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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Franny and Zooey

Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger description
Edited to include visual: "Disaffected Young Adult," which is a picture of MFSO, used with his permission, with the following explanation (in his words): "I refer to it [the picture:] as 'Too Much Fun' and that it's from the end of my first year in college in the summer of 2004 while in the midst of three days with no sleep or food and a lot of chemicals."

* * *

As a former Salinger aficionado, I wanted to look back and consider how I felt about Salinger now.

In Salinger’s two-part novel, Franny and Zooey, Zooey, Franny’s older brother and in some ways her mentor, tells Franny that the problem with her rejection of the world…
is the way you [Franny:] talk about all those people. I mean you don’t just despise what they represent—you despise them. It’s too damn personal.”

Zooey’s critique is one that could also be leveled at a great deal of Salinger’s work; there is a lot of time spent in these novels and short stories on categorizing people and their actions in ways that are often more petty than profound.

Franny, in the first section of the novel, emerges as a character clearly critical of the world around her. She keeps herself at a distance—a spectator categorizing and dismissing life rather than a participator. When telling her boyfriend, Lane Cotrell, about her trip on the train, Franny reduces the other female students on board to types, “Everybody else on the train…looked very Smith, except for two absolutely Vassar types and one absolutely Bennington or Sarah Lawrence type.” When Lane goes on at great length about his paper on Flaubert, Franny accuses him of being a “section man,” a term she’d coined for little men “usually a graduate student or something” who go “running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths.” Accentuating her distance, Franny’s actions are similarly out of sync: at the train station when Lane is constrained, Franny is exuberant; when Lane sits at the restaurant contemplating his feeling of well-being, Franny becomes paler, less well; and when Lane eats with gusto, Franny abstains—nauseous and ill.

Franny’s need to categorize and label the world around her helps to preserve her distance. On a literal level, Franny already removed herself from the theatre department, dismissing actors as a bunch of…
egos running around feeling terribly charitable and warm. Kissing everybody and wearing their makeup all over the place, and then trying to be horribly natural and friendly when your friends come backstage to see you…
Similarly, Franny thinks of getting out of the English department because she is “just so sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers.”

In some ways, Franny’s distance from the world was imposed. Her eldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy, introduced Franny and Zooey to the readings of “the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmuktas—who knew something or everything about this state of being,” so that, as Buddy explains in a letter to Zooey (years later), they would understand what the great prophets had to say about the world before they learned about “Homer or Shakespeare, or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence.” The problem is, as Franny bitterly explains to her mother, their early indoctrination makes both Franny and her brother “freaks.”

Franny’s distance was also exacerbated by her childhood appearance on a radio show entitled “It’s a Wise Child.” Franny, as well as her other sister and five older brothers appeared on the show over spaced intervals for a period of 16 years. The show served as a showcase for the children’s precocious ability to answer “a prodigious number of alternately deadly-bookish and deadly-cute questions…with a freshness, an aplomb, that was considered unique in commercial radio.”

To get away from the phonies and to effect a spiritual rebirth, Franny holes herself up on the family couch and repeats over and over again the words of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” According to the book, The Way of a Pilgrim Seymour introduced to Franny when she was a child, the prayer, once started and repeated incessantly, eventually becomes “self-active” or automatic and provides, as Franny puts it, a “really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook.”

Zooey again intervenes. The problem with Franny using the Jesus prayer is that she does not understand who Jesus is and instead prays to a figure who is “Jesus and St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all in one.” Zooey goes on to explain that saying the Jesus prayer without understanding who Jesus is, is futile since the purpose of the prayer is to “endow the person who says it with Christ-consciousness.”

However misguided Franny’s actions might be, she, like all the mostly adolescent or young adult characters that populate this fiction, remains appealing, and particularly so for the adolescent audience much of Salinger’s fiction attracts. In my teens, I devoured Salinger’s work, and it helped provide the corroboration I needed to sneer at the world, and consider adults as one fairly stupid homogenous group—people who were older, but certainly not wiser.

It would be interesting to know, if in any of the 15 novels now reputedly finished and locked in a safe, whether Salinger ever chose to view the world less cynically and from a vantage of characters somewhat more mature.

It’s not hard to understand, though, why Salinger has achieved his cult-like status.