11 March 2011

The Phony Book

I recently had the displeasure to read what is possibly the most overrated book of all time, namely the Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger

This is that 'shocking' book that became the most controversial piece of literature in America and is considered one of the great modern classics, nearly always by baby boomers with an obsession with the 60s

To be honest, I knew relatively little about it, 'Catcher' is relatively popular as a set text in schools, but my school were very much anti-American literature, and I have never gone out of my way to read American since, so all I know is based on the views of others - I knew that it was a 'coming of age' tale for example, and I also knew it was considered shocking for a considerable amount of profanity in the 50s, but that it is largely inoffensive to a modern audience

That was about it, so I read it, seeing as it's always on those '100 books to read before you die' lists and everybody has an opinion on it

I knew from the first page that I was going to hate it, the book is from the perspective of a 16 year old, Holden Caulfield and is seemingly the definition of a stream of consciousness novel, from the outset he is speaking in this incredibly roundabout, pointless fashion that drove me near insane. It really did. People who constantly repeat the same goddam point really knock me out. They really do.

That's essentially the gist of it - and that dear reader, is the sort of language you will endure for nearly 200 pages, whole paragraphs devoted to him repeating and reaffirming the same goddam point, and as you may have guessed, saying 'goddam' rather a lot

I eventually worked out, after finding nothing offensive for the bulk of the book, that 'goddam' was in fact the controversial profanity - this is probably a result of my being English, where damn has never particularly been considered to be a 'swear', I was expecting at least a s h one t here and there, but nothing, the thing is ridiculously mild by modern standards, particularly if you aren't American (where the controversy has always been, in fairness)

I laboured on, learning the language after a few pages (i.e. skipping lines which I knew would only be him saying 'I hate X. I really do. That really knocks me out.') appreciating that many old classics are often written in strange ways due to their subject and/or period, assuming that there would be some great metaphorical point to a fascinating plot here

Alas, no, the 'plot' is that Holden is kicked out of his posh boarding school for the umpteenth time and goes on a bit of a bender as he heads to his home in New York, while calling everyone phonies and fantasising, a lot

The plot itself is not really the point, it's more his thoughts that the various scenarios bring up that are the key elements of the novel - like how near everyone is a 'phony' and how he hates essentially everything about modern life (movies, school, adults in general), he is both a nihilist and a hypocrite, as while Holden may be making a valid point about the falseness of society, he repeatedly shows us how much of a phony he is - constantly lying and going on about drinking and women for example - maybe that's the point, but I found it very hard to sympathise with the general point when he was so weak and childish and I kept bouncing between who was worse - the individuals who he was so disdainful of, or him

His other main focus of thought is his dead younger brother, who he hero-worships as a genius and his little sister, who seems to be the sole living person that he is positive about

That's about it, he's a confused nihilist who is defensive/hostile towards pretty much everything except that which is dead, or a child

....And now do you see why angst-riddled teenagers love it?

The boy is angry at the world and the whole wanting to stop children falling off a cliff (he's a catcher in the field of rye...) is an obvious allusion to the pain of growing from a child into an adult, the metaphor is laid out on a plate for you

Any other metaphor taken from this is just wishful thinking I think, he is a boy who is probably suffering from some sort of grief related disorder and possibly having a nervous breakdown, but I can see how his nihilism and complete disregard for anything, even himself, chimes with teenagers, while his actions may be rather extreme, I can sort of see a resemblance to my own thoughts in my nearly-forgotten teenage years

Maybe I would have liked it more back then, I certainly wasn't as bad as him, his thoughts are ridiculously erratic for one, but then very few teenagers would go that far, they might share the general sentiment of hopelessness, however, so I can see why a fair chunk of American teenagers thought it was so radical

Look at me, I seem to have started defending it and finding meaning in it, well actually I was never going to call it complete garbage, it's not a trashy romance novel and there is a clear allusion to teenage angst, but that's about it

What I wouldn't do is call it a 'classic', while there is a point to it, it is a very simple one that is made in absolutely mind-numbing language and dressed up in a load of seemingly pointless and excessive description

As I've just shown, there is a discussion to be had on it's meaning, but you could say that about all but the trashiest novels and what I really want to point out is that while I have been thinking it over since I finished it, I absolutely hated reading it - the whole point of a good book is that you enjoy it, or it is has an incredibly profound point to make, I am principally debating the meaning of this book now because I have been conditioned to expect one from it, and it's a lot more enjoyable going back over it in my mind than in the actual book -and the points I have found to think about are very few in number, I seem to have forgiven it by trying to find some meaning and I really shouldn't just forget how irritating it was solely to discuss some fairly inane points about growing up

I simply don't think it adds up to being a classic, Salinger has described an angry teenager quite well and maybe appealed to a fair few angst-ridden teens but that's about it, the thing is a chore to read and, crucially I believe, has not aged well - you look at it's biggest fans (brilliantly, almost certainly 'phonies') and they are primarily those baby-boomers who were teenagers in the 50s and 60s, they think it's a classic because it spoke to them when they were kids, and of course they, the most powerful present generation, still love the damn thing, but a modern reader has little to take from it - a classic must be timeless, it must be at least an enjoyable read or impart some wisdom or philosophical point, this just describes a moody teenager in the 50s (ok, 40s if you want to be technical)

Certainly this book is important, I have seen praise for its description of post-war New York and its impact on a generation is clear, but that makes it of historical interest - it means we look at it from the perspective of 'why was this book popular' rather than 'why is this book so good', it's akin to the current fascination around the Twilight books, it's quite simply an overrated teen novel

One last point, I've been thinking about why teachers inflict this novel on teenagers:

Number 1 is obvious - because they are baby-boomers and liked it when they were school-age

Number 2 is more fun - that teachers want to do some amateur psychology on their students and see how many can identify with it and how many think it's tosh

All thoughts welcome...unless they involve phonies, 'goddam', horsing around or knocking people out

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts exactly - overrated twaddle about a dickhead