50bookchallenge #32/50 The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
I’ve kept this copy since junior high and I’m sure I haven’t read it since seventh or eighth grade when I had to read it as part of my education. I’ve kept it for what? 22, 23 years without reading it again, just riding on the fact that I had read it. Of course, I didn’t recall a single passage from reading it the first time when I went through now, with the singular exception of the description of one of his teachers picking his nose while pretending to rub his nose.
Probably this is not the best choice for someone working through depression, or maybe it is. Over and over I was struck not with what a great antihero Holden makes, but what an immature brat he is. I lost patience with his antics just as his friends did and I had very little sympathy for him. I remember my younger self thinking there was something noble about Holden Caulfield’s self-absorption, but now even as I relate to some of it I view it with distaste or at best pity.
Salinger does deserve his reputation, of course. This is a provocative novel even today, and Salinger is able to capture the reactions to an ever-changing environment admirably. I suppose my only disappointment is that I’m not Caulfield any longer and really wasn’t anymore even in High School. What I don’t think I fully appreciated when I first read it was Caulfield’s hypocrisy. How am I supposed to take a self-described compulsive liar seriously when he complains of alienation amongst all the phonies? Perhaps it’s admirable that Caulfield has at least the self-awareness to know that he’s a liar, but awareness means very little without the integrity to take action.
As a novel it’s perhaps much stronger than I remembered. As a role model or even a sympathetic antihero, Caulfield falls much shorter than I remembered.
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When The Graduate was
When The Graduate was re-released on its 25th anniversary, I remember reading the reviews from people in their 40’s and 50’s who had seen it the first time around and had identified so strongly with Benjamin as an anti-establishment hero.
Weren’t we all outraged at Mrs. Robinson’s “hypocrisy” in forbidding Benjamin from seeing Elaine due to her perception of his weak moral fibre?
With a quarter century of perspective, these reviewers suddenly realized what a mostly self-absorbed prick Benjamin is throughout the movie, and sympathized more with Mrs. Robinson, who although her ethics are already long since compromised, wants something better for her daughter than a guy who at age 22 is already having a clandestine affair with his father’s partner’s wife.
Does Benjamin really care about Elaine as anything other than a symbol of his lost innocence? Has he made any effort to sort himself out so that he’ll be a good partner for her? All he does is pretty much start stalking her at school. He doesn’t even know her.
Anyway, I think how we respond to protagonists like Holden and Benjamin depends on where we are in life. Meet ’em when we’re young, and we can sooooo relate with the emptiness of fulfilling society’s expectations, the perception that we’re the only person who REALLY experiences feelings, the impulse to just rebel without having any sort of plan to replace what we’re rebelling against, etc.
Visit ’em later in life, and they’re painful reminders of what we were like before we realized the importance of other people’s feelings and having something constructive of our own to do, learned how to keep functioning in our chosen role in life despite the effects of strong emotions, etc.
As for me, I first experienced both of them in high school, and while I could relate to Holden’s alienation, I thought that he would have been insufferable to be around. Benjamin I swallowed hook, line, and sinker.
American Beauty, a movie that is sometimes referred to as being my generation’s The Graduate, I experienced wildly different sympathies the two times I watched it.
The first time around, I totally sympathized with Lester, trying desperately to salvage a life that had gone astray. Sullen daughter and icy, materialistic wife who both rebuff him when he attempts to reconnect with them.
Second time around, blammo, everything turned around and I saw Lester through the other characters’ eyes. His daughter is absolutely right when she says that just because he had a bad day doesn’t make them best friends. How can you turn years of emotional abandonment around in one night?
How does Lester rebel against his wife’s materialism? He buys the car he wanted when he was little.
How does he approach his beautiful, mature wife (who we know is anything but frigid after the “fuck me your majesty” scene) sexually? He gets drunk on cheap beer and starts groping her.
His response to the numbness he feels about his suburban life? Smoke pot, man.
If Lester’s life is a video game, the moment he picks up the photo of his family all laughing on the carnival ride, and grins and says “man oh man,” that’s the moment when he’s solved the level and can progress to the next one. And of course, he does.