Tuesday, August 21, 2012
A tale from my childhood
When I was a little girl, my brother told me a story about a man who dreamed two nights in a row that he'd found the solution to all the world's problems - peace, plenty, enlightenment, the lot - but kept forgetting it when he woke. The third night he took a pencil and paper to bed, had the dream, woke up long enough to scribble it down, then fell asleep again. In the morning, he looked at his pad, on which was written a single sentence: 'The skin is thicker than the banana.'
Monday, August 20, 2012
First sentences: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
'What's it going to be then, eh?'
Of course, that's two first sentences, but we'll have a more interesting post if I include both.
'What's it going to be then, eh?' is as much a motif as a sentence: each of the book's four sections begins with this phrase, and it provides a driving theme throughout. A Clockwork Orange is a book about a lot of things, but by its own statements at the end, it's primarily a book about youth. Alex, violent criminal that he is, passes through four stages - or, since he's a music lover, we might consider the book a symphony and say four movements - and the question re-occurs in new contexts. This, the first section, contains a long series of cheerfully described assaults, rapes, robberies and fights; 'What's it going to be then, eh?' is the question of four teenagers sketching out their evening plans for mayhem. It's a threatening question - what it's going to be is going to be bad for quite a lot of people - but it's also youthful one: Alex and his friends, like any teenagers, gather with no fixed plans. It is, youthfully, a question of activity - what are we going to play today? - but it's also a question of boredom, boys with no interest in life except violence and no accomplishments except the ability to dominate their victims, looking for fresh ways to fill the empty time.
As Alex's circumstances change, consequences progressively piling upon him, the question is asked by different people. The second time we hear it, it's a question from the prison chaplain while Alex serves a sentence for murder. At that point, it's a question of moral choice: are you going to learn from this experience and become better people, or are you going to remain sinners? The chaplain (the 'prison charlie', as Alex lightly refers to him) is not a man of moral authority, and Alex has little respect for him, but it is a question Alex answers in a way: he chooses to become 'good'. Or rather, he chooses to subject himself, with a teenager's arrogant lack of caution, to 'Ludovico's Technique', knowing only that it's a method that will get him out of prison within a few weeks and prevent his return, and not pausing to reflect that with a state as violent and authoritarian as the one he inhabits, such a technique might not promise such a reward without being a little more drastic than he anticipates. Filled with drugs and conditioned to associate violence with nausea, Alex becomes the same bad person he's always been but unable to see or contemplate violence without collapsing in sickness, and is then released onto the streets with no further rehabilitation, leading to the third 'What's it going to be then, eh?' as he wonders what on earth he's going to do now. What he does is knock from one place to another, rejected everywhere as his karma catches up with him: his parents don't want him back, his former victims can take their revenge with impunity, and political dissidents eventually provoke him to a suicide attempt in order to raise a scandal about Ludovico's Technique.
The final 'What's it going to be then, eh?' is interesting, because it heads a chapter that was omitted from the American version of the book, and also from Stanley Kubrick's notorious film adaptation. Faced with a scandal, the government has had no choice but to decondition Alex, and the previous chapter has ended with a gleeful, 'I was cured all right.' In this chapter, Alex begins where he started, head of a new gang, with a conveniently enjoyable day job provided by the government in exchange for some propaganda (which of course Alex, entirely self-centred, sees no reason not to provide). This time, however, the prospects of what it's 'going to be' that the criminal life can offer him are losing their lustre. His thug friends irritate him with their immaturity; he's starting to see it as 'cowardly' to hurt people weaker than himself; he's starting to want to keep his money rather than squander it; he has, for reasons he can't quite explain, found himself carrying a picture of a baby in his wallet. Eventually he runs into the mildest of his original 'droogs', now happily married and law-abiding, and in the melancholy of comparing their lives remarks with surprise, 'I was like growing up.' 'So that's what it's going to be,' Alex finally declares: he's going to settle down, find 'like, a mate,' and have children - though it's his bleak expectation that his son will repeat all his own mistakes because youth is too stupid to do otherwise.
So much is mostly synopsis, but it's an important part of the repeated sentence. The book begins with a question that the final chapter answers, and in so doing sketches out a theme that Burgess himself acknowledged as didactic: youth is a time of asking that question and answering it badly, and the bad answers get better if people are allowed to mature. The final chapter, he remarked, brought the total to twenty-one, and '21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility,': removing it damages the numerology as well as the theme of the book. 'Those twenty-one chapters were important to me,' Burgess stated in the introduction to this edition, 'But they were not important to my New York publisher.' Burgess was deeply annoyed, complaining that 'The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings can change ... The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.' It's rather interesting to reflect in current times that the American pressure was to make a book less wholesome rather than more so: 'The Americans, [my publisher] said in effect, were tougher than the British and could face up to reality. Soon they would be facing up to it in Vietnam. My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it ... Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.'
What can we make of this American preference for a 'Nixonian' ending? Given that this decision took place in the early 1960s, perhaps that there was an element of cooler-than-thou as well as a belief that violence was more honest than maturation; hope for the future was, according to Burgess's bitter summation, 'veddy veddy British.' When it comes to Kubrick, there is a greater defence to be mounted: every novel that passed through Kubrick's hands became, through that great director's icy alchemy, a Kubrick film, and finding one's work stripped of redemptive qualities was not an experience unique to Burgess. Stephen King's Jack Torrance sacrifices himself for his son at the end of the book; Stanley Kubrick's freezes to death in a snowy maze, chasing the little boy in a murderous rage, roaring like a wild boar. Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert finally comes to understand that the true tragedy of his relationship with Lolita is the harm he has wrought upon her life; Kubrick's realises no such thing, and closes the film hunting her rescuer with murder in his heart. Closest in spirit to A Clockwork Orange is perhaps Full Metal Jacket, a dark comedy in Kubrick's hands, sharing A Clockwork Orange's gleefully unapologetic presentation of youthful male violence; less well known is Gustav Hasford's small and beautiful book The Short-Timers, upon which Full Metal Jacket was based, a savage and elegiac cry for the horror of soldiering with more grief than glee at the callousness it creates. Kubrick never liked to make a straight adaptation: such are the perils of letting your work into the hands of an auteur. Kubrick films are best understood as inspired by novels rather than based upon them, and with his preference for poised, heartless wit, it's hardly surprising that Kubrick chose the 'American version.' It would be hardly surprising if he had excised the humanist final chapter even if the publisher hadn't.
The publisher, though? Looking at books through the medium of first sentences actually gives us a clear and simple condemnation of his hubris. Look at the whole book, and a first sentence can get lost in the crowd, but isolate it, and what sense does the American version make? With the twenty-first chapter intact, that sentence is a thematic through-line, a question posed throughout the story that the conclusion finally answers. With only twenty chapters to conjure with, it becomes little more than a gimmick: each section starts the same way for no particular reason that we can determine. It looks like a writer trying to be clever rather than a writer exercising his intelligence. It's a fair generalisation to say that if the removal of a chapter makes the first sentence of the book look stupid, that chapter should probably stay where it is.
That, then, is one way of looking at the first sentence of this book: as a sentence that makes a strong ruling on a dispute between author and editor. What of the sentence itself?
A Clockwork Orange is famously written in 'nadsat talk', an invented slang largely based upon Russian vocabulary, but the first sentence is plain English. Very plain English, in fact, and more than plain: awkward English. The staccato 'What's it going to be then, eh?' has no elegance to it, the phatic 'then' and 'eh' redundantly rattling over each other at the end. When two out of seven words in a sentence add no meaning to its content, one can assume an inarticulate speaker. The 'then, eh?' serves a social rather than an aesthetic function: piled together, they make it clear that this is indeed a question, and not a rhetorical one either: both are short prods at the listener, demanding a response. Cooperation is not the tone here; instead, language jostles and provokes. Living language is very much the medium of this book, and questions are asked because people want something of each other. Street tough or prison chaplain, the push for an answer is the same, a democratising force of inelegant demand. The reader may deduce a theme, but the speaker and listeners are a practical bunch, and the question means something else to them.
Character is absent too - as witness, of course, the fact that it's a question asked by everybody, but also by the curious placing of the speaker in the sentence: in this context, 'What's it going to be?' is a substitute for 'What are we going to do?' While the prison chaplain's asking of the question is an exhortation to moral choice, this iteration steps back from responsibility: what will 'be', it asks, as if the teenagers' upcoming rampage were something that simply happened rather than being deliberately chosen. Alex, in the disputed final chapter, compares teenagers to clockwork toys that bump into anything in their paths, and this aspect of denied agency, unthinking impulse, is present in the question.
Present, though, is a general sense of malaise. While selfish Alex only notices politics insofar as they cause him personal inconvenience, what we see through his eyes is a state moving more and more towards totalitarianism. Youth violence is out of control, draconian measures are being introduced - not just for the sake of law and order, but because the government is running out of prison room and, as a minister ominously remarks, 'Soon we may be needing all our prison space for political offenders.' Alex comes a brutal cropper, but as a victim of Ludovico he is incidental to the state, subjected to torture largely because he is in the way and they need his prison cot for other purposes. Prisons are desperately overcrowded; released, Alex finds that 'brutal young roughs' like two of his former friends have been recruited into the police and deal out 'a bit of the old summary' - that is, a severe beating - to any minor offender they feel doesn't merit 'the old station routine' of legal arrest. Alex isn't interested in what it's 'going to be' except as regards his own wellbeing, but the question rumbles around him, and the answer does not sound encouraging.
So, that's the first sentence of the book, and there's plenty to be said about it. But while we're here, we might as well look at the second, as it's more or less a template example of how an author introduces new words to their fiction.
Present, again, is the jerky and graceless use of language. Alex begins with a scramble, a blunt 'That was me,' to tell us who's speaking, and breaks off every few words to add another aside. Given that we begin with 'That was me,' parenthetically explaining the previous remark, really the whole sentence is an aside, information fired at us as each new thought occurs to our impulsive narrator. 'And we sat', too, feels like an afterthought, or rather like a run-on commentary with no particular interest in establishing itself neatly: between two 'that is' asides, an aside about an aside referring to Dim's dimness, and then a simple, awkward 'and', by the time we get to an explanation of what's actually happening (with another aside about the weather, and a tacked-on 'though dry' for good measure), Alex has forced us into patience with him. He's going to talk at his own pace, he's not going to bother with the niceties of phrasing - or even, on occasion, grammar - and we can accept it or we can, as he tells us at intervals, 'kiss my sharries.'
What does 'sharries' mean? Well, we can work it out from context: it means buttocks, because what else does somebody impatient tell us to kiss? And that's the key to how nadsat talk works for us, and that we can see right from the beginning.
Some editions of A Clockwork Orange apparently were published with a glossary at the back. Such an edition is, to this reader at least, an addition almost as barbarous as the excision of a chapter: a glossary encourages the reader to take constant breaks from the text, referring back and forth through the pages, and that creates an entirely different rhythm of reading. The point of Alex's language is that we can, in fact, reliably work out everything from context: Alex may be a casual narrator, but Burgess is an extremely careful writer, and if we take a 'nadsat immersion' approach to the narrative, we quickly get our ear in. And by being forced to get our ear in, we quickly, too, are forced to start seeing things from Alex's perspective. 'Tolchock a veck' sounds a lot more fun and a lot less nasty than 'Hit a man.' While we're presented with detailed descriptions of Alex's crimes, we are simultaneously shielded from the victim's perspective: Alex's slang is domineering, crowing and callous, closed to empathy. (Which is probably a major reason why the film adaptation struck such controversy: playful as Kubrick's camera is, it cannot provide the narrative distance of Burgess's language.) To best catch the pace of Alex's thought, we need to read the text without any double-checking.
This second sentence is a clear example of it. 'My three droogs' are introduced, first names only, sitting together in a bar. Clearly this means friends or companions, because the four are acting like friends, even if we don't know that 'drug' is the Russian word. Then we get to 'making up our rassoodocks'; this can only mean 'making up our minds', because the idiom is familiar. Finally we get to 'flip': there are a number of possible meanings we could intuit - the commonest definition seems to be 'wild', though the word is later applied to 'flip horrorshow [good] boots for kicking', so 'extreme' might be a more all-purpose translation - but it's clear that it's some kind of emphasis added to the jumble of adjectives Alex applies to the weather. The fact that the precise meaning of 'flip' isn't clear is another element of our immersion: we are not lost as to the general sense, but at the same time we're acclimatised to an element of uncertainty. We know roughly what Alex is talking about, if not completely, and so are at once required to accept that we may sometimes have to see a word in more than one context to get a full understanding of it - but only if it's crucial to understanding the whole sentence. In fact, we're assured that we can get on with this language if we'll just exercise a bit of patience with it: we have to commit in this, the second sentence, if we are to continue, and the sentence is generous enough with its context that the commitment looks worthwhile.
The new words and unruly syntax are really equally important: it's the shunting beats of Alex's speech that conveys his force as much as any fictional jargon. Energy rather than elegance is the key here - and his energy is turned amiably towards us. Alex is a narrator who cheerfully talks to us, calling us 'oh my brothers' often enough, and as his situation gets worse, 'oh my brothers and only friends.' Likewise he's quite happy to explain things to us whenever it occurs to him ('Dim being really dim', he adds, just to save us any confusion as to the source of the nickname), and he's willing and ready to share. For such a horrible individual Alex is surprisingly likeable, and it's the lively, friendly, explanatory stance towards the reader that does it. We're half-inclined to like him just because he seems to like us.
Even without his explanations, though, there's more to see. Dim's nickname may be happily accounted for, but names in general are important here. The very fact that one of the gang is given such an insulting nickname tells us something about its abrasive dynamic, and hints at the underlying tensions that will explode it, too, for the others finally tire of Alex's high-handedness and betray him to the police. Dim's nickname establishes him at the bottom of the hierarchy as far as Alex is concerned, but Dim himself is far from willing to stay there. But while it may be an extreme nickname, it's worth pointing out that none of the boys bears a full moniker: there's no talk of Peter, George or Alexander here. Again, this is joky friendship, but it's also part of the book's ludic relationship with language in general: our chatty narrator cannot see a name without wanting to play with it somehow. 'Pete' may be quicker to say than 'Peter', but 'Georgie' takes longer than 'George': convenience is not the issue. Instead, the point is flippancy: everything, down to the names, must partake of the joke, for to be outside the joke is to be on its receiving end, and the receiving end is under the boys' fists. Fun is what they are after, and taking anything too seriously spoils the game. Alex's fall, in fact, begins because he himself takes something seriously: a passionate music-lover, he loses his temper when Dim blows a raspberry at a woman singing an operatic extract and punches him for being a 'filthy drooling mannerless bastard', garnering himself the beginnings of mutiny in the process. Ceasing to laugh is a dangerous business, even at your own name.
Punning Burgess, though, may very well have intended something specific in naming his hero. (Credit where it's due, this is not my original point, but I fear I forget the name of the critic who pointed it out.) Alexander may be a name of Greek origin, but parse the nickname in Latin and you can hear something else: a-lex, without law. Lawlessness is announced in Alex's very name, making him only in part a character. He is, too, an avatar of riotous youth, an embodiment of the spirit that hasn't yet served its twenty-one years. Specific his voice may be, but the playful grammar and bouncy slang hide him as well: everyone seems to talk like that in his world. If a character speaks in an idiom familiar to us, we can get a sense of the subtle variations in how they employ it, but Alex, speaker of an invented language, is as much its representative as its user. Exactly what Alex's personality is, outside of his merry criminality, is not quite the issue: his voice is lively and engaging, but it's not a study of temperament. It's a study of condition, of a social role specific to a time of life (at least according to Burgess), and Alex's punning name and foreign vocabulary serve to generalise him as much as to make him specific. Devoid of a surname, he simply is what he is: Alex, lawless, nadsat.
What's it going to be, then? The answer, assuming a sympathetic publisher, depends a great deal on where you are, and how old.
Monday, August 13, 2012
First sentences: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.'
A variation on a theme here, because In Cold Blood is a curious book. Usually described as a 'non-fiction novel' - as the book that created the whole concept of the 'non-fiction novel' - it's an interview-based account of the murders of an entire family committed in 1959 by two aimless parolees, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, with no grudge against the unfortunate Clutters who died at their hands.
Is it factual? Well, Capote took no notes during his interviews but claimed to have a word-perfect memory; believe as much of that as you feel inclined. Is it honest? Well, that's another question.
What's generally agreed - and brilliantly dramatised in the film Capote, incidentally, though of course a dramatisation is itself not a documentary - is that there's an immense absence in this book: any mention of the relationship between Capote and the murderers he interviewed. There is a mention of 'a journalist with whom [Hickock] corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him ... [and] who was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock,' with no acknowledgement that this journalist is Capote himself, and it's hard to escape the sense that the only reason Capote admitted his own shadowy presence in this scene is that he could not account for the convicts' conversation without admitting it. Keeping oneself out of events in which one was not present is one thing in journalism, but the fact remains - is obvious, when you think about it (and yet somehow it's easy not to) - that Capote can only have been a major figure in Smith and Hickock's life post-incarceration for them to give him all the information that only they knew and on which the book's very existence depends.
Yet Capote slips out of the narrative, present in his vivid language and precise observation, and more doubtfully present, too, in his clear and unequal narrative sympathies: Smith is treated with intrigued pity throughout, while the tone of Hickock's passages rings more with a determined attempt to be fair. This book is a prolonged literary sleight-of-hand with tragic ties to the real world: Smith and Hickock hanged, unaided by Capote, and Capote - famously one of the most brilliant and promising writers of his generation - never again completed another novel. No one got out of this book unscathed, and no one got away with their conscience clean. Read on its own terms, In Cold Blood feels like a honourable attempt to show compassion for all the living and dead in the aftermath of a tragedy; placed in context, the book is a human disaster of its own.
And, ultimately, it's probably closer to a novel. When there's a big untruth at the centre of a book - perhaps not a lie, but a withholding on a destructive and self-destructive scale - 'novel' is perhaps the most forgiving category one can apply. What can we say about this first sentence?
First, last, and most important, the fatal factor that draws in the reader and that Capote couldn't step back from: it's beautiful. Look at the soft rhythms of the first phrase, moving in three gentle beats: balanced at each end with the trochaic lilt of 'village of Holcomb' and 'Western Kansas', opening in the middle with the long stresses of 'high wheat plains': it's a sentence one has to say slowly, filled with slow-moving words. Filled, too, with smooth consonants: liquid Ls abound, and sighing Hs, and warm Ws - little repetitions of each, in fact, from 'village, Holcomb, plains', 'Holcomb, 'high' and 'wheat, wide', pulling us gently along, and making a little hymn around the ordinary-sounding name of Holcomb. The scene of the crime is not, as we first see it, a place of crime, but a place mounted among 'high wheat plains', its consonants murmuring to and fro through the sentence. And a place that 'stands', too, not a place that's merely located, but stands, as if by choice, like a living thing. As the first sentence acknowledges, Holcomb is a remote settlement, and its name, for all Capote's mounting, is plain: citified socialite Capote signals right at the beginning that he intends to pay it close and due attention nonetheless.
It's worth noting, for instance, that its location is not being described from a New York viewpoint, but from a Kansan one. In his first sentence, Capote is already stepping quietly back from the status of participant: it's 'other Kansans' who refer to Holcomb as remote, leaving Capote's opinion of it out of the question. Holcomb is at once located and removed, set in its landscape and isolated even from the mainstream of its state - but the fact that it's Kansans themselves who are held responsible for its 'out there' status places it within a manageable scale. When Capote's metropolitan perspective is silent, we are encouraged to see ourselves as entrants to a new context, taking it on its own terms from the people who live there. Already we are tempted into seeing ourselves as objective observers.
The place is 'lonesome', too, a word choice with tremendous effect. On the level of sound, it's a continuation of the assonant L, with its '-some' ending more soft and musical than 'lonely.' More than that, it has the added advantage of that more rural overtone than 'lonely'; 'lonesome' invokes the Kansan farmland speech, once again placing Kansan observers in the stead of Capote's own observations. But most of all, the word is melancholic: 'lonely' could be isolated by choice, and always sounds more as if it could be alleviated at a moment's notice, but 'lonesome' is a word of folk songs, a state of being. Capote is not aiming at the factual, but the evocative: rural and wistful, Holcomb 'stands' in its natural setting of wheat plains, viewed from a distance, poetic.
And while hearing that implied poetry, we are lulled with thematic hints, for what could be more resonant, more evocative of his chosen themes of alienation, than to conclude a sentence with the phrase 'out there'? Holcomb is lonesome; the Clutter home, catastrophically, more so - but so too are the killers. The book follows their ill-planned drift from place to place, a fleabag motel here, a little cheque fraud there, hitching and grifting, guided by a vague fantasy of finding gold in Mexico, separate from family and friends, a cold existence on the fringes of the country. They aren't in here, with us. They're out there. And what happens out there, we don't know - so we don't know when it may turn desperately, anguishingly violent.
The combination of pity and threat is masterful. And in fact, there is reason to believe that Capote was not above being alarmist. One of the most famous responses to In Cold Blood was from William S. Burroughs, who reacted to it with an open letter - or more accurately, a public curse:
July 23, 1970
While I cannot myself agree that In Cold Blood is dull and unreadable, when a writer makes promotion out of his book's 'non-fiction' status, it's perfectly fair to ask what else he's been saying about the issue. And if he's been endorsing police coercion and excusing capital punishment ... well, it raises questions, at least. In Cold Blood describes the executions of Smith and Hickock as a bleak event that gave no closure or satisfaction to those who knew the victims, but notoriously, it did allow closure to In Cold Blood, a consummation it is generally thought that Capote, at least, devoutly wished. Does a public endorsement of conservative truisms mean the book promotes lack of forgiveness? Or are they an apologia for the book's ambivalence? An attempt to convince the world or oneself that an artistically necessary execution was socially and politically necessary? A closing-down of sympathy on a subject that has given one so much trouble? A genuinely-held opinion that the book's tender tone belies?
Who, really, can say? But Burroughs's curse was prophetic - or else, perhaps, perceptive, observing with unforgiving eyes what Capote must have done to himself to reach that point. To quote the same site:
After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote announced work on an epic novel entitled Answered Prayers, intended as a Proustian summation of the high society world to which he had enjoyed privileged access over the previous decades. The slim existing contents were eventually published posthumously while one of the few extracts which saw publication within Capote’s lifetime notoriously employed Capote’s habit of indiscretion to disastrous effect. When “La Côte Basque, 1965″ was published by Esquire in 1975, Capote’s betrayal of the confidences of friends (who recognized the identities lurking beneath the veneer of fictionalized characters) resulted in swift exile from the celebrity world which Capote had courted for much of his career.
What a convict cannot prevent, a celebrity will not endure, and a celebrity has the power to make their betrayal felt. Reduced to making subjects of people, 'out there' was where Capote finally found himself. He did not live to be old, dying of liver cancer complicated by alcohol and barbiturate abuse at the age of fifty-nine. He outlived Smith and Hickock, hanged in their mid-thirties, but he did not enjoy the success those shortened lives brought him.
'Every journalist,' writes Janet Malcolm in another famous first sentence*, 'who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.' Capote was not alone in his uneasy and unethical relationship with his subjects; if anything, he stands out for the toll it took upon his own self. Whether it was a fair price or not is a question no one, I think, can really answer.
And yet, it is a beautifully written book, distractingly, seductively so, a book it truly is hard to step away from even when one knows the human cost. The plain-spoken tone belies the skilled ear; the fluidity of the language is unobtrusive, subliminal, deadpan. Capote's disappearing act begins in the very first sentence, stepping behind the voices of others while guiding us with his own unerring mastery of sound and sense as if there were nothing to it. As a teenager, swayed by the book and unaware of its history, I was surprised to learn that Capote himself was a flamboyant and scandalous figure. So mild and controlled is his writing here, there's nothing to suggest ego, performance, deception. Simple and sad, his voice smooths across the pages, mourning the lonesome, the lost, the 'out there.' You'd think he was just an ordinary decent man who didn't like to see anyone die in fear.
*The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm, (c) 1990
Sunday, August 05, 2012
First sentences: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it.
Here are three interesting things about The Catcher in the Rye as a cultural icon. One, it's one of the most critically lauded books of the twentieth century, a regular feature on 'best books' lists, and generally considered a classic. Two, it's one of the most frequently challenged books of the twentieth century; if you want to send a socially conservative library patron into a tailspin, put it on your shelves. (On the other hand, if you want to annoy a culture vulture, leave it off. The librarian's lot is not a happy one.) Three, if you want to get someone really nervous about it, you can point out that assassins have been known to favour it - Mark Chapman had a worn copy in his possession, inscribed 'Dear Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement,' when he was arrested for murdering John Lennon, and John Bardo (murderer of Rebecca Shaeffer) and John Hinckley (attempted murderer of Ronald Reagan) had copies as well.
Now, this last probably merits least attention. Assassination is a copycat game, and the fact that Bardo and Hinckley had copies is probably more a sign that they were Chapman wannabes than anything about the actual book; Chapman himself may have been obsessed with the book, but since he thought that the best way to express his reaction to one artist was to murder another artist, his artistic judgement is pretty dismissable. The character is angry and alienated, so was he, and he was egotistical enough to think this was a reason to demand attention from the world by killing someone capable of creating things he couldn't; assassins of this kind are still with us, and they're basically nasty, selfish little losers who don't deserve our attention - and who are almost certainly imitated because we pay them attention, in fact, so let's mention the whole assassin reputation for the sake of completeness and then move on to talking about things that are actually worth talking about. The book spoke to Chapman because he was young and disaffected, because it spoke to a lot of people who were young and disaffected, most of them better people than him who dealt with their disaffection in less contemptible ways. (And even Chapman acknowledged that Holden Caulfield was not, in fact, violent, and brushed it off with 'But that's fiction.' Assassins find roles to play-act because they want them; they find rationalisations for murder for the same reason.) Disaffected people in general have responded to the book, and it's the disaffection that's the interesting thing.
First published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye is, among other things, a technically innovative book. Holden's direct, slangy, unpolished voice is very much a voice: a narrator with no Dickensian measure, as the first sentence points out, but with the inarticulacy of speech. Or rather, with the articulacy of speech: Holden's language is of the moment. He speaks of events in the past and describes how he felt at the time, but the emotion invoked is the emotion felt at the time of speaking. He's angry enough to call his childhood 'lousy', to brush it off in a single word, and as a result, all we can gather of this childhood is that he now doesn't want to talk about it. Pain in the past is implied, but conveyed through pain in the present - or at least restless impatience. 'I don't feel like going into it' is as much as he'll tell us right now: we have to stay with him now, to let him decide what he's going to share and when, or we won't learn anything at all. Holden is an aggressive narrator, tense, uncomfortable: the narrative fidgets and twitches, and we have to work out what has happened by watching his reactions to it as much as by hearing his account of it. Unless we take Holden entirely at his word - which is no tribute to Salinger's careful creation of character - the narrative requires us to think and to empathise in order to follow. Angry, unhelpful Holden demands our understanding of his feelings if we're going to understand his story.
At the same time, it's worth noting that this is not an 'overheard' narrative. Holden is not speaking to a third party, but writing to us; for all the speech-like rhythms and idiom, this is a written narrative. Since people generally do not write precisely the way they speak, hesitations and digressions and repetitions and all, the reader must accept a considerable degree of artifice: this is not a stage script, but a written imitation of spoken speech intended to stay on the page. (And Salinger was most reluctant to consider any dramatisations.) We are not in Holden's room, but in Holden's head, somewhere between heard and unheard: while he addresses us directly as a generic 'you', we are not any kind of character beyond that of Constant Reader. Holden is in a sanitarium following a breakdown of his health - 'I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy', he tells us on the first page - and on the last page he mentions that a psychiatrist has been interviewing him (so how much of his breakdown is physical and how much is mental is somewhat left to our judgement; we never see the point at which he's hospitalised). We are not, however, that psychiatrist, nor do we hear what Holden says to him. We are simply a 'you' that Holden chooses to talk to - grudgingly, almost, with a brusque insistence that he'll pick the subject, for reasons he is not open enough, either with us or with himself, to admit. While the speech is slangy, the device is highly literary.
Holden himself is far from illiterate, though. When he speaks of 'David Copperfield kind of crap', the book may be announcing that this is not your father's literature, but Holden is not saying that David Copperfield itself is crap - or at least, not crap enough to refuse to read. Holden begins the story, in fact, with his expulsion from an exclusive private school, an expulsion based on his grades, because through lack of effort, he has failed every subject except English. In other words, English (or rather literature) is the only subject that interests him. It's a reasonable guess that he's citing David Copperfield because he's read it; for a restless teenager, Holden has some pretty cultured reference points.
Actually David Copperfield doesn't say much about how David's parents 'were occupied and all' before his birth: David's birth is the beginning of his story, and he's every bit as self-involved as Holden. There's an element of irony in Salinger's choice: both are novels about misguided, aimless, effectively homeless young men who lack the maturity to locate a central point to their own lives. The difference is primarily that David eventually does manage to mature and settle down and Holden doesn't - but then, David describes his entire life, or at least up to middle age, and Holden only a couple of days. The focus is different: David's personality unfolds over time, Holden's is conveyed in a brief explosion of characteristic behaviour. David's story is about outgrowing immaturity; Holden's is about immaturity itself, a close-up study, interested in the fine details.
In effect, where Dickens is interested in immaturity as a lesson, a time of mistakes that the plot exists to correct, Salinger's focus is on immaturity for its own sake. This is the famous book of adolescence - or at least white, middle-class and above all male adolescence; reading the book as a teenager myself, it was hard to fully identify with a narrator who made generalisations like 'Women kill* me'; (Holden has been educated in all-male schools and states repeatedly that he doesn't understand how girls and women think, which hardly makes a girl think 'That's me!') - and it's because it doesn't treat adolescence as a diversion on the way to adulthood but as a state in itself, a state entirely real and long-lasting to those in the middle of it. And for many an angry teenager, what a relief to be treated as a real person, as a person whose emotional state deserves an actual entire book, not a mere digression. It should be remembered that 1951 was the very early days of the concept of 'teenage years', a time neither adult nor child but a state in itself. Nowadays 'young adult' is a whole literary genre, but in Salinger's time there was no such thing. Holden's disaffected, self-absorbed, impolite, uncertain narrative is, by its very existence, a statement that teenagers are people worth thinking about - even if they're wrong, or ill-mannered, or directionless, they are people whose feelings can be the subject of literature.
Holden's reference, then, is a hint to the reader that we should not expect the neat resolutions and convenient deaths that make David Copperfield's life conclude smoothly. David begins his life with the beginning of his life, as he puts it, but Holden is a young narrator and has neither the patience nor the perspective to go through David's neat summation of all his key experiences. All he can do is take a couple of significant days and throw them in our laps, muddling through them with no clear certainty himself why or how they're so significant. Again, it's a question of character implied rather than described: we have to work out why Holden, out of his whole life, is choosing to give us these particular days. We have to work with him, because he can't work with himself.
For how ungraciously does he ask for our ear! 'If you really want to hear about it,' he greets us, a character who doesn't beg for the Constant Reader's attention but snaps as if the new-found Constant Reader has been begging for his. The tone of that 'really' carries a delicate double meaning, though: on the one hand, it's reluctance: I'm not sure I want to talk about any of it, but if you insist... But on the other hand, there's an immediate demand for authenticity. Famously, Holden rails against 'phoniness' throughout the novel, and 'If you really want to hear about it' can be read another way: if you want to hear what's real about it. That's the slipperiness of grammar: that 'really' could equally apply to 'want' and to 'hear': it could suggest that our wants are importuning him, or that we need to really hear him, and that if we're going to do that, we have to follow his lead, because his choice of subject is part of his selfhood.
Which, of course, it is: what a novelist chooses to include and exclude is as much part of a novel as any specific choice of words. Salinger was unusual, particularly for his time, in choosing to say so much in what he excludes.
Likewise, it's an unusual narrator who begins a novel - and a very unusual novelist who can get away with beginning a novel - with a sentence that actually refuses to tell us things. 'I don't feel like going into it,' Holden says, and what do we hear in his voice? An irritable shrug, or a painful wince? The accurate answer is probably both: this is the skinless hypersensitivity of adolescence, desperately alive to every nuance of 'phoniness' or sadness in the world, and anger and distress are closely intermingled - as witness the way Holden enacts his grief over the death of his little brother by punching out windows until he permanently damages his hand.
But how does Salinger get away with a first sentence that refuses to to talk to us? The answer lies, once again, in implication. There's a lot present in a sentence that purports to stay silent on a subject: Holden's voice, for one thing, is immediately established, but what's also there is a whole list of what Holden doesn't like to consider, and we can learn a lot about a person by hearing what he wants to avoid. His origins, his childhood and his parents aren't just subjects he doesn't 'feel like going into'; they're subjects he can't face sparing even a couple of sentences apiece to sum up. There's something defensive about his opening: for a boy his age, doubtless his parents are important figures in his emotional landscape (whether he wants to admit it or not), and the fact that they can only be understood by their absence from his talk tells us something about them. He's uncomfortably aware that his parents had lives 'before they had me' - the necessary beginnings of adult understanding that makes adolescence so painful, the knowledge that the gods of our childhood are just people and the cosmos does not revolve around us - but not enough at peace with it to say anything about it. (He isn't even at peace enough to settle on a register: 'occupied and all' staggers from formal to phatic in a tiny space, like a drunk knocking around inside a lift.) He won't tell us where he was born, which tells us straight away how rootless he feels: bounced from boarding school to boarding school (at, we later learn, a time when the loss of his beloved brother would naturally make a boy need contact with and support from his remaining family), he has no community, no resting point, no home. There's a lot of misery and doubt in what Holden lists, and he lacks the security to do anything more than call 'crap' what he cannot calmly consider, and hurry along.
For such a non-statement, then, it's a crowded sentence. We are present in it, in our nebulous second-person state; Holden's unnameable home and unreconciled parents are there - and Holden is present, vitally present, his voice forthright yet evasive, wretched yet confrontational, too raw for mercy, from his very first breath.
*'Kill', in this context, means delight or surprise; it's one of the most frequent words in Holden's limited emotional vocabulary.
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