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“Fiction Profile: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour / an Introduction by J.D. Salinger”

Franny and Zooey is a 200-page novel by Salinger separated into two parts — “Franny” and “Zooey.” The second part is inundated by the presence of the other, unlike the first part, which is strictly Franny’s world. The entire novel is set in, I think, a total of about four rooms, and mostly in one single den, where the Franny character is having what’s advertised as a nervous breakdown caused by all the “ego” and “competition” prevalent in current collegiate social discourses.

Also, this book is advertised as Salinger’s final work, as it is his last one to have been published, but if this verbosity inordinate to total plotline quantity, dubbed “prolix” by a crisp New York Times writer, is to typify Salinger’s later style, in works after Catcher in the Rye and Stories, then Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour / an Introduction does nothing but apply caulk to this irreversible writerly tendency. In other words, it is more quintessentially later Salinger.

As is widely known Salinger put an abrupt end to his own writing after a preciously scant amount of copy — four petite books. I go back to the books when I crave undeniable setting. This setting is only reinforced by its own absurd scarcity, as the 80-or so page Carpenters takes place in a total of two different rooms, and Seymour / an Introduction is highly the product of a first person narrator, whose identity seems blended of a fictive younger-sibling character “Buddy” and Salinger himself, rambling at his typewriter (a developed ambiguity worthy surely of copious literary discussion). The narrator lives deep in the woods and is instructor at a girls’ college, but, simply put, is utterly obsessed with his late brother, Seymour, who per opening tale in Nine Stories, has taken his own life for reasons ostensibly at large. The point of it all seems prominently to be the sound of the whistling wind deep in those woods, where this successful, brooding professor resides, free almost entirely from interaction with the outside world apart from campus and cafes, places at which his own behavior is treated cursorily. In mourning the dead, he worships, not the idea, but the reality, of nothing, transfixed in an eternal gaze upon his own blood lost, sucked into the abyss from a world he loves, if not into one he knows.

Most of Seymour / an Introduction handles Seymour’s poetry, but the novelette culminates with a scene of youth in urban New York involving the familial tandem’s mother. She sends Buddy, the eventual narrator and survivor, for a “pint of ice cream.” Salinger has a way of making trivial things like a “pint of ice cream” seem very prevalent and important, as did Bukowski. If nothing else, this allocation of weight onto the minute behooves the reader’s very ability to compete, to go for that pint of ice cream, or whatever a given object may be, for the very spirit of competition, the kind of thing the writer sought probably eventually to avoid, with his move out into the middle of nature. Anyway, the scene finds Buddy sprinting full speed, wildly through the streets of New York, for no reason other than simple, juvenile madness, when all of a sudden what mysterious hand should run up and catch him from behind, when he’d thought himself kinetically untouchable, but his big brother Seymour, in a state of living madness, but a sympathetic one, not unsimilar to Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty. But it’s the sedentary east from which Seymour is told, more full of ghosts, tradition and general geometric dissonance, that breeds the supreme, and no doubt tragicomic, sort of meditation.

 

 

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