Well this was a frustrating book to read. I didn’t go into it with high expectations, thankfully, but once I’d read it I was amazed to find how highly regarded J.D Salinger‘s most famous work widely is.
Look, I know it’s a classic of American fiction and all, but when someone, y’know, is narrating a book with this level of idiomatic phraseology and repeating stuff and all, it gets really tiring. It really does. Boy, if you took all the repetition out of this goddam book, it’d be about 25% smaller I reckon. Yeah, it would be about a quarter smaller I think. For a character who is so set against being a “phony” and all, it’s kinda goddam ironic that the whole written style of this book just feels so damn phony. It kills me, it really does.
Writing that paragraph was, admittedly, rather fun, but I feel like the narrator’s voice in Catcher was a really powerful idea that was bludgeoned into submission by the author; so keen to make his statements about adolescence stick in the mind of the reader that he focussed far too much on creating a unique written style to convey them, and he forgot the points he was trying to make in the first place. At least the themes of adolescent frustration, alienation and longing were communicated clearly enough.
Holden was okay as a character, but I’m not entirely sure he was fleshed out enough – which is astonishing given that he was both the main character and the narrator of the book. He sounded about 12 or 13 to me, so I was shocked when I looked up his age and found he was supposed be to be 17. He feels immature, and I hope that was the author’s intention, but even so he never really materialised into a character for me. He felt like a creation, or a figment, rather than an absolute – and all good characters and stories feel absolute, as if they just strolled into the mind of the writer fully formed and ready to be written about. For me, Salinger didn’t capture adolescence so much as use the character and situations to espouse some cool opinions he’d thought of on the topic.
And it’s such a shame because what opinions they are! Salinger has some great ideas about how it feels to be an alienated teen which never quite crystallise into anything meaningful – he hints at how frustrating it is to be the cleverest one in the room when no-one else would know it if you carved it into their face with a hunting knife (which I loved, by the way), but he never manages to make it stick. There are, however, passages of sheer brilliance that I really connected with – like the passage on what it’s like to love the work of a particular author, and how vividly Salinger captures 1950’s New York. But Holden himself feels like he’s always a step or two away from coming up with some fabulous insight or opinion, and that’s very frustrating both for him and for the reader. And a character like Mr Antolini rocks up, who is literally only there to be the voice of the author’s opinions in all of this. His monologue to Holden towards the end of the novel comes out of nowhere because the character is a nothing: he is simply a vehicle for an opinion, a poorly-created plot device to deliver an “important message” to both Holden and the reader. I think Salinger knew it was rubbish when he wrote Holden’s hurried exit – I think he needed Holden to get away from this god-awful hodgepodge of plot mechanics and into an ending which isn’t there (seriously, the novel doesn’t so much end as stop, but we’ll talk about that more very shortly).
I think Salinger confused the notion of creating a character’s voice with creating a character or story. There is no plot to this book. Plot-wise, it’s a mixture of the beginning of Dead Poet’s Society (the worst bit) and Home Alone 2 (which has a much cuter protagonist), and both of those films are far better than this thematically, plot-wise and as pieces of entertainment. And why oh why is there no ending to this book? It just sort of stops when Salinger has had his fill of preaching to the reader. Holden doesn’t seem to develop, there’s very little in the way of narrative resolution, and actually very little plot has really happened in the 200 pages leading to this abrupt ending. I would be fine with a thin plot if the emotional arc of the characters were rich or interesting, but Holden’s isn’t. His repetitious narration becomes less and less impactful as the story progresses, and his lack of stance for anything other than authenticity in others (which is intensely hypocritical of him anyway given how often he “shoots the bull” with other characters) makes him actually kind of boring by the end.
Like I said in the beginning, this was a deeply frustrating book to read – and it would’ve been a lot less frustrating if it had been an out-and-out failure. I think in the end I would write it off as a noble effort; a mediocre novel with occasional passages of true insight and witty writing. They say a good book should always leave you wanting more, but when you’re left in want of a good protagonist, and an interesting story, and better writing, and more engaging narration, and better supporting characters, than I’m not sure the novel can really be recommended.