#100 “Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger

(Five stars out of five)

I’m not sure why it is, but every time I read “Franny and Zooey,” I find myself ridiculously moved.

“Franny,” the short story that opens the book, tells of the eponymous college girl, aged 20, who meets her phoney boyfriend in his horrible Ivy League town, for a weekend of drinks, parties, and a football game. She faints in a restaurant, shortly after he meets her train. Their conversation has been mostly him talking about a paper he’d written deconstructing Flaubert, and how awesome his paper was, and how his professor thought this paper should be published.

“Zooey” is a novella. Zooey is Franny’s brother, five years older, a famous television actor. He still lives at home in their family’s large apartment, and it is there that Franny comes to recover from the nervous breakdown she seems to be having.

The book deals with more than just this pair, however. Every member of Franny and Zooey Glass’ family is extraordinary. Their parents, Les and Bessie, were popular Vaudeville entertainers. All of the children–from the eldest, Seymour, down through  Buddy (who narrates the “Zooey” novella), Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey, and Franny–starred on a long-running, successful network radio program called, “It’s a Wise Child.” They were precocious, to a one. Seymour and Buddy took responsibility for Franny and Zooey’s educations, filling them with Upanishads, Epictetus, Socrates–everything scholarly and wise, at a time most kids would be reading about the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Indeed, one image in the novella describes the chaotic array of books in the living room where, in fact,  Nancy Drew actually does sit on a shelf next to Epictetus, or somebody similar.

At the center of Franny’s nervous breakdown is The Jesus Prayer, as found in a small book called “The Way of a Pilgrim.” This small book talks about a beggar, who wanders the Russian countryside, trying to find somebody to explain how to pray without ceasing, as advised in Thessalonians. He meets a cleric who tells him to pray The Jesus Prayer. Eventually, the cleric tells him, he will find that The Jesus Prayer will weave itself into his being, even having his heartbeat tied to its simple refrain: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

So many family dynamics play into “Franny and Zooey,” including some things more easily understood if you’ve read more about the Glass family. Almost all of Salinger’s published books–with the exception of “Catcher in the Rye”–deal with the Glass family. The guy who commits suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” from “Nine Stories”? Seymour Glass, just as an example.

The family members are extraordinarily gifted, but in being so, seem to have missed out on learning how to live outside their rarefied world, or how to deal with “normal” people.

Franny didn’t get disgusted by her boyfriend’s non-stop harping on his wonderful paper because she didn’t understand what he was saying. She was disgusted, because she was ten times as smart as he’d ever be, and saw just how unduly arrogant and silly he was being.

And she grew sick of thinking that way, of trying to keep her mouth shut while destroying lesser intellects in her mind. She’d just grown weary of it.

“Franny and Zooey” gets me. Maybe because I’ve always felt like I had to be smarter than everyone else–and I’ve acted like it. It’s an arrogant self-loathing, if you forgive the contradiction. Maybe it’s the longing for a simple kernel of faith, something like The Jesus Prayer, that could fill a void inside. Maybe it’s just the huge amount of information, empathy, and realness Salinger packs into this compact book.

For whatever reason, I’ve loved this book since I first read it, my sophomore year of college. Since then, I don’t know how many times I’ve read it–20? 30?–nor how many unique copies I’ve owned, how many times I’ve had to re-buy it, because I’d lost or (more frequently) given away my copy.

The book has never failed to move me, though it may do so in different ways depending on my current circumstance. There are two things I know, and in which I take comfort. First, no matter how many copies of “Franny and Zooey” I’ve owned, the covers have all been the same. And second, once I read this book, I realized I couldn’t stand that whining slacker Holden Caulfield ever again.

(This is why I bought yet another new copy, and why I made it my 100th book of the year, fulfilling my 2012 Reader Challenge)

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3 Responses to “#100 “Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger”

  1. I have never read this book but your review makes me want to! So I would say its a pretty great post. And congrats on hitting your goal! I am 5 away from mine and not sure it’s gonna happen….

    • I really busted-ass the past couple months. I was waaaay far behind at the end of September, but I managed to go on a reading spree for the past couple months. It helped, of course, that my chemicals were messed up, so I’d be wide-awake for 48 hours at a time–I could knock out three on one of those double days. Sleep 12 hours, then wake up and start another one.

      Oh, yes. And I don’t have any of those little time-requiring beings like you do–the cat is perfectly content to lie here alongside me as I read. As long as he doesn’t step on the wrong button, and advance me 200 pages, it works.

      Next year, I may shoot for 200 books, or “A good month for Kelly.”

      I hope you like “Franny and Zooey.” It’s an easy read–201pp, I think, and very fast–but there is a lot of wisdom and beautiful writing.

  2. I need to read it!

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