Thursday, February 02, 2006

My Intellectual Mr.Big*

*fn: C. Bradshaw, soul mate re Sex and the City.

I look for Holden Caulfield still.

Somedays, I mutter a silent prayer so as not to ever see my Catcher in the Rhye hero as a big city corporate lawyer. Anything but that I say. But what if he turned out to be an aimless loafer who bums around? Yet, something always tells me that he did hold on to his dreams and is now an impoverished writer, scribbling away feverishly in an old attic to illume humanity with hope for the young and the brave.

Yet it is with regret that I have to come to terms that I have outgrown my teenage hero. Although I never ever thought that it would come to this, Holden today has been reduced to a mere figment of my imagination, not that tangible kindred spirit with whom I had cried "freaks of the world, unite!" with. But I must tell anyone who ever wondered about life after Catcher in the Rhye this much: yes, there is a world beyond Holden Caulfield.

Franny & Zooey is a lesser known work by that wonderful J.D.Salinger but a masterpiece in its own right. People everywhere who grapple with the lost of their teenage friend Holden would be able to identify with Franny and Zooey Glass. Of course, I don't think that Salinger wrote F&Z with the intention that it should be in furtherance of the Holden Caulfield experience. There is no apparent link at all to the two. Yet somehow I feel that the impression is magnified for someone with a Catcher in the Rhye background. There seems to be answers here instead of all the mere questions propelled in Catcher.

The thing about books and friends is this. Some books, like friends, we hang on to at a certain stage in life or period of time. Sometimes, we move on and lose touch. We start again with new ones. Occasionally, we bump into the old friend and then cannot help but be imbibed in the nostalgia of the past encounter. Some however are not periodic. There is an initiation and unfolding of kindred spirits that is sealed forever, through all the stages of life. Lifelong friends and lifelong books are never easy to come by. When they do happen, if ever, they become one of those great gifts to treasure always.

Franny and Zooey has been a life-long book that has continually watched over me these growing up years. Now, that I think that I am adult enough in an adult world, F&Z still companies me with a quietude that comes from a best friend's familiarity, understanding and trust. I first read F&Z with the smugness of a 16 year old who relished in the joy of identifying like minded people. Begone, the phonies and hypocrites that populate the world at large (Maths teachers included).

Of course, at that point in time, it was also for me, more than anything else, a vehicle to be beyond the trivialities of that trash churned by Sidney Sheldon and (god forbid) Danielle Steel that gripped my classmates. There was a relish of discovering something beyond Holden Caulfield and Catcher in The Rhye and thus being able to book name drop about it with nonchalant ease, the little snob that I was (okay, okay,there are things from my past that I am not very proud of but hey, I was 16). F&Z is lesser known than Catcher and subject to some derision by critics who profess to think they know better. I will deconstruct any such detraction with a wave of my hand. Only if you take the time to read this book will you embrace the delicate nuances and pockets of tenderness that sluice the pages of the perfectly calibrated F&Z.

Little did I realise when I picked it up at a second hand bookstore many years ago that it would be the coming-of-age novel of my life. F&Z became the avatar of my young angst.

An elliptical tale of family ties, intellectual probing and spiritual questing, F&Z is Salinger's recondite exploration of the Glass family, a clan of ruptured intellectuals. Franny and Zooey are the youngest children who not only live in the shadow of their older brothers, Seymour and Buddy, but also now, as adults, have to deal with the intellectual and spiritual burden of a precocious childhood. Weaned on religion and the true path of life before being exposed to all that "fashionable lighting effects-the arts, sciences, classics, languages”, both Franny and Zooey, have at different times, felt that they are far removed from their peers who handle youth with equal degrees of bluster and levity.

F&Z can be seen as entirely 2 different novellas. For me however, it has always been one story with different viewpoints. Franny sees our first rate beauty, Franny Glass, alighting the train into the arms of the self-absorbed boyfriend Lane Coutell. Franny Glass is a study in dichotomy. Wistful and esoteric, her need to reach out to others is great but at the same time, she abhors the superficial pretentiousness of the world. The nadir of her breakdown is her inability to handle this contradiction (and with superficial boyfriend like Lane Coutell, puh leeze. You just know those artifical, arrogant types don't you? There would be many men I would meet later in life whom I would mentally file as Lane Coutell material and therefore suitably disposed).

In the second part, Zooey, a narrator appears for us. Capturing the 3 Glass family members; Franny, Zooey and their affable mother, Bessie (the rest of the family would receive sporadic mention ala “Banquo's Ghost”), the family dynamic slowly reveals significance at the end as the mystical and temporal cope together. What I like best is the way Salinger tells us the story in a most conversational way. We later learn that the narrator of the tale is the second oldest (living) brother, Buddy, writer-in-residence at a girls college. I have almost always thought of it as a film Buddy Glass captures on camcorder and then puts in writing. There is a spot of sunshine as Bloomberg the cat moves away. Another shot shows Bessie chinking faintly in her housecoat as she moves about in her large apartment. Then the camera gazes back lovingly at Franny, languishing in the living room. Somewhere in the horizon, painters are marching steadfastly from the bedroom.

F&Z has been a literary journey into my spirit. I must be quick to point that there have been many other books that have touched the very marrow of my being. Yet, there is none of the febrile passion that F&Z evoked as it grew with me. It is the book upon which I founded a portion of my identity and also shaped my literary taste.

I will tell you why.

Somedays, it is almost epiphany to read F&Z. All of you who have been depressed and wake up some mornings wishing that this hypocritical world was dead will know that this is the book for you. It companied me during dark moments of despair and heartbreak, watched over protracted anguish and lended support on ceaseless days. F&Z has and will always be my refuge from the world. I realize that the emotional translucence saved me from a heard-it-all-before sophistication that my smug 18 year-old self was dangerously perched to drown in. I was just like Franny. Her angst satisfied in me a spiritual yearning and embodied the various transmutations of the years.

"All I know is I’m losing my mind,” Franny said. I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting-it is, it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says…..Maybe I am stark, staring mad and don’t know it.”

F&Z performed a most fundamental role to the insecure young woman not sure of where she fitted in such a complicated world. That my place in society was dictated by my string of A’s, articulate English and well-placed degree gripped me. Inwardly, there was a very real fear of being marginalised for not conforming to such expectations. F&Z was my cheerleader during those years of unsurety and confusion. Believe me, it took me years before I could close a door and ask myself what I thought of people instead of what they thought of me.

Then there are the days when I wonder about the state of being Zachariah Martin Glass. It is Zooey with his blue eyes, “a whole days work”, that defies me. Till date, he is hazy in my mind. I know the tenor of his voice, the wicked glint in those blue eyes, the wide shoulders, his own brand of vanity and madness. Zooey the abstruse, who oscillates between disbelief and bigotry. If only he knew that I have been in love with him for years. I exclaim silently at this strange draw I feel towards him. I too realize that my mother can actually, during moments of time, say things with such alacrity and precision, she could hit an emotional bulls eye with me. Somehow, I too either really take on to people or feel that life is better off without some at all.

“You either take to someday or you don’t. If you do, then you do all the talking and nobody can even get a word edgewise. If you don’t like somebody-which is most of the time-then you just sit around like death itself and let the person talk themselves into a hole. I’ve seen you doing it.”

Et tu
, Zooey?

However, as much as striking a fundamental chord within my spirit, F&Z has at different times confounded and infuriated me. It can and has shredded my very make-up. The very nerve of F&Z is the need to find the pulse by which life is to be lived. What has happened to me is that unconsciously, I cannot just live everyday for the moment. Everything has to be linked to the grand purpose of life. I have been so busy planning my life 20 years ahead that the beauty of today is wasted on me sometimes. Some days, I accuse F&Z for fracturing me this way.

But the questions that Salinger was asking is as relevant for me today as it was my eager 18 year old self. Why do we do art? For ego gratification? To help society? To serve God? This was mystic fuel to the questions within me. Of course, Eastern gurus have been talking about all this aeons ago. The Hindus and Buddhists call it dharma. This would of course lead to the other criticism of F&Z pandering to the westerner’s fascination with all that is eastern mystic. Some may find all the highbrow spiritual leanings of the book to be a turn off. The fundamentals however, are elementary.

We can all relate to the premise that although we are basically flawed, at the end of the day, if we live in accordance to the dictates of our heart, we would have lived a good life. That’s really the simple way to happiness.

The complicated way would be to get a psychiatrist.

Some have panned it as just a bit too-smug and self-involved. It may be a bit clever at times but never pretentious. F&Z has heart but it is not always easy to find. That is why it is not on anybody's bestseller list and mostly only Salinger fans are wont to subscribe the pure unadulterated joy it resonates with.

How do you fundamentally reconcile ego-gratification: our desire for money, fame and that promotion with religion which advocates control of senses, humility and the sublime? The unabashed and ulcerous Zooey Glass says it best as he impersonates Buddy: Do it for the Fat Lady. The idea is all about living a true life and loving true loves. Whatever you choose to do, whatever the outcome of your decisions, just live. But live with all your might. After all, you’ve only got one life, so give it the best that you have. It’s that simple. The gist is condensed by Buddy Glass in a most profound and honestly written letter to his brother Zooey, the actor: “Enough. Act, Zachary Martin Glass when and where you want to, since you feel you must, but do it with all your might.”

And so, it has come to that while F&Z may have its detractors, the truth of the matter is that it is the book that has companied me over all these years of growing-up. I have yet to read the other Glass family saga for example, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, Seymour and A Perfect Day for Bananafish. But that experience will be another tale for another day.

This is my tribute to Franny and Zooey, with love and squalor.


At 2/03/2006 02:06:00 pm, Blogger Maya said...


I missed out commenting on your other posts 'coz I have been absent for long. Life is like that sometimes. Absenteeism.

As always, incisive, acutely intellignet and witty. Its wonderful you fight your 'demons' with the book. Says a lot about you. Good. All of it very good.

Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary and Happy New Year! All three in one and three times the vigour and goodwill!

I hope you received my reply to your email.

Glad I am the first here and myohmy...what a lovely 'fracture' you carry. You wear it well for the world and I am sure for yourself too. Z and I were saying the other day, "Look at these young ones, Jane and others - smart, young and accomplished. These ppl shd be sued or at the very least banned! They give us heartburn and ulcers and joint aches and a meagre self-esteem!"

May you have great days to cherish all your life :)


At 2/03/2006 03:16:00 pm, Blogger Count Byron said...

Not been reading much lately.. and the many books i landed are plain management, public speaking, self esteem, colour management.. i'd sure love to have someone read me bedtime stories as well as you do

Great accomplishment Jane.

At 2/04/2006 05:30:00 am, Blogger Jane Sunshine said...

Maya dear, I still owe you an email reply but I really have nothing to write! Life=Work at the moment and I am so enervated....the highlight in recent weeks was dinner with Z and Sir AG and another lovely girl.

Thank you for your good wishes (though I think you are referring to my wedding anniversary which is a few months away!)
Look at the circle of love that you and the fab Z have! All those lovely tales and anecdotes which I don't! All this drivel of mine is to mask that.

Don't cultivate this absenteeism too much okay? Will start missing a bit otherwise..and when's the update on your blog?

Count: You are always so complimentary. Thank you. I am writing all this to relax from those awful drafts and remind myself of the times when reading was an obsessive pleasure. Its a pain now, especially as I am up to my eyeballs with economic theories and the like. Looks like your reading is work related as well. Sigh.

At 2/04/2006 07:53:00 am, Blogger Mr. J said...

I come here and first thing I read, Holden. I still fancy people calling me Holden. Lol!!

And looks like I have to lay my hands on F&Z...

At 2/18/2006 05:12:00 am, Blogger Greenbottle said...

oh my! what a piece of brilliant writing!... makes me fall in love with you!
go read raise high the roof beam... it'll blow your mind!

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