Saturday, 30 October 2010

Day 304, on which John reads The goddam Catcher in the Rye [30.10.10]

Dag tre hundrede og fire. Today was very productive actually; I got some new pictures up on my wall (specifically four Helvetica ones and the Dieter Rams quote one I made), so my room's looking spiffy as ever, and I even managed to churn out several chapters (callin' em chapters now, 'parts' sounds too odd) of Cronas 13, which felt great. I'm getting annoyingly ambitious with it - the current part is set in a massive abandoned city made of sandstone, on the beach of a lake. I can write it well now, but when it comes to building it next year I'll be screwed, haha.

OK, I'm going to attempt to talk for a bit about The Catcher in the Rye. I'm not going to review it, oh God no, but I'm going to waste this post discussing it the best I can. It's a labyrinth of themes and hidden meaning.


I started reading The Catcher in the Rye a few weeks ago, and since then it's dominated my reading (which I usually do in the evenings). Only today can I finally open to the as-yet unread Wallpaper* magazine issue from a few weeks ago that got totally forgotten. The Catcher in the Rye is something I read all the way though, non-stop, every night, and I've finally reached its end.

Everyone says it's a good book. Apparently it's one of the best 20 books in English ever written. TIME said so or something like that. There seems to be this genre of books - very few - that are considered 'classics', books that stand for meaning and importance rather than a fun read or a page-turner. Among these are Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies as well as The Catcher in the Rye. To me, it seems that it's a given that you must like and respect these books. You can't read The Catcher in the Rye then finish and say "that's a bad book", because there's meant to be so much meaning in it that you'd automatically like it.

Well, that's how it seems to me. So maybe it's inevitable that when I started reading The Catcher in the Rye, my original opinion was "this must be good", thus I must think it's a good book when I'm done. Well, I'm now done, and I guess it is a good book. It's not simply a beginning-middle-end novel, there's much more to it than that. It's not even a slice of a teenager's life like a Mike Leigh film, it's some sort of journey of self-discovery and interaction of the main character with others.

Look, I'll give you the lowdown. It's told from the perspective of the teenager Holden Caulfield and we follow his journey as he is expelled from his school, Pencey Prep, and ventures out into NYC for a supposed journey of self-discovery. Whilst there's no mention of it on Wikipedia, many people have told me that The Catcher in the Rye is a true story, so that may explain why there's no formal structuring in the plot. You think that perhaps the novel will be leading up to when Holden's parents are told of his explusion (Wednesday, we're told), but it doesn't work out like that and everything just gets a bit messy.

The ending is very strange, not abrupt but unsatisfying. Well, abrupt too to be honest. Holden realises all his mistakes at some point, and the next thing we know he's changed his mind and he's going to go back home. Just like that, almost instantaneously. It's very strange that this happens without you noticing, it is also dissapointing. But I guess if that's how it happened in real life, then that's what you've got to write, right?

Probably the best bit of the book for me was the style in which it was written. Holden's 1940s teenager slang and tone of voice really transport you back and make the whole thing seem believable, and very realistic. He uses 'goddam' a lot (hence the title), and also 'sort of', so nothing is quite definite. There's also specialist vocabulary like 'flitty' (gay) or phoney (fake-seeming). Whilst these can be hard to translate at times, they really transport you into Holden's mind. There's a period about five chapters in when you think "Gah, this vocab is so annoying, if I read one more 'sort of', I'll be sick," but you get over it soon enough and you just don't notice it; you're inside Holden's mind.

So, Holden bounces off all these characters whilst revealing details about his past. There's the jocks and weirdos at his school, his girl friends, the odd tourist, his teachers, and his sister Phoebe who appears a lot as the voice of reason. We hear about Holden's dead brother Allie, plus a lot of his childhood and his opinions of various things. They build up a great character for him, but in the end it seems pointless because he doesn't change in any way or realise that he's going off the rails (remember, he's really just having a mental breakdown; he goes to a mental hospital at the end).

One thing to note is the meaning of the title, which I was curious about before I read the book. When asked by his sister what he'd like to be in the future, Holden refers to a song whose lyrics are "the children chase in the rye" or something like that. Holden wants to be someone who prevents the children in the rye field from falling off a cliff face, to be the catcher in the rye. Strange, right? I have no idea what it means, I really don't, and perhaps there is no meaning, but it's certainly odd. Of course, Holden is pretty much mad at that point, so we can't consider any of his ramblings as sane.

Ultimately, I feel that The Catcher in the Rye is a very interesting book, but most of its appeal simply comes from the reputation it's built up. The Wikipedia article mentions a review which noted that most of the appeal comes from the 'mystique', especially since the writer, J.D. Salinger, said barely anything about it. It's very mysterious in its origin and its meaning. So do I suggest that you read it? Hmm. If you want to read a book about teenage angst, a boy finding his identity (though I don't believe he finds it), and a mental breakdown as well, then you may want to read it. At least read it for the voice of Holden, but it's nothing something you can just skim-read and expect to make any sense. It takes a lot of thinking, and even now I'm confused as to its meaning.

So there we go, a literary discussion for you.
~John

1 comment:

An Binh said...

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