Quite like my subject matter here, I am prone to endless musings that nobody wants to hear and I am relatively sure that no one will read. But as this blog often becomes a dumping ground for the inner workings of my head, here is the overly long paper I just wrote about the Glass family when I attempted to write a short review on Goodreads of Franny and Zooey. You can probably expect to hear me expounding on The Secret Garden next, as I started that a couple years ago in the midst of a children’s book re-read frenzy. Something I think I have a strange ability to be is every age at once.
I have come to the startling conclusion that my favorite books are books that I have never reviewed. Most of this, of course, stems from the fact that I read them before I started writing reviews, but considering the time I have dedicated to writing about books that are, frankly, just not that good I decided to start writing about the books that mean a lot to me. Franny and Zooey is at the top of the list. Not because it’s necessarily my favorite book (it is in the top five, which have no order so I guess you could say it is one of my favorites but I have often cited the top spot to belong to Les Miserables) but because it is definitely the book that I have returned to the most amount of times. Every four years or so, it seems. But it’s impossible to talk about Franny and Zooey without also talking about everyone else written about the Glass family, the characters J.D. Salinger stuck with for pretty much most of his career (and beyond, we really don’t know, though we’ve all heard the rumors). In all the Glass stories there is this huge background story that weaves in and out of the narrative. We are usually given all the needed information in each individual story, but they’re really quite connected. Despite that, Franny and Zooey, I think, is the best constructed story involving the family Glass.
And over the years my opinion of it has changed a lot. When I first read it, in the hallway of a college that didn’t even belong to me waiting for my best friend to be finished with rehearsals, I had the sort of reaction that people have to Salinger’s major novel, The Catcher in the Rye (which, yes, I love and bought into every cliche about it except assassinating people). I really got Franny, and what’s more, I really felt like Franny got me. From an earlier age than I care to admit I had always struggled with this notion that everything in the world is a bit meaningless. And it was likely thoughts like these that propelled me into a pretty crippling depression.
But with subsequent readings it was Zooey who attracted the most attention from me. And, good or bad, I started relating to. First time around I didn’t much care for him. He was abrasive, he was rude, he was impatient, and he is all of these things but I started digging a little deeper and applying my own experiences to what existed in the book and suddenly Zooey made sense. But, in the end, it was a dream that did it for me. At work at JoAnn Fabrics I was doing a demonstration of the Cricut machine. The adorably misspelled device that cups out little shapes that can be glue together to make some pretty cool scrapbooking pieces. The cartridge I had made little children and I kept making them over the two hours I was sitting there until I had seven and named them all after the Glasses. Sometime very soon after that I had a dream that I was having a conversation with Zooey Glass. When I woke I was disappointed. I had tried very hard to keep myself in the dream because I wanted to continue listening to Zooey expounding and holding forth. And that was probably when I went all in. Because people don’t just read Salinger, they feel Salinger, and that’s why he’s been so influential over such a large group of people.
In “Franny”, the titular character goes to visit her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, at what has to be Princeton. He has big plans for them to get cocktails with his friends and go to the big Yale game, but fails to see that Franny really isn’t up for it. Instead she is pale and distracted, railing against the arrogant professors and teaching assistants at her college. She even hates the well known poets who teach there, calling them men who write poetry as opposed to actual poets. In other words, she’s come to the conclusion that everyone and everything is somehow less than important and has developed a fascination with the book “The Way of the Pilgrim”, about a Russian pilgrim who travels to spread the word of the Jesus Prayer, which when said repeatedly eventually will sink up with the heartbeat and bring enlightenment.
“Zooey” on the other hand deals with Zooey Glass, Franny’s somewhat caustic brother as he has an antagonistic conversation with his mother while he’s in the bath and just wants her to leave him the hell alone, and then attempts to bring his sister out the breakdown she’s come home to have. He, along with Franny and all the rest of the Glass siblings (in order of birth; Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, and Waker) are all precocious and all appeared as children on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child”. The two eldest children, Seymour and Buddy, took control of their sibling’s education early on and schooled them in religion (mostly Eastern but not exclusively) and philosophy before they were able to parse a sentence. At age twenty-five Zooey firmly believes that this, along with their childhood celebrity, made the whole family freaks, particularly the youngest two Glasses, with impossible standards.
This was not helped along by the death of Walt Glass of a freak accident in occupied Japan and, much worse I’m afraid, by the suicide of their spiritual leader, Seymour. [This particular suicide can be found in the opening, and most famous, story in Salinger’s collection Nine Stories. Though Buddy will later comment that he believes this to be far more a portrait of himself then of his idolized brother. Speaking about Seymour can be likened to staring into the sun.] While both deaths have affected the entire family, it is Seymour’s death that no one seems to be able to get over. Waker has become a Carthusian monk and no longer speaks, Buddy has withdrawn, without a telephone (much to their mother’s chagrin), to upstate New York where he occasionally teaches at a woman’s college and writes, Beatrice “Boo Boo” Glass Tannenbaum is getting along probably the best out of all of them, she’s married, has three children, and prefers to be described as a “Tuckahoe homemaker”, but still keeps her dead brother’s goggles hanging around and pops in to lend Buddy some of her wonderfully constructed sentences every once in awhile. This leaves us the youngest two siblings; Zachary, called Zooey, and Frances.
Their parents, who swan in and out of the narrative at will, Les and Bessie Glass were performers. Vaudevillians on the Pantages circuit under the name Gallagher and Glass. They are lovely, simple, ordinary people who gave birth to seven extraordinary children that they can not understand. All their children are smarter than them and they know it. This makes them sort of outsiders. They are part of the family, to be sure, but they are not burdened with the things that Zooey, in particular, thinks ruined the rest of them. Bessie comments on how lovely they all used to be, how smart, and witty and lovely children. But they are not children anymore and all that potential has had to translate to where the rest of the world lives and it has not translated well.
The Glass family is really only able to relate to other members of the Glass family. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t try. Lane exists, obviously, though it’s pointed out quite plainly that when Franny says she misses him she doesn’t mean it at all. Zooey also says, to their mother, that when Franny says nice things about her boyfriend that it is only sex talking. Zooey finds most people he meets to be basically insufferable and has a hard time having meals with them. And his mother points out he, along with his brother Buddy, doesn’t know how to talk to people he doesn’t like, which is most everyone he meets (this decision can apparently be made in the first two minutes). He even seems to dislike himself enough that he doesn’t understand why people don’t break their chairs over his head. However, he does seem to enjoy a TV producer, LeSage, who passes Zooey terrible scripts, but is a man with so many hobbies that there is no room left for ego.
The thing that I think is important about this book is something that I didn’t quite pick up on until the second or third reading. Initially Zooey comes off as pretty abrasive. He’s not very kind, Bessie even comments on this while she’s annoying the living daylights out of him in the bathroom. But he, propelled by his sister’s breakdown, is also going through something.
While Franny is using the Jesus Prayer to reach some sort of enlightenment, Zooey knows there is much more to it than this. He expresses a lot of concern over the fact that he’s not even sure his sister understands what the Jesus Prayer is and who it is she’s praying to and not “St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one.” It’s clear he’s gone round and round the subject with his sister, as there are several mentions of him speaking with her the night before with no positive results, and is getting (I think) understandably frustrated in not being able to communicate what he wants to communicate. To help fix this he pulls out a four year old letter written to him by his brother Buddy giving him advice when he decided not to go out for his PhD and instead throw himself into professional acting. Buddy says that Zooey is a born actor but that he worries because actors shouldn’t be hampered down with too much knowledge, which Zooey undoubtedly is. He also worries that Zooey demands too much of the world, and Buddy knows those expectations will not be met. It’s easy to believe that Zooey had a very similar crisis that Franny is facing and came out on the other side having made some sort of peace with it.
He wants to communicate this with his sister, but he doesn’t know how. This sort of collapse is intricate and complicated and so far he has only managed to upset her even more. All the while he has his own life to lead, a life he all but ignores on this day in question. He says repeatedly that he needs to leave and that he has a lunch, but he spends nearly an hour ruminating in the bathtub, trying to get his mother off his case about helping is sister, something he is trying and failing to do, and then going in for another round with Franny, who really doesn’t want to hear it. Zooey is harsh, but he needs to be in order to impart the truths that his sister very desperately needs to hear, even if they hurt like hell.
Still, it is only when he separates himself from her, when he calls on the telephone pretending to be Buddy and then ruining that ruse with his “verbal stunt pilot”ing (“The cigars are ballast, sweetheart. Sheer ballast. If he didn’t have a cigar to hold on to, his feet would leave the ground. We’d never see our Zooey again.”) that he is finally able to get through to her. He reminds her that when she started breaking down she didn’t do it where she was, she came home. Home to the apartment where Glasses can be Glasses. Where she’s the youngest and will be worried over. He also points out that, as an actress, she shouldn’t be concerned with the intelligence of the audience. The reception of what she’s doing shouldn’t matter and that “An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.” But then the final kicker. He tells a story about refusing to shine his shoes when he was little and on “It’s a Wise Child” because there was no point. It was a radio program so no one could see and the announcer and studio audience were idiots. Seymour, of course (who else could it be?), told him to shine them for the Fat Lady. No more explanation was given but Zooey saw her as an old, cancerous, porch sitting woman listening on the radio and he shined his shoes. Franny, rapturously, remembers being told about the Fat Lady too and Zooey tells her that every single person living in this world is the Fat Lady and that the Fat Lady is, in the end, Jesus Christ.
The crux of what I love so much about this novel is this; though we may be jaded, isolated, or have impossible standards there are still really wonderful things in the world. Zooey points out that most of his teachers in college were morons, but there was one who was honest and pure and this is enough. One out of all those many. He also finds joy in watching a small girl walking a dog out their window. ‘“God damn it,” he said, “there are nice things in the world – and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked.” And it’s true. He’s self aware enough to know how destructive he is and to be able to struggle against it. Yes, he resents the hell out of his brothers (one problematically deceased) for instilling values in him that cut him off from most of society, but at least he knows that. And, like his private war on narcissism, he makes pains to struggle against it. And this is what he wants Franny to learn how to do.
But then there is something else that his brothers did that he resents fully. They disappeared. One, the eldest, most important Glass, through suicide, choosing to remove himself from the world, or as Buddy puts it “discontinued living”. The other, Buddy, Seymour’s comrade in arms, similarly disappeared from the scene and basically dedicates the rest of his life to trying to bring Seymour back to life on paper (Buddy is, essentially, a stand in for the author himself).
All the Glass stories are ultimately about Seymour. He appears in the flesh in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, his goggles are present in “Down at the Dinghy”, his absence, on his wedding day, is central to the plot of “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters”, “Seymour: An Introduction” attempts to enlighten the audience to who he was, “Hapworth 16, 1924” is a firsthand letter from him to his mother, Bessie, from summer camp when he was seven years old. And then finally in “Zooey” (“Franny” is too slight and insular to bring up the heroine’s deceased brother but “Zooey” sheds much light on what we thought we knew about “Franny”) his absence has permeated the Glass apartment. There is a room he once shared with Buddy that no one ever enters. When Zooey does go in it’s mentioned he hasn’t been in this room for seven years, it doesn’t mention in the same breath that it was seven years ago that Seymour took his life, but it might as well. When he does enter it’s with a handkerchief over his head in a sort of homage to holy territory. In the room is a telephone that is still registered under Seymour’s name. Buddy refuses to disconnect the phone, even though he doesn’t have one in his wintery cottage in the middle of nowhere, because he needs to be able to look in the phone book and see his brother’s name. When Zooey fears he’s not getting anywhere with his sister he asks her if she wants him to try to get Buddy on the phone, but Buddy isn’t good enough, she wants to talk to Seymour. And we get it, because everyone, everywhere has always wanted to talk to Seymour. There are a lot of things wrong with the Glass children; early exposure to too much knowledge, a sort of childhood fame, the potential they can never live up to, and very high opinions of themselves. But the major failing, the one that ensured that the two youngest siblings felt the brunt of it, was losing their spiritual leader.
There is a lot of religious stuff in the book as well. Franny’s use of the Jesus Prayer, as well as her passion for the book The Way of the Pilgrim. Her desire to see god. Seymour and Buddy’s obsession with Zen and Mahayana Buddhism. Religion is positively dripping from the pages. So it could be questioned how a good little atheist girl like me could find so much to love about a book so steeped in religion. It’s really quite simple. While I think Franny’s quest for enlightenment is genuine, I don’t think any of them are actually talking about religion in strictly religious terms. These are people who’s quest for knowledge is directed at finding wisdom, not intellect. I look at the religion here as I look at philosophy, and I do believe Zooey (and Franny after a time) would agree with me. Religious ideas are important, to be sure. But I don’t know, from a intellectual standpoint, that they are any more important than the ideas of Schopenhauer or Kant or Franny’s beloved Epictetus.
So is loving this book, and the rest of the stories about Glass family, trite or vaguely cute? Perhaps. You could argue it and I would likely agree with some points, but I also think there is something difficult to dismiss about them. It’s clear that Salinger himself was, at least, nearly in love with them. It’s also clear that when they were published there were a lot of very good authors that had a lot of negative things to say. Joan Didion dismissed Franny and Zooey as basically a self help book (fair, to a degree) while John Updike railed against it, saying “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.” And maybe that’s true, though I like to think that Jesus enjoyed that cup of ginger ale he had with Zooey when the latter was eight years old. But there is something that Updike didn’t take into account when he wrote that. Something he couldn’t take into account. This book is still beloved sixty years after “Franny” first appeared in The New Yorker. It’s now considered a classic, and “Zooey” is sometimes called Salinger’s masterpiece (no offense to Holden, but I agree). There are still young people picking up this slim volume and being so inspired by it that it’s reached cult status. That is something.
Salinger’s obsession with this family, and the conversational vernacular he writes them in, makes them so very real. They do not feel like characters in books, stories really, they feel like people we know, or sort of know, that we’ve heard anecdotes about and want to hear more. Or perhaps we despise them as snobbish know-it-alls who think they’re better than us even while they’re falling apart. But that strong of a reaction is pretty remarkable. Me? I love them. I love them because they are smart, and ruined, and hurt. Because we all are. Because “you’re lucky if you have time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.” And I have always, desperately, wanted to be a Glass.
** the image at the top of the page is by Nan Lawson from her Etsy store. I have put it here without permission but with great respect because it’s completely adorable and everyone should check out her illustrations here.