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In the virtually small amount of published writing J.D. Salinger produced during his lifetime, the stories he composed which contributed to the Glass family saga were untouchable in their ability to tackle existential subjects, record family drama and struggles, and capture the subtleties of the simplest interactions among humans.

Franny and Zooey are the youngest of the Glass siblings, from an upper- class Manhattan half-Jewish-half Irish family. The two novellas in Franny and Zooey, each titled for one of the young adults, ages twenty and twenty-five, describes the reasoning for the confusion and resentment they find themselves living with. Along the way, the past of the elder two Glass brothers, Seymour and Buddy is partially revealed. Seymour and Buddy have given Franny and Zooey some perturbing lessons, ones they must sort out on their own now that Seymour has committed suicide and Buddy lives the lifestyle of a hermit in a cabin without a phone.

The text begins with Franny’s trip to meet her boyfriend, Lane for the Yale game. From the moment Franny steps off the train and is seated in Slickers, a restaurant for Harvard and Yale alumni downtown, she knows she can’t go back to thinking or acting the way she did before. Trying to listen to Lane ramble on about getting his school literary paper published, she sees how pointless she believes college to be. Ivy League ‘name-dropping’ and all the importance people place on financial and social status is ‘meaningless.’ Anytime she tries to give her opinion, Lanes becomes upset, telling her to drink more of her martini.

The absolute genius in ‘Franny’ is that within the framework of a short conversation, Salinger creates a picture for the reader of the young girl realizing her imminent breakdown thought-by thought. Franny’s facial reactions, down to her lipstick turning ‘a shade or two lighter’ are documented with precision. As Franny and Lane argue about the definition of REAL poetry, Lane fails to understand that it doesn’t need to be published or famous to leave an imprint on the memory. He pushes her to the limit without noticing she is about to snap. She goes to the bathroom. ‘She cried fully for five minutes.’  But Lane will NEVER understand what her genuine issue is.

The ‘pea-green clothbound book’ she has found is the reason for her breakdown. Yet it also consoles her in the restaurant with Lane. ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’ is a REAL poet’s book. In comparison to the tininess that is the Ivy League, the Russian peasant narrator of the book offers more. She explains to a distracted Lane that the book tells of a prayer one may repeat: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.’ Some believe that if a person keeps repeating it, the heartbeat synchronizes with the rhythm and praying becomes infinite. Eventually a person sees God. Still not listening, Lane says I love you and Franny collapses.

Zooey begins his own story by calling it a film of the Glass’ Manhattan apartment. He claims he is both narrator and home film-maker (making the words into a picture) for the text. Still, his introduction would lead the reader to believe narrator and film-maker are two separate people and that Zooey is objective. Zooey’s know-it-all personality, which he is willing to admit to, leads him to assert he is objective most times. However, after he points out his weakness for criticism and superiority he will immediately do it again.

In the bathtub, Zooey reads a letter he received from his brother Buddy. The letter is four years old and has been re-read several times, as it has many crease marks. It’s obvious that Buddy has had a big influence on Zooey, and that Seymour, the oldest brother, has not only left a large absence in all of their lives-Seymour has been someone they need to live up to. Buddy mentions Bessie, their mother, wants Zooey to attend college before becoming an actor. Buddy also notes that he never earned a Ph.D. like Seymour, the smartest of the children.

Suddenly it becomes clear that their mother pressures all of them to succeed. While Zooey is still bathing, Bessie enters the bathroom uninvited to have a conversation. Zooey is unbelievably cruel to her, but she will not leave his private space. She has reflections about Franny’s breakdown she needs to discuss. Zooey lashes out at her, calling her stupid and fat again and again. It is undoubtedly mean, but at the same time the reader cannot help but laugh at his response to the things she says. ‘I see Christ in an entirely different light.’ Really he’s pointing out the shortcoming in her arguments in a sarcastic fashion. At the same time, Buddy has anger and resentment toward Bessie for allowing Seymour and Buddy to take over his and Franny’s education at such an early age.

Since Seymour and Buddy were so much older, they thought they were helping Franny and Zooey by teaching them religion before academics when they were children. In this way, the kids would be able to find out life’s great mysteries and existential profundities first, then the other things would be more simplistic to comprehend. But Zooey and Franny believe that they’ve been corrupted because they can’t appreciate the small things in life. ‘We’re freaks Franny and I and both those bastards are responsible.’

Franny and Zooey come to understand that the reason they are both so miserable is they are following the same path that lead to the destruction of Seymour and Buddy. ‘I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn’t make you happy.’ Eventually nothing is ever good enough. Every answer creates more questions and pain. Seymour discovered this. It may be why Buddy found a haiku about a little girl in the hotel where he committed suicide. Perhaps Seymour was fascinated with the innocence of children which adults cannot get back.  Buddy says to Zooey in his letter ‘We knew there is no keeping a scholar ignorant.’ Does this mean scholars are doomed to unhappiness?

Zooey knows that Franny has left school and is moping around because of the books she found in Seymour and Buddy’s room: ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’ and ‘The Pilgrim Continues on His Way.’  Zooey points out to Franny that saying the Jesus Prayer for spiritual knowledge is just as bad as striving for material gain. In a way, it is even greedier because no one has ever proven that they saw God. It is a sort of Faustian striving. No one strives for a connection with God to get nothing in return, they want their soul to go to heaven or to attain spiritual wealth. Franny’s current depression is caused by her impure motives.

Once a person obtains a certain amount of knowledge, they cannot go back. Franny and Zooey know this. They are aware their brothers have taught them more than it may be healthy or good for a person to know. It may just be possible that Seymour reached his limit and couldn’t take it anymore. There are definitely some topics-religious, technological-that pose the question-do we, as humans have the right to know? Or are some things forbidden knowledge? This is taking it down a notch, but I feel I would still be in a much better place in my life if I still truly, with all my heart believed in Santa.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

For more Information: Dead Caufields (Salinger website)

Read: Nine Stories and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour by J.D. Salinger (more Glass family)


Forbidden Knowledge: From to Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck