So, confession: I’m one of those people who for years claimed that Salinger was one of my favorite authors, even though I had only read Catcher in the Rye. Yeah, I know. But seriously, Catcher in the Rye was great! I figured at some point, I would validate my favoritism by reading the rest of his work, and with last year’s release of the Salinger documentary, I felt it was time.
There’s obvious risk in backfilling the justification for a supposed favorite thing of yours, years after your initial claim. What if it sucks? What if it turns out that I hate it? Then I’d have to admit to everyone that I’ve been living a lie!
With that shame cloud looming over me, I embarked on the rest of Salinger, hopeful and a bit nervous.
I started with Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Raise High was … it was good, pretty, sweet. Seymour was okay, nothing mind-blowing.
Next I read Franny and Zooey, and… it was good, but I was starting to get a bit worried. I mean these books were all good, quite good, and all were sometimes very pretty, but I wasn’t excited about them in the way that I was expecting-slash-hoping to be.
Then I read Nine Stories, and I let out a sigh of relief. So let’s get started!
A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Yes, this story! This is the story that reminded me why I hailed Salinger a genius and a legend after reading only a fraction of his works.
(As always, only spoilers lie ahead. Actually, the internet says that this story is pretty readily available online. It’s short, so why not read?)
It’s incredibly difficult to impart a precise image with words alone. Most authors I read don’t even try to do this: they’re there to tell a story, and they’ll give you precisely what this character said and what happened after what — but the exact visual details they’re happy to let the reader fill in themselves.
Then there are sometimes authors who do have a stubborn idea of how things should look in their written world. So often I see authors “solve” this by word-vomiting all over the scene. Long, boring paragraphs of physical description detailing the way a room looks or how a person is dressed.
Bleh. I hate the chore of static descriptions. I hate being forced to process a stream of discrete, motionless adjectives and nouns, hate having to stitch them together into a coherent scene. The reading becomes a conscientious act that you slog through, painfully aware of every word, impatiently waiting for the next sign of something happening.
So that’s why every time I revisit Bananafish, I’m immediately amazed by how “visual” it is. Every scene renders in my mind with precise clarity: the hotel room, the beach, the ocean, the elevator, the ending.
How does Salinger do it? There aren’t long, rambling description paragraphs; most of the story is comprised of dialogue actually.
To achieve a fast-paced yet highly visual story, Salinger employs something very clever: he lingers on the meaningful mundane.
With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left — the wet — hand back and forth through the air. With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood. She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and — it was the fifth or sixth ring — picked up the phone.
“Hello,” she said, keeping the fingers of her left hand outstretched and away from her silk dressing gown, which was all she was wearing, except mules — her rings were in the bathroom.
“I have your call to New York now, Mrs. Glass,” the operator said.
“Thank you,” said the girl, and made room on the night table for the ashtray.
A woman’s voice came through. “Muriel? Is that you?”
The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her ear. “Yes, Mother. How are you?”
Salinger opens the story with what should be a rather dull scene: a careful look at Muriel painting her nails.
Why isn’t it boring?
Notice first how the detail is in the actions rather than the nouns. Salinger isn’t describing the color of the paint or the dimensions the room, but he’s describing Muriel’s little acts of nonchalance. Painting the nail. Replacing the cap. Standing up. Waving her hand. All mundane, but all actions. You can’t help but visualize this, so it’s easy to read.
Then the few nouns Salinger does choose to describe all have a purpose. Muriel picks up a “congested ashtray” — so she’s been smoking — “from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood” — you have a sense of the room’s layout. “She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds” — more layout information, and also a hint at her and Seymour’s intimacy, or lack thereof. No detail is superfluous.
The mundane also establishes pacing. Muriel’s letting the phone ring as she tends to her vanities, and Salinger’s lingering on these details slows the story down appropriately without letting things drag. The phone conversation with her mother is mostly dialogue, matching too how real life tends to work.
The mundane also makes the story feel real. Having characters robotically move from Point A to Point B feels contrived. Calling out a person’s microhabits gives the story life.
Of course, Salinger’s artistry lies not just in his focus on details, but his ability to find precisely the right details. The scene between Sybil and Seymour is spot on, brilliant writing.
Set loose, Sybil immediately ran down to the flat part of the beach and began to walk in the direction of Fisherman’s Pavilion. Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle, she was soon out of the area reserved for guests of the hotel.
She walked for about a quarter of a mile then suddenly broke into an oblique run up the soft part of the beach. She stopped short when she reached the place where a young man was lying on his back.
“Are you going in the water, see more glass?” she said.
The young man started, his right hand going to the lapels of his terry-cloth robe. He turned over on his stomach, letting a sausaged towel fall away from his eyes, and squinted up at Sybil.
“Hey. Hello, Sybil.”
“Are you going in the water?”
“I was waiting for you,” said the young man. “What’s new?”
“What?” said Sybil.
“What’s new? What’s on the program?”
“My daddy’s coming tomorrow on a nairiplane,” Sybil said, kicking sand.
“Not in my face, baby,” the young man said, putting his hand on Sybil’s ankle. “Well, it’s about time he got here, your daddy. I’ve been expecting him hourly. Hourly.”
“Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle.” This is the line that Nabokov cited as an inspiration. (He also deems himself unworthy of this story’s analysis. No kidding. Then what am I doing!). This little detail that Salinger slips in, it’s a comment on Sybil’s personality, it’s a comment on children, and it adds color and life to the story. It’s just fun.
The dialogue too is stunning:
Sybil prodded the rubber float that the young man sometimes used as a head-rest. “It needs air.” she said.
“You’re right. It needs more air than I’m willing to admit.” He took away his fists and let his chin rest on the sand. “Sybil,” he said, “you’re looking fine. It’s good to see you. Tell me about yourself.” He reached in front of him and took both of Sybil’s ankles in his hands. “I’m Capricorn,” he said. “What are you?”
“Sharon Lipschutz said you let her sit on the piano seat with you,” Sybil said.
“Sharon Lipshutz said that?”
Sybil nodded vigorously.
That dialogue. “It needs air.” Ugh, perfect. And that non sequitur kills me. This is a conversation every adult has had with a little kid.
But Salinger doesn’t make every one of Sybil’s lines a non sequitur, nor does every word out of her mouth sound like “nairiplane.” This is pitch-perfect dialogue, instantly recognizable but not at all contrived.
Bananafish could stand on its technical merits alone, but the story itself is just as worthy of praise.
Bananafish ends in Seymour’s suicide, which means the rest of the story is answering, “Why?”
The easy answer is “post traumatic stress disorder.” As revealed in the phone conversation between Muriel and her mother, Seymour is a WWII veteran who is seriously troubled after his return from war.
But this story isn’t about the trauma of war. It’s about the callousness of adults.
In the opening phone conversation, Muriel’s mother is concerned for her daughter’s safety, and Muriel, exasperated, repeatedly dismisses her concerns.
“He did,” said the girl. “And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”
“He drove? Muriel, you gave me your word of–”
“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you. He drove very nicely. Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”
“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”
“I said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now, please, I asked him to stay close to the white lines, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees–you can tell.”
Initially one may suppose Muriel is defending Seymour because she loves him too much to face the seriousness of his condition. The subtleties in this scene, however, indicate that Muriel’s blindness is not out of love:
“Muriel, don’t be fresh, please. We’re very worried about you. Your father wanted to wire you last night to come home, as a matter of f–”
“I’m not coming home right now, Mother. So relax.”
“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”
“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and come home,” said the girl. “I couldn’t travel now anyway. I’m so sunburned I can hardly move.”
Seymour shows every sign of being deeply disturbed, and Muriel is utterly unconcerned. Muriel can paint her nails and get sunburned on the beach and enjoy herself on her vacation, and she wants her mother to stop nagging so she can continue enjoying her vacation.
Contrast this with Sybil. Sybil doesn’t see Seymour’s problems, since she’s just a little girl. She does, however, care about Seymour to the best of her abilities. She sees Seymour as a favorite playmate, so she wants to play with him. Seymour responds to this with kindness and affection.
Muriel and Sybil are remarkably similar, actually, in that they are both incapable of understanding the trauma of war. They both treat Seymour as if the war never happened, as if Seymour was perfectly normal. They even both enter the story tied up with their respective mothers — Muriel in a phone call, and Sybil with the suntan lotion.
The key difference is that Sybil is genuinely interested in Seymour as a person. “Set loose”, Sybil runs off to see what Seymour is up to.
Muriel, on the other hand, when she finally gets off the phone with her mother… spends her time removing her nail polish. She’s completely indifferent. She is unconcerned by Seymour’s behavior because she has no interest in understanding him. It’s an unmalicious cruelty, which is perhaps the cruelest of all, because there’s no acknowledgement of wrongdoing and therefore no hope for change. It’s a complete absence of emotion. It’s this total and hopeless cruelty that drives Seymour to suicide.
Muriel’s indifference toward Seymour is a broader statement on the cruelty faced by all veterans of war. Salinger, a war veteran himself, returned home to see a world of people who were self-absorbed and obsessed with the meaningless. Too busy to be concerned for another person because you have to get back to applying and removing your nail polish. It’s a powerfully bitter message.
And it’s absolutely insane that Salinger can accomplish all this in 15 pages.
Note: I fully intend to someday discuss all of 9 stories here. But Bananafish exhausted me. To later times!