02 February 2010

Open Letter to J.D. Salinger on the Event of his Literary Decomposition

From my blog.

Some years ago, and I suppose it was around the turn of the century--I received an email invite to contribute a one-page letter to a Letters to J.D. Salinger project, which, now published, will no doubt no receive a spike in sales due to J.D's passing.

Being a young, hungry, overeager, graduate student type with a need for publication, I dutifully re-read the red-covered tome, and, well, my reaction differed from my teenage reading of years before.

The first time, 10th or 11th grade English lit class---just after I'd realized English was more than grammar and handwriting--I was far from blown away. I enjoyed the book in the way one enjoys high school English books: Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, etc. I suspected then--like Nostradamus predicting his own commodification as a new age prophet--that the whole thing was merely a bit of calculated ennui from the business class.

No doubt my teachers really believed in the transformative power of the novel--nay, even the transgressive power--but I suspected that if I kept Holden's lessons too close to my vest, I'd be playing the rinsed-out high-school teacher myself in a few years: prattling on about the power of Walden and Emerson and Hawthorne and America's greatest white-boy hits to legions of America's largely ambivalent high schoolers. (Yes, I am now a college professor...)

[Note: most transgressive moment of high school. 9th grade health class. Ms. Kerkoff (I kid you not on the name) asks us to complete this thought--a way to jag us about our inner feelings: "Adolescence is like _____." The class makes shift to answer--stalls--stares at the clock, until a school mate (later to head into Naval intelligence of some sort, but at this point, an unrepentant rabblerouser), takes the floor: "Mrs. Kerkoff...Adolescence is a lot like a (long pause) Twinkie, because inside, for us all, there waits a creamy surprise..."]

Anyway, I figured the teachers meant well enough, but there was something about the supposedly subversive message of Catcher, handed to me on a silver platter, that read, well, more "phony" than the diegetic antics of Caulfield.

The re-reading, for the anthology project, made the book just seem, well, silly. Sure, it's well crafted, and yes, accessible in the cum-hither-late-modernism sort of way, but by the standards of the early oughts it seemed downright tame.

For me, longevity in a novel comes not from its increased relevance to the current social clime or its reasoned assimilation into the mainstream of American thought, but its continued belligerence--its pervasive refusal to make sense of the word or let itself be used a mirror.

Naked Lunch still fascinates me because it never lets you get handle on it--the book refuses to give up its secrets; it's not even a "novel," really, at least according to anything Salinger would have approached. (It's epistolary in its genesis: cobbled together from letters, also, as Oliver Harris would tell you).

I'm 3/4 of the way through Marcel Proust, for the second time, and the time-distortion of these ridiculous parties...where it takes longer to read than experience, where the Hawthorne trees speak to this boy-man who explores human depravity and manipulation for the sake of an aesthetic ideal...well, that stuff still works for me.

And so, I sent in my "letter" to J.D. to the editors, and never heard back. Good thing, too, since the piece took on a second life (with my musical partner in crime Don Meyer) in Mad Hatters' Review some years later, and after that, as a main track on our audiocollage release, Memorials to Future Catastrophes.

Here's the link at MHR: enjoy, read/listen if you like.

And, J.D., wherever you are, don't rest in peace--try to raise the roof a little bit. On second thought, maybe don't take the words of no college prof nohow.