Monday, December 10, 2007

Books: Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger

Franny, the youngest of a mess of now-grown, pseudo-mal-socialized precocious siblings, suffers a kind of existential breakdown over lunch with her boyfriend before the big Yale game. Over two martinis, countless cigarettes, and an untouched chicken sandwich, she trash-talks her professors and classmates, loathes herself for doing it, becomes frustrated with her boyfriend’s inanity, cries in the bathroom, and faints. Ladies, we have all had these moments.

Zooey, the second youngest of the same mess of now-grown, pseudo-mal-socialized precocious siblings, lies in the bath, smoking countless cigarettes and reading the manuscript of a play. After some time, his mother barges in on him and makes a variety of demands; he blithely insults her and insists that she leave him alone; she does not. Mother insists that Zooey speak with Franny. Zooey insists on continuing his toilet indefinitely.

Along the way, we come to the understanding that Franny has been zealously reading a book found in her older (and now deceased) brother’s room, the story of a Russian pilgrim with a withered arm who found his vocation through constant repetition of “the Jesus prayer,” the phrase “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” until said prayer becomes engrained in his being. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey, being the youngest of a mess of precocious siblings, were raised by way of a sort of educational experiment administered by their oldest brothers, in which religious education preceded cultural. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey and all of their older precocious siblings were featured on a radio program entitled “It’s a Wise Child,” in which they would be asked questions, and given an opportunity to spout their wisdom.

Zooey does try to talk with Franny, who’s lying on the living room couch under an afghan while painters work on other rooms in the tired but grand Upper West Side apartment. The room contains multiple pianos. The siblings get into a spat and Zooey leaves her, goes into his older brothers’ (untouched) room, and calls her on the phone, pretending to be their brother; after a while she identifies him as himself. Ironically, it’s then that they are finally able to connect, as they begin reminiscing about their older brother’s demands about “It’s a Wise Child.” He would insist that Zooey shine his shoes (although it was a radio show, and no one would see), and he would insist that Franny try to be funny. He told them to do it “for the fat lady.” Each had their own vision of the fat lady, but in each vision, that fat lady had cancer. Zooey then remarks to Franny, doesn’t she know, by now, who the fat lady is? The fat lady is Jesus Christ.

This gentle slap in the face, I suppose, is Zooey’s way of telling Franny that she has no business lying on the couch in existential crisis, loathing everyone for being dreadful, when each and every one of those dreadful people is, er, her brother or sister in Christ (oh, it sounds so cheesy; Salinger is intelligent enough to leave it at the connection between the fat lady and Christ, and end the book there, and that’s what makes him different than the writer of the Pilgrim book). Anyway, it’s quite the read, and was insidious enough to throw me into a sort of Franny spell for a whole weekend (although one would hope, if it really did its job, it would snap one out of a Franny spell as well. . .) Having attended Catholic high school, I’m rather surprised that for our Salinger dose, we read Catcher in the Rye instead of Franny and Zooey, which seems much more relevant. As a side note, fans of Wes Andersen who have long heard that he stole everything he does from Salinger anyway may be dismayed to see that the brilliant Gwyneth Paltrow in the bathtub scene from The Royal Tennenbaums was lifted from Zooey’s time in the tub.

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