Top critical review
I was worried as hell about reading this book again.
Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2017
I read the end of The Catcher in the Rye the other day and found myself wanting to take Holden Caulfield by the collar and shake him really, really hard and shout at him to grow up. I suppose I've understood for some time now that The Catcher in the Rye -- a favorite of mine when I was sixteen -- was a favorite precisely because I was sixteen. At sixteen, I found Holden Caulfield's crisis profoundly moving; I admired his searing indictment of society, his acute understanding of human nature, his extraordinary sensitivity (I mean, come on, he had a nervous breakdown for God's sake, he had to be sensitive). At sixteen, I wanted to marry Holden Caulfield. At forty, I want to spank him. After all, Holden's indictment of society boils down to the "insight" that everybody is a phony. That's the kind of insight a sixteen year old considers deep. A forty year old of the grown-up variety recognizes Holden's insight as superficial and banal, indulging in the cheapest kind of adolescent posturing. It suggests a grasp of society and of human nature that's about as complex as an episode of Dawson's Creek. Holden and his adolescent peers typically behave as though the fate they have suffered (disillusionment and the end of innocence) is unique in human history. He can't see beyond the spectacle of his own disillusionment (and neither can J. D. Salinger); for all his painful self-consciousness, Holden Caulfield is not really self-aware. He can't see that he himself is a phony.
Compare Salinger's novel of arrested development, for instance, with a real bildungsroman, Great Expectations. Holden Caulfield is an adolescent reflecting on childhood and adolescence; Pip Pirrip is an adult reflecting on childhood and adolescence. Holden Caulfield has the tunnel vision of teendom, and he depicts events with an immediacy and absorption in the experience that blocks out the broader context, the larger view. Pip Pirrip has the wonderful double vision of a sensitive adult recollecting the sensitive child he used to be; he conveys at the same time the child's compelling perspective and the adult's thoughtful revision of events. While Holden Caulfield litters his narrative with indignant exposes of phonies and frauds, Pip Pirrip skillfully concentrates on "the spurious coin of his own make" -- that is, without letting the child Pip and the adolescent Pip in on the joke, he exposes himself as a phony. Pip Pirrip grows up. Holden Caulfield has a nervous breakdown.
I suppose the only reason I begrudge him his breakdown is that so many in our culture -- many more, unfortunately, than just the legitimate adolescents among us -- seem fixated on Holden as a symbol of honesty and socially-liberating rebellion. We view nervous collapse and dysfunction as a badge of honor, a sign -- to put it in Caulfieldian terms -- that we are discerning enough to see through all the crap. Our celebration of overwrought disaffection reminds me of the last sentence of Joyce’s Araby: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Here is the adolescent pose non-pareil. Equally self-accusing and self-aggrandizing, it captures the adolescent at the precise moment when his own disillusionment becomes the object of his grandiose and self-dramatizing vision. That’s the kind of crap that Holden Caulfield (and J. D. Salinger) cannot see through. And it is often the kind of crap that we “adults” like to slosh around in.
The Barney beating of several years ago is another symptom of our arrested adolescence, our inability to ride the wave of disillusion into the relatively calm harbor of adulthood -- as though flailing around in the storm and raging at the wind were in themselves marks of distinction and a superior sensibility. I remember a news story about a woman in a Barney costume being seriously injured when a rabid (and probably drunken) anti-Barney fanatic attacked the big purple dinosaur at some public event. Now, I don’t know the age of the Barney-beater, but the act itself is a supremely adolescent one, in which the impulsive response to disillusionment is to lash out at those symbols of childhood which made the biggest dupes of us. At the dawn of adolescence, when Barney begins to appear cloying and false, it seems natural to want to beat up on him, as though it was Barney himself who pulled one over on us instead of our own poignant and necessary misapprehension of the nature of things. I could see Holden Caulfield beating up on Barney (at least rhetorically), and I could see Holden Caulfield missing Barney (as he misses all the “phonies” at the end of the book), but I cannot see Holden Caulfield accepting the postlapsarian Barney on new terms, as a figure who is meant for children and not for him. For all his touching poses about wanting to be the “catcher in the rye,” what Holden really wants is not to save children but to be a child again.