as I myself can attest, that can be a time of ripe existential crisis far more troublesome than mere teen angst.

Ultimately, the same questions and realizations that vex Franny are those that all us wretched souls must confront as we age. What is the point of all that we do? Why pursue anything? Isn't it all a bunch of bullshit—and all the people who profess to support it a pack of sophists and outright liars? Why even bother? Her flirtation with religion in light of these earth-shattering realizations is no surprise. People—myself included—need to believe in something, after all.

What is astonishing, though, is Salinger's answer—or rather, response, to quote from the book—to Franny's existential crisis by way of Zooey. Why bother? Because sometimes that's just what we have to do—if for no one else than the Fat Lady.

Redemption was not something I was expecting from this book—nor, really, from Salinger. And while it does nothing to resolve definitively Franny's crisis, it is a pleasant response nonetheless and perhaps the only one we may ever have.

Rating this book proves difficult. From what I have written above, there is an argument, and in my mind, even a strong one, that this book ought to rank higher than Catcher. But ultimately, I can't bring myself to do that. Catcher, its flaws notwithstanding, will always remain a singularly memorable experience of my adolescence. Salinger managed there to capture teenage alienation with remarkable aplomb and better than any have before or since; his accomplishments with older and more mature characters simply cannot compete. Four stars of five.


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