November 2009


Caught Catching Catcher in the Rye

3 BooksI recently confessed to the fact that I’d never read Catcher in the Rye – actually, it was back in July that I made this confession—and the truth is that I read the book about a week later and have had it sitting on my shelf waiting for me to blog about it ever since.

I’m not really sure why I initially put off writing down my thoughts, but after the Whiney Expatriate Bloggers Unmissable Meet Up, I had a good reason. During the shopping afternoon, while the bicyclers were taking an exhaustive tour of Munich, the girls and I stopped by the Words Worth Booksellers – it’s an English language bookshop located at Schellingstrasse 3 in Munich.

I didn’t have a lot of space and didn’t want to carry too much weight, so it was actually a miracle that I got away buying only one book—Crazy, by Benjamin Lebert—I’d kind of picked it because right smack on the cover of the book was a quote from the Daily Telegraph stating that it was “A Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation”. It wasn’t until later that some other salient facts about the book sunk in: it was set in Germany and it was translated from German.

It’s somewhat amazing to me how often Catcher in the Rye is used to sell other books—and now that I’ve actually read Cather in the Rye, I think I can make some statements.

Let me be upfront about what I thought about Catcher in the Rye: Meh.

I suspect that my response to the book comes from two places: First, I’m not in high school any more and, secondly, while J.D. Salinger’s work was once ground breaking, it’s no longer special.

On the first point, Cather in the Rye is clearly targeted at an adolescent audience—and I understand how it might resonate with said audience because it actually resonated with my memories of that age. There was a cognitive dissonance expressed in his work that I recognize: the idea that you can be there and, simultaneously, not there. Honestly, there are times that I pop into that mindset, even today.

Secondly, this book was not the first book I encountered that spoke to me that way and was written in this first-person-disassociative style (I have no idea if that is the correct technical term, but it’s the best description I can come up with right now). In fact it seems kind of old-hat to me now, but I must give JD Salinger credit for being the first author to successfully exploit this style of narrative.

The situation reminds me a bit of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek—which was a when it came out a groundbreaking film that was truly innovative and changed the direction of American film. However when I met the film I thought it was patently stupid and ill-conceived: set during World War II, one Adoph Hitler gives up when a woman in small town America gives birth to sextuplets. However my mother adores the film and there’s now a film studio named “Morgan Creek”; presumably named after the film.

I won’t go so far as to call Cather on the Rye patently stupid—because unlike The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Cather on the Rye resonates. It has managed to catch some lasting angst worth recording and worth remembering. That is, I guess, a long way of saying that I’m glad that I’ve read the book.

But it’s also worth thinking about the other books that stake some claim about being the generation Catcher in the Rye. I think I can make a quick summary of what I think about such claims: it is unwise.

The fact is that I adore Todd G. Brown’s Entries From a Hot Pink Notebook, and I personally think it’s a tragedy that this author has never written another book—to the best of my knowledge. Written during the mid-90s, the back of the book made this claim:

What if Holden Caulifeld were coming of age – and coming out – in the Reagan Years?

Uh… no.

Holden was a badass kicked out of boarding school—and has very little in common with Ben Smith in Entries From a Hot Pink Notebook. At the very least Ben is not disassociated from himself. Ben is coming of age and finding himself in a single-industry rural town, with an older brother, a drunk for a father, a mother trying to find her place, and a grandmother in love with a televangelist. The story is more complicated and takes more time. About the only thing that the two books have in common, besides being printed on paper, is that both are first-person narratives.

Meanwhile Crazy is, perhaps, a bit more realistic in being the MTV Generation’s Catcher in the Rye, although it still seems unwise to try and associate the two books.

Catcher in the Rye is a relatively straight-forward and simple first person narrative. There are a couple of characters who join Holden, some for even more than one chapter, but in the end, the book is about a solitary exploration. Holden might try to buy a whore but he never carries through with the actual deed.

Benjamin Lebert (the main character shares his name with the book’s author) does fuck a girl at his boarding school—leaving the condom on the bathroom floor, not caring who finds it in the morning. In that sense it is for the MTV generation (and presumably somebody with a black-light will be horrified by the stains on the bathroom floor in an upcoming episode of an MTV dating horror show). However the similarities between Catcher in the Rye and Crazy are basically the same two that linked Catcher in the Rye with Entries From a Hot Pink Notebook: both are printed on paper and both are written in first person narrative.

And, again, the story is more complicated and takes more time: Benjamin’s left side is paralyzed; happily he assembles a group of friends who are willing to assist him and to include him in their madcap adventures, which includes escaping the boarding school and heading to a strip club in Munich. There are moments where the big, deep introspective questions are asked, but the inherent disassociativeness so important for Catcher in the Rye while present in Crazy is less important.

I think there is a place for derivative works that explore past works—which is why I think it is odd that the book that Fredrik Colting wrote which claims to explore Holden’s mind at the age of 76 was prohibited from being published in the United States. In fact I now want to read 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye as well.

As for other books that attempting to make the claim that they are the next Catcher in the Rye; the Catcher in the Rye for Generation Next—it’s a bad idea. Unless you are explicitly attempting a derivative or sequel, books should stand on their own two feet.

Crazy has a lot going for it, as does Entries From a Hot Pink Notebook.

Neither is Catcher in the Rye.

5 comments to Caught Catching Catcher in the Rye

  • G

    It’s because allowing that Colting book to be published in the US would be tantamount to condoning and participating in an act of theft: he stole Salinger’s work and is attempting to profit from it. Even if you disagree with copyright laws and the extension of copyright in the US (and I very much do), I don’t think you should be allowed to steal and profit from the work of a living author. This wasn’t a satire or comedy (protected by fair use and other laws)- Colting’s use was found, by court, to be a straight theft. I won’t support him through buying his book and the surprise he affected at the court result (I heard his interviews on BBC) was totally ingenuous.
    I think Salinger was best read at adolescence, when I did, then the re-reading brings lots of other emotions as well as more maturity to the reading. It’s been years, but I think Franny and Zooey is also a great book

  • You said that, “…while J.D. Salinger’s work was once ground breaking, it’s no longer special.”

    Perhaps true, but this book should be taken in the context of the time in which it was published (1951). I don’t think it was written for the pure shock value, but it still provoked many in society to support a ban, so to me it has value. The fact that I was required to read it in high school and you were not, speaks volumes to me since we progressed through two different US state educational systems. Why was it required reading in California and not in Colorado?

    What I took from the book is young Holden was being told he should just sit down, shut up, and conform to society. If you think about it, wasn’t that what society was saying to J.D. Salinger when they tried to ban his work?

  • As I said in July:

    “If you grew up in a happy family, which instilled a sense of wonder and joy in the world, you will throw this book at a wall halfway through. If you are a child of the self-absorbed, this book resonates.”


  • it is a great book, IMHO, but is a product of its era, more written for dangerous boys than for the ages. it has held up well and the way i look at it is that it is not much different than tess of the d’urbervilles dealing with the (no longer a travesty) issue of child out of wedlock, etc.

    a good topical yet timeless salinger story is a perfect day for bananafish, one of the most perfect stories ever written.

  • G – I’m afraid I will have to disagree. I think it amounts to prior restraint, which is usually frowned upon. If JD Salinger wants to sue after the publication I’m all for it–let a judge or jury decide.

    Cynical Queer – I doubt Catcher in the Rye was/is required reading for everybody in California; you had a teacher who chose to require it. That said, I might note that a lot of books were banned and everybody should be reading some of them. Even if it’s only “Heather has Two Mommies”…

    headbang8 – It seems within possibilities, although my family was fine and I found that it sort of resonated.

    dave – I can’t say that I’m all that eager to try another JD Sallinger story — I’m in the midst of reading other previously unread classics.