Thursday, February 11, 2010

See More Glass

People I've never met die all the time. And people I've never met, but have admired and in some cases almost loved, have been disappearing pretty regularly. But I've never cried before when one of these strangers died until a couple of weeks ago when J.D. Salinger died behind his fortress of implacable silence.

It's taken me a week or two to get my thoughts in order which is why I will never be a journalist, but I'm glad I waited. I'm still not sure why this stranger's death felt so meaningful to me. I've never harbored any dreams about making a pilgrimage to New Hampshire and being "the one" he would spill his guts to after all these years. I mean, how awful would that be? I prefer to keep my illusions intact.

The Catcher in the Rye has never been that big a deal to me, though I hesitate to say exactly what I feel about it as I haven't read it in well over 20 years. And I've never wanted to meet Salinger. So all this feeling is tied up in the 300 or so pages that comprise Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (in honor of my completion mania, I'll throw in Seymour, an Introduction, too. I love the part where he's describing his middle class Manhattanite mother-in-law as being incredibly heroic).

When I read Nine Stories in high school I thought I had found God. After Franny and Zooey, I knew I had. After Salinger's death I reread the stories which I don't think I've done in about a decade. I still loved them and I was pleased to discover that I remembered them very accurately. My enormous love for the Glass family was intact and undiluted. For those who haven't read the stories, here's a rundown of the basics: Vaudevillian parents, Irish/Jewish Manhattan upbringing, seven kids - all of whom appeared on the radio quiz show, "It's a Wise Child". Seymour, the oldest, committed suicide. Buddy, the second son, is clearly Salinger's alter ego. Franny and Zooey are the two youngest, both actors. For a while I used the piece where Franny goes off about how awful actors are as my audition monologue. When I worked on it in class, my teacher said, "Your acting problems aren't acting problems. Go see a shrink." Probably rightly so. Salinger was also (along with Maugham's The Razor's Edge) my first introduction to Eastern philosophy* which opened up some new avenues of thought for me.

"The Laughing Man" though one of the Glass-less stories may be my favorite. I think I've been hopelessly influenced by it, as upon rereading it, I saw bits and pieces of this 15 page story in nearly everything I've written. The whole idea of the Paris-Chinese boarder may be one of my favorite things in any story anywhere, and have loved imaginary real places ever since.

I read these stories and fell in love with them long before I was capable of analyzing why I liked anything, but certain things seemed really clear. His writing is pitched emotionally in a place in which I am very, very comfortable. I've said the same thing about Wes Anderson's movie "The Royal Tanenbaums" which was my favorite of the past decade and was heavily influenced by Salinger's stories. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't find any of the emotional content embarrassing. The people in these stories feel recognizable to me in ways that fictional people rarely do.

There is also a solid New York City vibe in the stories - to the extent that upon rereading I realized that I didn't just feel as if I knew these people, I actually knew them. The Jews and Irish of upscale New York and environs were all I knew growing up in West Egg. And Salinger's mid-twentieth century Manhattan was the city of my parents and my uncles who worked in television and my grandparents who lived on the Upper West Side until they retired and flew south. The Glass children were alienated from the same world I was alienated from.

So to get back to why this death seemed like such a big deal to me - I'm still not sure. My life has been full of endings recently. Virgodog and I are splitsville. A dear family friend passed away. My best friend and collaborator parted ways from me about a year ago. So maybe I was just wide open and ready to be moved by the death of a stranger. Or maybe I'm just waiting like everyone else to see if there are any new stories. I half-believe he left instructions to have everything burned upon his death like Kafka and Emily Brontë did. I'm torn. Joyce Maynard said there was at least another entire novel. But maybe it's best if we're just happy about what we have and not always want more and all of us should stop thinking about more Glass family stories and that lost novel of Emily's that Charlotte consigned to the flames. Strangers are still strangers no matter how many of their books we read.

*Okay - maybe Kerouac, too, but I could never stand him. I've gotten into more arguments with more people defending my loathing of Kerouac than almost anything else.


duncanrogers said...

Great Post. I have been stricken by the death of strangers before as well, and often it is because of loss I can't or wont acknowledge in my own world.


Beautiful post, Carolyn. That last line kills me. I've lived a lot of my life knowing books -- and their authors -- as people. And the people I actually knew, I dealt with at a distance. Rather like a book. I'm sharing it on FB.