Newest Review: ... Bananafish from Salinger's For Esmé with Love and Squalor and was like the intellectual guru and spiritual guide of the Glass children - th... more
The House of Glass
Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger
Member Name: Jake Speed
Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger
Advantages: Clever and rewarding
Franny and Zooey is a book by the famously reclusive (late) author JD Salinger and comprises his short story Franny and the novella Zooey. It was published in 1961 in this collected form although the two stories had appeared individually in the New Yorker several years previously. Franny and Zooey centres around Salinger's fictional Glass family - this family a recurring feature of his short stories with the Glass characters appearing in all his work after The Catcher in the Rye. The Glasses are a large family of Jewish and Irish descent headed by retired vaudeville performers Les and Bessie who live in a large apartment in New York. Some of the children have left home but not all. The precocious Glass siblings vary in ages from college age to mid to late thirties and all have one thing in common that marks them out and unites them. They are all remarkably, ferociously intelligent and all frequently appeared on a fictional radio quiz show called "It's a Wise Child" when they were growing up. It made them famous but while fame was a blessing in some ways (the money they made got them all through college) it was also something of a curse. The public tended to regard the Glass children as eccentric smart arses when It's a Wise Child was running on radio all those years ago. "We're freaks, that's all," says Zachary "Zooey" Glass, one of the title characters here. "Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that's all. We're the tattooed lady, and we're never going to have a minute's peace, the rest of our lives, until everybody else is tattooed, too." As the quote suggests, Salinger, no great fan of fame and attention himself (and that's putting it mildly), uses the Glass family members to express his own thoughts about the cult of celebrity, religion, television, politics, education, conformity, ego, and - most notably here - Zen Buddhist ideas. The name "Glass" is rife with subtext. Glass is many things. Something that one can see straight through. Invisible, reflective, and also capable of holding whatever is put into it. The Glass children are famous for soaking up anything that comes their way - Zooey in particular known for a "somewhat preposterous ability to quote, instantaneously and, usually verbatim, almost anything he had ever read, or even listened to, with genuine interest."
They are emotional and highly strung and have a unique bond with one another which makes it difficult for them to ever make connections in the world outside their family. The two most important characters in the Glass family (even when they are not part of the direct narrative) are elder siblings Buddy and Seymour Glass. Seymour committed suicide in A Perfect Day for Bananafish from Salinger's For Esmé with Love and Squalor and was like the intellectual guru and spiritual guide of the Glass children - the eldest and the one they all looked to for inspiration and direction. Wisdom even. Even though he is gone his presence is still strongly felt in the story here. Gallagher "Buddy" Glass is the narrator of Franny & Zooey and perhaps the closest to Salinger himself. If anyone is the Salinger alter ego it is Buddy. Buddy teaches Buddhism in his spare time and lives in a cabin in the woods. He never seems to have a telephone so is very difficult to ever contact. All very Salinger. This particular novella centres around 25 year-old Zooey (who now works as an actor) and 20 year-old Frances "Franny" Glass, a college student who also acts. The first story, "Franny" (by far the shortest of the two), has Franny Glass arriving by train to meet her boyfriend Lane Coutell during the weekend of the "Yale" football game. The exact location is never directly stipulated but is generally regarded to be Princeton. These are not run of the mill students. Lane read a letter (which we can read ourselves) she wrote to him while he waited at the train station but it soon becomes apparent to him that the giddy lovestruck (even slightly embarrassing and gushy) tone of the letter doesn't correspond to the Franny that he meets and takes to a chic restaurant lunch room which is popular with the well heeled student crowd. What begins as a romantic story soon takes a darker and more complex turn as the gap between the two seems to grow by the page as they converse in the restaurant.
Franny can't eat a thing and merely chainsmokes and looks pale ("like a ghost") and fragile. She feels faint. Meanwhile, Lane orders frog's legs and brags about a term paper on Flaubert he might have published. Franny becomes irritated and bored with hearing about the term paper and expresses her profound dislike for college and some of her professors. Education as a whole. It's fatuous and full of phonies and sometimes she can hardly stand it - getting carried away with her rant. "I'm way off. I'll just ruin the whole weekend. Maybe there's a trapdoor under my chair and I'll just disappear." Franny excuses herself to go to the ladies room and sobs in a cubicle. She is having an existential crisis and Lane's boasting and apparent shallowness has merely exacerbated her sense of dissatisfaction with the world. She (just like JD Salinger) is tired of ego and people who "want to make some kind of splash" and get somewhere. "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. Mine and everybody else's." Franny has been clutching a small green book the whole time and when Lane enquires about it she explains that it's called "The Way of a Pilgrim" - a 19th century Russian work recounting the narrator's journey as a mendicant pilgrim across Russia while practicing the Jesus Prayer. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Franny has started to mutter the prayer under her breath. She believes an understanding of the book and how to use the Jesus Prayer is a way to see God. One must repeat the prayer until it becomes almost automatic and takes one on the path to enlightenment. "Franny" is a very JD Salinger meditation on inner lives and gestures. How people read each other and how introversion and what is happening inside a person is far more important than what they actually do.
The story short and revolves almost entirely around a conversation over lunch but manages to be satisfying and leads neatly into the second part of the book. Franny is one of the more sympathetic and likeable of Salinger's characters and although she speaks for him (naturally) he doesn't imbue her with that dry sarcastic mocking (and often too smart arse) New York humour that he was brilliant at but capable of overdoing. Lane gets some of that (he uses the word "goddamn" a lot and it wouldn't be a Salinger story without someone saying goddamn a lot) and is rather shallow (we see that Lane is as concerned about getting to the game on time as much as anything) but also somewhat sympathetic. We do sense that he is doing his best in an unexpected situation. What he represents though is bourgeois conformity and Salinger loathes this with all his heart. The milieu finds Salinger on very firm footing. People drinking martinis and railing against education and human beings. I doubt he had to grasp too much for all of that too much. "Franny" is a clever and interesting story. Rather slight but absorbing and thoughtful nonetheless.
In the second story, "Zooey", the setting is the large apartment in New York where the Glass family live. It begins with Zooey Glass in the bath reading a four year-old letter his older brother Buddy wrote to him (a long rambling fascinating letter that we get to read for ourselves). Zooey is so clever it almost defies belief and is the handsome one in the family. His older sister Boo Boo described him as "the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo." While he is in the bath his mother Bessie asks to come to come in for a minute. An annoyed Zooey ("I'm in the tub for God's sake mother!") pulls the shower curtain around the bath and lets her in where over a long conversation she confesses her worries about his older brother Buddy who is becoming increasingly difficult to contact and also Zooey's young sister Franny who is now home from college after what was apparently a disaster of a weekend with her boyfriend Lane. Franny is zonked out on the sofa in a maudlin world of her own and isn't eating at all. Zooey - if he is ever allowed to get out of the bath! - must be the one who tries to get through to her.
What is interesting is how this appears to be the Franny from the first story but then again doesn't. Lane is referenced (Zooey of course tags him as a big shallow phoney who probably cared more about the game than Franny) but the Glass family were not mentioned in the first story. It seems to be the same Franny but in the first story she claims to have got The Way of a Pilgrim out of a college library. In the this story she took it out of Seymour's bedroom. Zooey is a much more abrasive and sarcastic Salinger character and supplies this second story with much more humour. "That's the spirit! Make it chicken broth or nothing. That's putting the ole foot down. If she's determined to have a nervous breakdown, the least we can do is make sure that she doesn't have it in peace." Zooey is rather too smug and full of himself at times (and very condescending towards Bessie at times) but Salinger uses him in a key way to stress the theme of the diffused ego. Ego is the ultimate crime in the Salinger universe and one must learn how to negate it. In a sense by having the book apparently written by Buddy Salinger is diffusing his own ego. Zooey also tells his mother about The Way of the Pilgrim (when she enquires about the book Franny is reading) but in much greater depth than Franny did. Franny & Zooey is a Zen tale with Franny on a rocky path to wisdom. While some of the dialogue feels like the author intruding too much on his characters, Salinger is great at setting a scene. The mother/son interaction feels real and there are some nice little details. Zooey noticing a little human vignette when he gazes out the window, Franny camped on the sofa with the family cat Bloomberg. Zooey's eventual attempt to get through to Franny is always interesting and leads to a fairly moving resolution.
Zooey tells Franny she is merely an amateur dabbler when it comes to interpreting the world and books. "You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything's ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus prayer and beg God for little mystical experience that'll maker her nice and happy." Franny and Zooey is not as immediate or easy to get into as The Catcher in the Rye or even For Esmé with Love and Squalor but it is very rewarding if you make the effort and a fairly shortish book too (about 130 pages in paperback). Certainly worth a look if you enjoyed the earlier books and of course slightly more special because Salinger wrote so little before he vanished into enigmatic isolation.