Beyond Criticism

Franny and Zooey

Other families have a 'family novel,' right? This is ours. It's been a large part of my consciousness since I first read it in seventh or eighth grade, including a number of years of attempting, with little success, to distance myself from it when I saw--and was dismayed by--the reactions of many of the other people who read it. Despite this, and despite having read the final ten pages several dozen times, I am not actually certain I have re-read it at all in the last 20 years, though if there had been some additional cover-to-cover reading, it would have had to take place before 2000.

It's a difficult novel to speak about critically for the same reason I find it difficult to speak critically about all the R.E.M. albums prior to Up: some things are formative of one's notion of the world, and this is one for me. Zooey's criticisms of television, for instance, are mostly the same as I might write into any post on the subject (tv "mistaking brutality for realism" has been a repeated theme), and its criticisms of academic types are also well-observed.

Over the years I have wavered about the novel's view of Christianity, especially in light of Salinger's own feelings on Eastern religions. On this re-reading, Zooey's point about the Jesus Prayer is quite orthodox: religion is not some magical enchantment that gives you peace and mystical visions--or at the very least, Christianity is not that religion. Franny, if she wants to say the Jesus Prayer, has to say it to Jesus, on the basis of the things she knows about him from the New Testament's reportage. And that Jesus, as Zooey says, is not someone particularly interested in making anyone's life easy and convenient, which constitutes the difference between the holier-than-thou piety Zooey sees Franny attempting to slip into and actual religion. The upshot is remarkably Calvinist: act responsibly in the situation of life in which you find yourself because that is the one and only obligation anyone has: to act in accordance with duty, not quite regardless of expectations, but in spite of them all the same.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Another thought I took from F & Z--and all the Glass family stories-- is the notion of giftedness and one's responsibility to society and the gift itself. I still ponder this one, as I sit here, squandering my gifts. (Maybe passing them to my children was enough?)