Reviewer: Ange of Tall, Short & Tiny
‘Franny and Zooey’ is one of those stories that leaves a lot open to interpretation. Outwardly, it seems to be about Christianity and faith, but dig a little deeper, and the ideas seem more aligned with Buddhism and the zen philosophy. After a little curious research, I discovered that Salinger was hugely interested in the “Eastern religions”, and that they are a common theme in his works.
As with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, this is a book that was likely to have raised many an eyebrow in the 1950s. It was first published in the New York Times as a short story and a novella; each standing alone would work, however I like that they have been published together, as it gives a fuller picture than if they’d been read alone. In saying that, both would have made for intriguing, thought-provoking stories, and one would still feel content if there wasn’t a predecessor or successor.
In true Salinger-style, there’s a lot of colloquial language, much dialogue, and none of the overly-descriptive passages that spell everything out to the reader. I’m a fan of his style, and find it enjoyable to read.
The first part of the book concerns Franny Glass’ weekend date with her boyfriend, Lane Coutell. After meeting her off the train, he takes her to a fashionable restaurant; a bit of a cad, Lane is all about outward appearance and success. He talks incessantly about his own achievements, and Franny becomes upset, questioning the importance of a college education above all else. She appears uncomfortable, and excuses herself to the bathroom, where she has a small cry before returning to the table. Conversation then turns to a small book Lane spied in her bag, ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ (a 19th-Century story of how a Russian wandering hermit learns the power of “praying without ceasing”); Franny passionately explains the idea of silently repeating a specific prayer until it becomes unconscious, involuntary. Lane is not particularly interested, and is more concerned with the weekend’s activities; however, when Franny faints, he cancels their engagements. After Franny wakes, Lane goes to get a taxi. This part finishes with Franny silently and ceaselessly praying.
The second part of the book begins with Franny’s brother, Zooey, soaking in the bath. His mother enters, and they argue over Franny’s fragile emotional state. He then upsets Franny by questioning why she has begun her incessant praying, and after a while telephones her from his bedroom, pretending to be their older brother Buddy. He offers advice, and when she figures out the true identity of the caller, he becomes more serious. He reveals advice that their brother Seymour once gave him, and Franny seems to find this illuminating.
Lane is a true cad – fashionable (he is first described as wearing a Burberry coat apparently with a full wool lining), conceited, all about impressions. Franny appears confident but confused, in the midst of a crisis of faith. Later, when we learn that her oldest (and most revered) brother committed suicide, it’s easy to wonder if his death has rocked her world more than the rest of the family’s. It’s a common misconception that she may be pregnant (I certainly wondered this on my first reading), but Salinger was apparently mortified when this was suggested, as this was not his intention. Zooey is a bit of a trouble-maker, but underneath his cheeky exterior lies a heart of gold, full of concern for his sister.
I loved the characterisation of Mrs Glass as “…a medium-stout woman in a hairnet…Her age, under any circumstance, was fiercely indeterminate, but never more so than when she was wearing a hairnet” and that she “…did some of her most inspired, most perpendicular thinking on the threshold of linen closets…” The descriptions of her conjure up strong images of a typical 1950s housewife, and evoke memories in me of my nana and the smell of Lux soap flakes!
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Franny and Zooey’ – enough to have read it twice – and think its inclusion in this list well-deserved.