Urging a Luncheon Companion to Accept a Cool Lima Bean
Everyone has their blind spots. Mine is JD Salinger. I reread the nine stories this weekend, and most of Franny and Zooey, and I loved them so much, again.
There’s a bit in Experience where Kingsley Amis is talking about “Don Juan”:
I had a strange experience with Byron the other night. There was an hour to kill before a dinner party in Chelsea and I went into a pub and started reading Don Juan. After half an hour I couldn’t believe how absolutely marvellous it was. I knew I liked Don Juan but this was oh, something of a completely different order. By the time I had to go I was looking round the pub wanting to say, ‘Has anyone here got any idea how wonderful “Don Juan” is?
That’s me, reading “Before the War with the Eskimos”, and “The Laughing Man”. I want to take people by the sleeves and force them to read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. I want them to admit how much they love it. “Just admit,” I want to say. “Just admit it.”
In the next paragraph in Experience, it’s revealed that Kingsley Amis was so enamoured with Don Juan because he was drunk. His point is that you can’t really get so woozy about a book, especially not a “classic”, especially not one that you’ve read before. Maybe this is true if you are Kingsley Amis, but it’s not true if you are me. People say that JD Salinger is twee, and Cute, and obsessed with the Glasses. Joan Didion, for instance, said that
“Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.”
This is a bit Rich, coming from Joan Didion, but it is unassailably true. I don’t care though, and neither should you. I need to have my essential triviality flattered. I enjoy it very much, and I believe that everyone else would enjoy it too. I try to press these books on people without success.
There are some obvious parallels to be drawn here. People in JD Salinger are always pressing food on those who don’t want to eat it: the brother in “Eskimos” tries to get Ginnie Mannox to eat half a chicken sandwich; the waiter and Lane Coutrell try to get Franny to eat another chicken sandwich in Franny; Bessie Glass tries to get Franny to eat chicken soup in Zooey; and the narrator in “Esme” offers the titular girl a bite of his cinnamon toast. She declines: “I eat like a bird, actually.” The brother in “Eskimos”, especially, is insistent that she have at least a small bite of the chicken sandwich. He keeps telling her how good it is, and she keeps, for some reason, not wanting it. He doesn’t understand why she won’t just try.This is how I feel about people who refuse to love Salinger. They won’t even try.
It is my belief that Salinger was aware of this phenomenon. For evidence, I submit his dedication in Franny and Zooey:
“As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”
Accept this book. You’ll love it. Just admit.
Edited to include the information that Janet Malcolm said that “Rereading Franny and Zooey is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby”