I’ve never been to 1955 New York or had to hang out with pretentious New York intellectuals. Perhaps this makes the book a little hard to relate to. Some of the details and slang are hard to pick up, as well.
But one thing that is indisputable: this book has great pacing, dialogue, and amazing descriptions that set the scene and create a rich world. At the heart of Salinger’s great writing is a spiritual crisis that feels immediate, personal, and yet universal.
I have a very clear memory of giving up on this book when I was a college student. At the very beginning of the second story, “Zooey,” Salinger describes the story as a kind of “home movie.” I remember at the time that I expected the story to meander and go nowhere. I expected that the story would have very little beginning, middle, and end. So…I put the book down.
The book’s two stories, however, are very clearly stories. To be fair, they often use a lot of description, rely heavily on dialogue to move the story forward, but they do have clear beginnings, middles, and ends. The characters go through profound changes in very short spaces. In many ways, the short stories serve as a kind of play in two acts–but they are also fantastic examples of short story writing.
For aspiring writers, there are lessons everywhere: how to use description, how to use stories within stories, how to create great dialogue.
One amazing detail that demonstrates just how much aspiring writers have to learn from this book comes on page 126: “Zooey was now gazing abstractedly at an old root-beer stain on the ceiling plaster, which he himself had made nineteen or twenty years earlier, with a water pistol.” Details like this, placed thoughtfully throughout the story, give a sense of dimension and history. In short, they suggest worlds within worlds.
If you’re an English major, parts of this book will seem hilarious to you: in the midst of Franny’s mental breakdown, her boyfriend spends a great deal of time trying to tell her about how awesome one of his English papers is. His urgings, moreover, are usually little more than: “You got to read this goddamn paper, I’m telling you.” The book does a good job of making you feel and see what it’s like to see the world through Franny or Zooey’s eyes. And in true J.D. Salinger style his main characters are not entirely blameless, flawless creatures–they are instead, self-described “monsters,” as bad as the things they rail against in their many monologues.
The book is also a great example of a work that effectively uses a story within a story. The book “The Way of the Pilgrim” serves an important point in the book. Also, Buddy Glass’s letter serves an important role. Like the long descriptions of parts of the house in “Zooey” the use of stories within stories helps to establish a larger world. (Who knows, some aspiring writer might one day choose to put this book in a short story about a person going through a similar spiritual crisis). The book’s world seems three dimensional, a space that could expand endlessly. No doubt, the success of Franny and Zooey comes partly from Salinger’s efforts in other stories about the Glass family.
There is also a deep spiritual conversation that takes place at the center of the book. Essentially, this conversation is the same one Holden Caulfield attempted to have with various characters in Catcher in the Rye. This book isn’t just a retread of that conversation, but rather a deepening and broadening of it. The key dilemma of the book is one many in their teens and twenties will know well (okay, perhaps even people in their thirties can have this same kind of crisis). The skillful handling of this spiritual crisis is the reason why I think that people, even twenty years from now, will continue to find J.D. Salinger books in their local libraries and think that the book was placed there–almost divinely–for them to find. It has that special power (that only books seem to have) of being written in a way that makes you think the author wrote it especially for you.