Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger I just don’t know how I feel about Franny and Zooey. I really don’t. I read it a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t write anything about it, as I couldn’t decide if I loved it, just liked it or absolutely hated it. I can rule out hating it I suppose, as I finished it and I never finish books that I truly despise. And I don’t think I loved it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. My overall reaction, by process of elimination, is a general ambivalence. Part of my issue here is the damn star rating. Two makes it seem like it wasn’t worth the time, and being so short it would have to have been really terrible to not warrant a couple of hours of my day. Three makes it seem like I like it and would recommend it, and I’m not sure that’s the way I want to go either. I’m going to go ahead and try to write this review, and hopefully by doing so I’ll come up with a genuine opinion by the time I am finished.

I generally like to start these things off with a synopsis; it helps me put things in perspective and highlights the most notable aspects of the story. But even here I’m stumped, as there isn’t much plot to work with. F&Z consists of two separate but linked short stories that were originally published a couple of years apart. The eponymous characters are brother and sister, the youngest siblings in a privileged and eccentric New York family, who both appear to be suffering from an overload of existential angst and the pressures of being “gifted.”

We first meet Franny Glass on a lunch date with her college beau, an unremarkable 1950’s college intellectual stereotype. It gradually becomes evident that she is experiencing some sort of mental crisis. Nearly the entire episode is a conversation by which we receive hints that Franny’s behavior is being influenced by an odd religious book she has been carrying around with her. Over the course of the meal, definite shades of Holden Caufield emerge in Franny’s disdain for academia, only rather than railing against the wholesale phoniness of adults, she attacks the pretension and self-involvement of the academic world (not that the two concepts are all that different). I’ll just say, I find Franny’s rejection of self-involvement to be a little ironic, as it’s her own existential crisis and subsequent self-obsession that seems to be prompting her dissatisfaction in the first place. Franny’s tale is the shorter of the two, and it leaves off without any real resolution to the questions it has provoked.

Zooey Glass is a conflicted, self-absorbed “genius” actor who is still trying to live up to the promise of his precocious childhood while coping with the family skeletons that are collecting dust in the corners of the nostalgia-riddled Glass home. Unlike “Franny,” which doesn’t stand alone well, “Zooey” is a tiny universe of its own; in less than 100 pages, we learn all of the significant history of the family. The story opens with Zooey reading a letter from his older brother; a long, rambling correspondence that contains an oblique history of the Glass family in its slowly crumbling pages. Here I have to give Salinger credit for stuffing so much exposition into a letter and managing to make it one of the most engaging parts of the story. The fact that Buddy Glass wrote such a long letter in the 1950’s, when written correspondence was on its way out of vogue, says something about the eccentric nature of the Glass family. Also, the secrets revealed so early in the story are an expert set-up for the deluge of self-analysis to follow. Another high point: Mrs. Glass, the classic downtrodden Catholic matriarch of a strange and conflicted family. She worries, she smokes, she complains and she intrudes, but she also clearly loves her ungrateful, troubled brood.

We spend a while with Zooey as he reads his brother’s letter in the bath (he’s vain, that Zooey) and interacts, rather unpleasantly, with his mother. After we get to know him, and in my case dislike him more than a little, we discover that Franny’s story will continue within Zooey’s, because they are essentially dealing with the same thing and our time with Zooey and his letter has shown us what is most likely driving Franny’s apparent mania. Both are trying to move forward after a bizarre childhood education and brief notoriety as “gifted” children, all the while surrounded by the artifacts of that time and the knowledge that one of their siblings couldn’t shake these things and move on the way they so desperately want (and need) to. There is a quiet and not-so-quiet desperation in The Conversation that Zooey instigates with his sister. And instigation is an important distinction here; Zooey loves to hear himself talk, and he also loves to provoke. The Conversation generally consists of Zooey obnoxiously, but not entirely ineffectually, prodding Fanny’s mind like a tongue worries a sore tooth.

The Conversation is the bulk of the “story.” It boils down to a strange juxtaposition of self-involved privilege and genuinely problematic psychological issues. Are they just poor little rich kids? Sometimes it seems so, but there is undoubtedly a darkness to the exchange that keeps it from sinking completely under the combined weight of Zooey’s narcissism and Franny’s naivete. There are revelations embedded in their talk, muted but somewhat startling insights into the nature of the Glass family history and its legacy for the youngest generation. Psychoanalysis was the fad of the day, and there are definite shades of self-diagnosis and justification going on, particularly in Zooey. Franny is flailing and searching, demanding some kind of solid truth from the world and retreating from it at the same time, while her brother turns the search inward and tries to rouse Franny to do the same.

There is no real progress or resolution. It rambles, we listen. I found much of it interesting, but it was difficult to divorce my interest in what was being discussed with how little I liked Franny or Zooey. They did, in the end, seem like privileged kids with barely relatable problems. But at the same time, I found myself undeniably fascinated with the Glass family as an entity. The past hangs heavily over the family, and the youngest children haven’t figured out how to carry the weight. The fact that Zooey is prompting, or rather, forcing Fanny to think about it all is at least one step in the right direction for their mental survival, but I don’t know if I really bought the “ah ha” moment at the end. Franny’s bizarre obsession seems alien, a construct to initiate The Conversation rather than a genuine attempt to relieve some sort of hazy dissatisfaction with the world. I suppose it is intended to carry some sort of symbolism about human struggle and the strange ways we find solace, as well as reflect on the unconventional Glass family itself, but it felt forced and pretentious. Then again, pretention seems to be the Glass forte, with the children all railing against something with their pseudo-intellectual analysis of everything and their borrowed, threadbare spirituality. There is something very familiar, very 1950’s about all of this, but not having much experience with writing from that time I can’t quite put my finger on it.

So I have essentially reached the end of my ramble, and I still feel the same ambivalence. Which is perhaps for the best, as that is pretty much how this book pans out. There is no resolution; nothing definitive really happens. I guess I’ll go ahead and give this one a 3, since it interested me enough to prompt this long-winded analysis, but I still feel pretty up in the air about it. I think I will try to read some of Salinger’s other stories and get a better grasp on the Glass family and Salinger’s style.