Essays on life and teaching (and writing and literature)
Thursday, April 2, 2015
"Salinger," the documentary. Many unasked and unanswered questions.
I just watched Shane Salerno's painstakingly-crafted 2013 documentary on famous literary recluse J.D. Salinger (yes, I realize I'm a bit late--found it on Netflix).
What do I think? Hmmm. I think many things. Love the subject, love the effort made, but I have dozens of questions that were not answered by the film, and many more questions that were raised by it.
When I watch a documentary, I want to learn something new. I don't think that really happened in this case. Rather, I saw snippets of many talking heads (some famous, such as Martin Sheen, whose presence, while pleasant, I did not understand; and some whose inclusion made me wonder, "Why is [this person] in the documentary if he or she never met Salinger?").
Most of the heads*--apart from the now-post-middle-aged women who were seduced by Salinger by way of letters when they were in their early teens--said the same thing over and over. I also saw the covered bridge that leads to Cornish, New Hamphire over and over. It seems that Salerno had to spend nine years filming in and around Cornish to get the hazy, grainy shots of Salinger as an old man.
*In the case of Joyce Maynard, whom I respect and enjoy as a writer and speaker, her tales of Salinger (best told, of course, in her amazing memoir, At Home in the World) were--strangely--filmed twice and spliced together.
We therefore get the same words, told in the same way, same tone, from a Joyce Maynard who is wearing different outfits. Clearly, she was asked to tell her story twice, on two different filming occasions.
Why on earth would the filmmaker put this together in a double-vision way? It didn't lend emphasis, in my opinion; it was just tres bizarre, and I felt it was intellectually lazy as a stylistic choice. (Obviously, the double-interview was not physically lazy, but I just didn't think it was worth the time it must have taken. Better, perhaps, to have found other stories about Salinger to round out the film, more ideas about what made him tick.)
Almost every interviewee in this documentary demands to know what the public has always demanded to know: What was Salinger writing for 40 years?
We do get a nice hint in the last several minutes of the film where we see information flashing across the screen about what new, never-before-seen writing of Salinger's may be released posthumously, in staggered installments, between 2015 and 2020. It appears to be mucho Vedanta, mucho Glass family (they're okay, I guess)--this time, focused on Seymour (yay!). All the work is going to be, apparently, heavily steeped in Vedic philosophy.
In the coming years, there will also be a bit more Holden, by way of a "re-tooled" story about this iconic character, plus--I think, if I read this correctly--more writing about the entire Caulfield family. This is what people are really waiting for--myself included. With bated breath. Nervous. Will it be as good as we hope?
As a teacher, I find that contemporary readers are not as floored by Holden Caulfield as I was (or as earlier generations were). I now hear often that Holden Caulfield is an "annoying" character, and even adult readers will say this. This makes me wonder: is Catcher dated, somehow?
What most struck me, however, is that a good portion of Salinger's hidden, soon-to-be-released work is about WWII--about Salinger's experiences in counter-intelligence. I find this both intriguing and ironic, given Salinger's reported disdain for journalists and journalistic writing. He was particularly hostile to any reporters who approached him.
We know from other sources that the war messed with Salinger's mind in a serious way, with post-traumatic stress and a nervous breakdown. This mind-cracking experience then inspired many of Salinger's most famous stories, including "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esme, With Love and Squalor."
Did Salinger resent that his main source of inspiration was a terrible war?
Or, was the war so horrific for him that he had to write about it, had to spend his entire life processing it, but never wanted to be asked about it, never wanted to be analyzed in the press? If so, that's understandable.
Salinger was, after all, from the stiff-upper-lip generation; his writing often touches upon trauma rearing its ugly head after a return to home and normalcy, but this topic is always broached by way of personable characters who hide their pain well and seek out human connection as a salve.
There is much that can be explored about Salinger from a psychological standpoint, I expect. But should we read into writings to discover truths about an author? Salinger said he did not want to talk about himself or his writing; what people want to know is there, in his stories.
It's still unclear, even after watching this documentary. why Salinger rejected New York society in such an abrupt way, why he ran off to New Hampshire where devotees sought him out in the same way pilgrims try to hunt down an ascetic sage in a cave. Strangely, Salinger often emerged from his bunker, ostensibly to talk to his obsessed visitors, but then inevitably, according to all accounts mentioned in the film, got pissy and frustrated and stalked off.
So why did Salinger come out at all? Why tease his fans and followers in this way? He did not want press, this is clear, but what about connections with regular people? It seems he often did want those.
"Are you under psychiatric care? I am not a counselor," Salinger reportedly barked at one fan. Interestingly, we do get from Salerno's documentary a clue as to why Salinger was so touchy about The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger, it seems, felt he was Holden (as readers have long assumed). But a fiction writer is never supposed to admit he or she IS a character. In fact, fiction writers (even nonfiction writers) take great offense, usually, to people assuming they are a character or are the narrator of a piece. (I know this doesn't make sense when it comes to nonfiction, but there you go.)
We also find out that Salinger freaked out when Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the first potential publisher, felt Catcher was about a "crazy" boy and needed to be seriously edited. Almost every writer hates hearing from editorial boards that a work needs to be completely re-done, but Salinger felt personally attacked by this criticism. And Catcher is amazing as it is; it's hard to imagine it being re-written in a less "crazy" way.
Besides, was Holden Caulfield "crazy?" I personally think that's a callously simplistic reading. Holden Caulfield is a character who has experienced, or is experiencing, a breakdown. He is in mourning for his brother. He is also rebelling against the standard demands of his parents and school, as a way to demand attention for his problems.
These problems are not tenable; they must be dealt with. That's what Catcher teaches us. It's not about simply being a bad kid, a "crazy" kid.
Salinger, it is reported, told someone he wished he had never written Catcher, that writing it "ruined" his life.
Another big "hmmm" from me. Does writing a novel that has sold 60 million copies world-wide, and continues to sell 200k copies a year, equal failure one ought to wish to erase? It's not all about the book sales, of course (forgive me: I worked in book publishing for quite a while). So was it the pressure that was on Salinger after this? The expectations?
Too-high expectations of greatness can be paralyzing, that's for sure.
Did Salinger actually want the attention from the world and his readers but, perhaps, think he shouldn't want it (was this a spiritual discipline exercise for him, in other words)?
We hear that Salinger was very engaged with what was happening in the outside world, despite his protestations that he disdained it.
After viewing "Salinger," I wondered, given Salinger's interest in the goings-on in the world, would he have Googled himself? He must have, right? At least in those final years.
And if so, did the Googling experience make Salinger realize he owed the public some answers and inspire him to finally release, posthumously, his long-hidden works? That would be interesting to know.
By decree via a trust he established, Salinger's seminal work, The Catcher in the Rye, will never be (and can never be) a film. It was too distressing for Salinger to see his story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," slaughtered in a cheesy adaptation back in the 1950s. And yet--for sure there must be some filmmaker who can do Salinger justice, some actor who could portray Holden Caulfield.
Or should we move on, now, to other authors, other works?
Why the continuing obsession with Salinger? I think it's because he is at once ineffable and inscrutable, low-brow and high-brow; he's a tease.