Friday, December 6, 2013

J. D. Salinger and the Effect of What Isn't Said

Earlier this week a colleague of mine walked into work with a blue and red paperback cradled against his laptop.  I do not work for a publishing house or anything connected with the literary world unless you draw an indirect line to eReaders, so to see anyone with a printed book--let alone literature of such high ilk--apprehends my attention (at least, for me: someone who is always curious as to what others read, if they read at all).  From the colors of the jacket alone, I recognized it as the most recent Back Bay Books publication of J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories (1953).  Though he is unquestionably known as the author of Catcher in the Rye (1953), the collection my colleague possessed contained mostly stories published prior to Catcher, and in The New Yorker, which, at the time and to Salinger himself was the paramount literary journal.  After a brief palaver with my colleague regarding Salinger and the cultural milieu in which he wrote, my interest in his work was rekindled, and I went home on lunchbreak that day, located my copy of Nine Stories, and settled in for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

It had been a while since I read Salinger--the last piece I remember reading was the Franny and Zooey, which story Amy Hungerford of Yale has an excellent lecture--but I was immediately reminded of an author whose work is more recent in my mind.  That author is Raymond Carver, a master of the minimalist/compressionist story.  At the mention of these aesthetic movements, other names come to mind: Hemingway, Salter, Didion, to name a few; but Carver and especially Salinger stand out in my mind for other reasons.  For example, with Hemingway there's this attention to the sparseness of the short, declarative sentences to construct his prose; with Didion the prose is as a series of impressionist paintings, strung together to convey a milieu and story.  But with Carver, there's a longing that achingly stretched its fingers toward some truth or understanding and never finds it.  The form of the writing doesn't call as much attention to itself as it does the emotion (though, admittedly, the same argument could be made for Hemingway; I suppose I'm getting into degrees of feeling).  And, finally, with Salinger, there is a subtle level of depth and profundity that couples with the characters' gropings for enlightenment in the face of seemingly insurmountable quotidian circumstance.

"Bananafish" spearheads the collection, and as much as I would like to talk about this incredible work of short fiction, I want to deny it its proper attention and skip to lesser-addressed stories of the book.  A staple of writing fiction is the tenet "show, don't tell," which means, for example, don't say "Johnny was mad."  Instead, say "Johnny clenched his fists until the fingernails pressed crescents into his palms."  You see the difference?  One is simple a statement, narrative, some information; the other is emotionally charged.  When you read prose like the second example, you begin to feel what the character is feeling.  Now, taken a step further, we could also omit the explanation as to why he's angry, and instead reply on showing the source of the anger.  Taking it to this second level is what Hemingway and Carver and Salinger do so well.  One only need read Hemingway's "Up in Michigan" or Carver's "What's in Alaska?" for exemplification.

As for Salinger, let's take a snippet from "Uncle Wiggly Up in Connecticut."  Here we have a female character who gets drunk, is mean to her little daughter, short with her friend, and so on.  We have the familiar anodyne of alcohol to relieve suffering (thanks for that inspiration, Ms. Dickinson).  We witness a woman who stifles her feelings and represses the past in exchange for a drunken present.  And it is in the final juxtaposition of her heavy-handed drunkenness and her daughter's youthful innocence and fragility that Salinger delivers the emotional punch without stating why.  Certainly we can deduce the source of these frustrations and draw a conclusion as to why the woman acts as she does, but the power, the emotion Salinger evokes, comes from, I argue, two things: (1) the trope of the daughter's Donald Duck night table (at least, I think it's Donald Duck; I'll have to reread when I have the book with me); and (2) the woman's question to her friend, "I was a good person once, right?" on the heels of a memory wherein she was ridiculed and hurt by someone.  In these brief, seemingly perfunctory images, Salinger is able to convey so much.  The power lies not in what is narrated but in what wasn't narrated.  Even in the memory of the woman's dress being made fun of, very few words are needed to made it click for the reader.