What was JD Salinger writing?

Reading Lillian Ross’s reminiscence of JD Salinger, in this week’s New Yorker, I was struck by her mention of his telling her, over the years – and thus, presumably, long after the appearance of what would be his last published story – that he wrote constantly, working “long and crazy hours.” You’d think, given his litigious nature, that he was working on letters to his lawyer and various judges. But to me, at least, Ross implies that he was writing fiction, and not only for himself – that is, with a view toward getting it published.

What became of this stuff? Had he lost his discipline, in the wake of his huge success with Catcher in the Rye, this success having robbed him of the compulsion to see anything through – to prove that his writing, and the thoughts it conveyed, were worthwhile? Was he like Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould – too close to his material, and too wedded to the idea of writing as score-settling, and emotional release, that he needed each line to be too perfect, and too full of rancor, love, and longing, and so never got far enough into anything to feel he had a draft, much less a finished verson? Or did he produce a pile of stories, and perhaps a few novels, but wasn’t happy with any of them?

My bet is on the big pile. His writing is so fluid, suggesting an ease in constructing characters and narratives, and finding graceful ways to convey them, and I can’t believe he lost that after 1965. I’d bet too that he was right not to publish anything that’s in the pile. His work charms because he so perfectly captures the precious-verging-on-fey voice, concerns, and worldview of the precocious, sensitive teenager – this is true even in his stories with adult protagonists. And to the extent his reputation not only survived, but prospered, over the years, that was due to his being read, identified with, and loved by a new set of precocious, sensitive teenagers, each year – and idolized, with ever-more fervor, by adults who’d been in their shoes way back when, and now long for the days before grown-up life’s demands forced them to make all the choices, and thus all the compromises, that Salinger’s characters mock as insincere and phony. His real-life dealings, with everyone outside his adopted home town, suggest that he clung tightly to his characters’ teenage persona to the end of his days – and so presumably couldn’t have written anything from any other point of view. Could this stuff, coming from a 60- or 70-year-old writer, pass the giggle test? Almost certainly not – and even if it had, it could never have meant, to all those millions who worshipped him, anywhere near what Catcher had meant.

Beyond irony

David Foster Wallace never got there. I’m sure that over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll see many articles lamenting that his writing never became what it might have, and these articles will be right-on. But his death’s not to blame. His writing, on the sentence level, was incredibly engaging, and he always had interesting things to say, whatever his topic. But it was all cleverly crafted quips. He was the equivalent of the smartest sophomore in the English class, spending his time during lectures not writing notes, but figuring out the funniest possible thing to say, by way of answering the question he knew – ahead of everyone, he’d figured out – the prof would ask, by way of starting class discussion. His quips worked on all sorts of levels, and the footnotes were a joy, but his writing was never more than this. Which was why Infinite Jest was un-get-through-able. You could read fifty pages, chosen at random, at a sitting, and tell yourself that chunk was a story – otherwise, you’d get bored, wondering, would it all add up to something.

Maybe it didn’t have to. Maybe that’s why he’d written so little, the past few years. He felt the pressure to make his writing “add up to something” – he was a tenured professor! no longer a clever young thing, but a writer of stature…. and he knew that was silly. but still he felt the need to do “more.” And for him, I think, there was nothing more.

Which route could he have gone – would he have gone – had he lived? I’m not sure. I don’t think he was cut out for serious and somber, or for putting the postmodern pedal to the metal, a la, I don’t know, Mark Danielewski or someone. Probably the Donald Antrim route could’ve worked – Antrim’s essays, the lighter ones, in the New Yorker, strike me as maybe a model for what Wallace might have done, though Wallace’s versions would’ve been denser and probably even funnier. Wallace worked better when he clearly felt some distance from his topic – a la the cruise ship essay, from Harper’s, I think it was – or when writing about some endeavor that had engaged him at one point, but no longer did, a la tennis, in that the “Midwestern tennis kids” piece. He could be ironic while skirting sincerity, by presenting the sincerity of others, in a relatively non-ironic way, and thus let you feel you were one of the other kids in that class, and were at least a little in on the joke, and so weren’t closed out of his club, and had some incentive to engage with what he was telling you, and having done so, were surprised at how much you found there. And then you’d read more of his stuff, and see he was as hit-and-miss as anyone who’s naturally smart and funny and so occasionally tries too hard to go beyond funny, into serious, but isn’t ready to do so, and so winds up looking… err… sophomoric and silly, and no longer quite precocious. As in that great-til-the-last-few-pages story in which Lyndon Johnson turns out to be gay – “society needs to deal with gayness” being the “weighty” topic Wallace had chosen, and, ultimately, whiffed on. Didn’t he write an essay on the Iraq war too? I think he did, and it was bad, in a similar way, though perhaps I’m confusing him with someone else. Anyway, he never rose to the level of, say, Dave Eggers, in the first hundred or so pages of A heartbreaking tale…, which, for me, hit the target Wallace had set, and never hit himself.

Certainly it’s awful how he went, and whatever emotional problems drove him to it, God rest his soul for having had to battle them. But as a writer, honestly, his best work was past, and fifty years on, he’ll seem to have been a flash in the pan, or perhaps a precursor to a whole mess of other, younger writers – Eggers among them – who went beyond him, and, if they didn’t always fulfill the promise of his work, at least did the work he was never quite up to doing.

“Ah, to free oneself of the inner life!”

This, per Bernard-Henri Lévy, was always Robbe-Grillet’s desire, and one he achieved in his novels. And that’s what makes those novels at once exciting and impossible to get through. Their emotional aridness, for me, has always been overwhelming, although after I put one of them down—unfinished, always—I’m still excited by the possibilities of his project. Perhaps his seeming anti-humanism, like Sartre’s, is really an ultra-stripped-down humanism, and so there’s a way into liking his fiction that I haven’t yet found.

Flash Man

A few years back, a friend who’d just read a Tolstoy bio regaled me with a litany of the old man’s retrograde views on women, serfs, and so forth. I pointed out that on the plus side, he wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace. “Yes,” she said, “but I can’t look at those novels again—what an awful man!”

George MacDonald Fraser awaits his biographer.