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“A Catcher in the Rye” was my first (and, for a long time, only) Salinger book. I read it during my undergraduate years in Mumbai. I was living alone, drinking large amounts of alcohol and, like most adolescents, unhappy with life and the world. It was a confusing time: of discovery, new experiences and old frustrations.
The book had a profound effect on our group of friends. After a drink (or several) we competed with each other to list reasons wfor our similarities with Holden Caulfield (and why we were exceptions to a supposedly materialistic world). The next day, after the hangover wore off, we’d fight with each other about the same materialistic things we pretended to disdain after a couple of pegs. In that sense, I suppose we were like Caulfield: a mix of contradictions and confusions. I borrowed “Nine Stories” from a friend, who recommended it to me on the roof of a bar near our room. Between drawn-out cigarette puffs and gulps of cheap whisky, he declared that it was better than “A Catcher In The Rye.”
But I abandoned the book after reading exactly one story.
I didn’t even understand that story.
For a self-involved college kid with manufactured angst (a feeling that “A Catcher In The Rye” acknowledged and stoked), the horrors of war and marital discord were alien themes.
On a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library recently, I picked it up again. They say age brings wisdom and empathy. This time, I read through all the stories in less than three days. There were hardly any drinks to accompany the reading. And, I identified less with the characters and more with the story.
Taken together, “Nine Stories” encompasses a number of human experiences: a suicide, first love, marital discord, the horrors of war, and, even, an artiste’s first job. A former WWII soldier kills himself after a pleasant conversation with a ten-year-old kid at a beach in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The logical inconsistency of a crush is depicted in “Just Before The War With Eskimos.” Then, there is the humorous turn in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” where a starving artist works his first job in a Montreal art school.
Salinger’s canvas may be vast but his approach remains the same. He works as a painter, depicting characters in these stories as figures in a painting. Salinger’s pen outlines a mise en scene, usually involving an interaction between opposites, The dialogue and settings work towards a conclusion that is quiet and heartbreakingly intense.
Consider the scene in a coffee shop in “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The main action in this story takes place inside a coffee shop. But, that scene embodies several situations: a comedy of manners between an English girl and an American soldier, an introduction, and the innocence and curiosity of children.
Again, Salinger’s milieu – the Second World War and East Coast conventions – is one that I do not have much experience of. But Salinger’s deft strokes of conversation and movement create a luminous universe that resonates with anyone who has felt bewildered at the workings of the world.
They are also unpretentious. As Carlos Acosta, a Cuban dancer, explained to BBC’s World Book Club: “I was very happy to know that first I could understand it. That my English was good enough to understand it.” “The voice lacked literary pretension…and once it grabs you, it doesn’t let go.” That is certainly true of a majority of the voices in “Nine Stories.” They grab you through the simple tricks of conversation and movements into a familiar world.
Of course, this world tends so much towards perfection that it can seem unreal. Children are angelic, adolescents are innocent, and adults are caught in situations that are not of their own making.
I suppose Salinger’s stories reflect his own world view. He was overly concerned with purity of body and soul. This concern finds reflections in Teddy, a story in which he attempts to fuse Eastern mysticism with a Western worldview through a discussion between a gifted child and a skeptical young man. Teddy is a genius child who is being studied by scientists and philosophers.
While the adults around him are busy making small talk, swimming, and enjoying a cruise adventure, Teddy muses on the limitations of our senses and thinking. “I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he tells Nicholson, the young man, in a reference to the biblical apple eaten by Adam. According to Teddy, that apple contained logic and “intellectual stuff.” “You asked me how I get out of finite dimensions when I feel like it. I certainly don’t use logic when I do it. Logic’s the first thing that you get rid of,” explains Teddy.
In “Nine Stories,” Salinger has fashioned the apple and we are the apple-eaters.