Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Reading List: Catcher in the Rye

Hey, guys, what's up?  Welcome to another (I know, I actually wrote one of these again!) edition of The Reading List.  Today, I'll be reviewing Catcher in the Rye.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a boy who drops out of school and decides to wander around New York for a few days in a psychological funk.  At the end, he has a mental breakthrough/breakdown and gets admitted to a mental hospital.  The whole novel is Holden's coming to term with death, sexuality, and other heady themes that are omnipresent in the adult world.

Holden is an interesting character.  While many stories use their main character either as an author surrogate or as a hero of the land, Catcher takes us through the fragmented view of  truly disturbed main character.  It's not the first bok to do this, nor is it the last, but few books that survive in our collective consciousness from that time read like it, if any.

So why?  Why does Catcher stay in our collective culture over fifty years after its original publication?

It may do good to look at the context of the book.  The 1950's were a radical time in the world, and this is reflective in some of the literature of the time.  The violence of World War Two could finally be looked at and comprehended, as seen in books like Elie Wiesel's Night (which I'm not looking forward to talking about) and the works of Ernest Hemingway.  Writers like Isaac Asimov and Daniel Keyes were looking at the new world filled with the promise of science with caution.  Meanwhile, two British friends were looking to the past to understand the space in which they were currently living.  Bradbury and Vonnegut were warning people about what the future could look like, while William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch attempted to encapsulate the culture that people didn't always want to talk about.

J.D. Salinger's only real success is an attempt at a lot of these ideas.  Holden's messed up headspace, while not caused by wartime trauma, is very much reminiscent of it.  Many a veteran has spent sleepless nights roaming around in a daze without help, although the vilification of war and soldiers that came with America's involvement in Vietnam was still a few years away.  Though it doesn't use the trappings of science fiction, it looks to the future through the unsure eyes of a cynical teen.  And though it isn't fantasy, Holden's flashback give context to the state in which he currently is.

The book is very much a product of its time, in both dialect and content.  Its language can be as foreign to some as a novel written in Old English, but the tone is what's important, and why I feel Catcher has survived so long.

Catcher very adequately captures that moment in your teenage years when you realize you don't have all the answers.  For Holden, its when he flunks out of school and doesn't know where he's going to go next.  For others, maybe its the first time you were rejected by someone you like, or when you learned something about your friends or parents.  Maybe it comes when you graduate high school and try to live as an adult for the first time.  You feel lost and confused, unsure of yourself.  You want to sit down and let the emotions rill over you, but you also want to be independent and strong.  You probably also want to go back home.

This is why Catcher remains so beloved today.  It still holds an important message to teens and anyone struggling.  That is why, of all the books from the 50's, this one still holds.  Wiesel, Hemingway and Burroughs are historical artifacts, better suited for history than English.  Asimov and Keyes' worlds seem naive to us now, while Vonnegut and Bradbury's messages need some tweaking to fit into our understanding.  Tolkien and Lewis still hold up, but lose a bit of their immediacy.

What Salinger was able to do was immortalize the pain and suffering that accompanies adolescence.  In this way, though the language and settings of Catcher become more and more distant, Holden's story and emotions still resonate with students today, and will probably continue to for generations to come.

Thanks for reading this installment of The Reading List.  See you next time!