Well Adjusted People are Boring: Why there’s more to Franny and Zooey than just the philosophy
Joseph M. Reynolds
It’s not too hard to understand why they don’t publish too many books that have basically no plot, and where the author makes basically no attempt at keeping a rhythm or sustaining drama or suspense—but it is a damn shame. The wealth of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is presented in dialogue form, but it is a uniquely narrative type of dialogue where intensely intellectualized characters speak voluminously on philosophical and religious subjects. At times, the short novel is essentially a series of soliloquies that are augmented by the presence of a reactive and emotive listener in the frame, and in that way it reads more like an epistolary (which they really don’t publish anymore) where obstinate lead characters blather on, unaffected and unimpeded by the objection, disgust or interrogatory of their listeners. But while the abstractions and mostly uninterrupted pontifications often go on for a seemingly absurd length of time, they adroitly create the novel’s humanistic atmosphere—as unpleasant and irritating as it might be—and make more vivid the characterization of the central figures of the text; figures imprisoned by their own hyper-intellectualism and so obsessed by their quests for pure consciousness that they fail to find any joy in visceral experience or sensate feeling, and are oblivious to (or unconcerned with) the social suffering of all of those who are made to listen.
The other, or largely quiet, character in these unique dialogue scenes is virtually always alienated, and that alienation is a reference to the kind of distance from humanity that the central figures labor under. Salinger’s overdrawn and didactic narrative monologues are transformed into true novelistic scenery simply by imbibing each sequence with the presence of a character listening to the speeches being given, and allowing the audience to study the effects of such unyielding speech. The listening character informs the audience both by the symbolism of the position he/she holds in reference to the speaker, and by the short, meek, and unpersuasive emotive responses they utter in the course of a scene. In this way, Franny, Zooey, and even their brother Buddy for that matter, are given real and humanistic personas in relation to the people that inhabit their living spaces and endure their brands of intellectual brutality, as opposed to being relegated to mere narrative concepts, or blank mouthpieces for metaphysical speculation by the author.
The novel’s opening section, or “Franny” section, is superficially a vignette detailing Franny Glass’s reunion lunch with boyfriend Lane Coutell on the weekend of the Yale game. Lane is an aloof, obtuse, and hollow phony who isn’t nearly as intelligent as he perceives himself to be (for one thing, he’s clearly oblivious to the fact that Franny has come to find him horrible and pathetic), and seems to be the epitome of the kind of “section man” that Franny is railing against. In response to Lane’s boastful claims about a scathing essay he composed on Flaubert, Franny says, “You’re talking exactly like a section man. A section man’s a person that takes over the class when a professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie and starts knocking Turgenev for about half an hour. Then when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis on. Little section men, running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths.” (15) While we don’t have an independent portrait of Lane at college, I venture that this is an accurate portrayal of him (later, after Franny recedes into the bathroom sweating and overwhelmed, and returns to the table to talk feverishly about her disavowal of all collegial conceits, and then speaks intensely about the religious text The Way of the Pilgrim and her seeking of absolute consciousness, Lane retorts by announcing that he hopes that he can find his “gooddam Flaubert paper” for her to read), and the fact that he is not a character that would likely illicit a sympathetic response from the reader is a crucial aspect of how Salinger is crafting his characterizations through narrative dialogue and interaction. The distance from humanity exhibited by the primary actors in the text can be seen on its own; it is not dependent on comparative representations, or in Franny and Zooey’s juxtaposition to more likeable figures; it is instead an independent kind of dilemma and pathology. In fact, if Lane were a more likeable and convivial figure, Franny’s growing disaffection may be harder to uncover and more open to bias, as the reader would most likely feel sorry for Lane, and angry with a petulant Franny, and miss the true extent of Franny’s existential and spiritual crises. This is not a social or episodic novel; it is an intense speculation on a certain kind of learning, and a certain kind of spiritual consciousness, as well as a treatise on the benefits of genius and knowledge consumption. But those brands of speculation are only rendered important in their relations to social and humanistic contexts, which is why Salinger places other people in the pontificator’s environment, and writes his speculations as a novel instead of an essay.
Salinger further reinforces the independent nature of the human dilemma in the Franny section by painting a vision of her neuroses on a very large canvas, lest the reader be deceived into thinking that Franny is only temporarily disaffected by her seemingly righteous disgust for and boredom with, Lane’s persona. Lane, who was at the right table, in the right restaurant, with the right looking girl. Franny has quit the theatre company because she is incurably sick of all of the adulation and acclaim she receives, and is terrified by the fact that even her talented colleagues aren’t pure geniuses. On Lane’s mocking revelation that a typical guy named Wally Campbell spent the summer in France and not Italy, Franny responds, “It isn’t just Wally. If he were a girl in my dorm for example—he’s have been painting scenery in some stock company all summer. Or bicycled through Wales. Or taken an apartment in New York and worked for a magazine or an advertising company. It’s everybody. Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and sad-making.”(26) It is an incredible statement of pathological distaste for human enterprise, punctuated by the repeated use of words like everybody and everything, and a clear reminder that Franny’s unhappiness is not acutely related to her connection to Lane, but instead a complete lack of hope that anything genuine can be found in the human endeavor. But it is important that Lane is in the scene, as he comes to represent not merely an elitist and boring Ivy league caricature, but the whole “other” of humanity than Franny’s vainglorious and inherently doomed quest for consciousness (to be with God, before God said Let there be light, is an ambitious and even sacrilegious desire), distances her from. Lane’s dumbfound shock and incomprehension of her complaints serve as a kind of barometer for just how far she is removed from the visceral and temporal worlds of her classmates.
Franny is further alienated from discourse and connection when she leaves college in the midst of her “breakdown” and is confronted by her genius brother Zooey at home in Manhattan. Zooey’s analysis of Franny’s trouble with the “Jesus Prayer,” as expressed in The Way of the Pilgrim, is prescient and brilliant, but is completely lost on Franny, obscured by the maze of sardonic and bitter rhetoric with which he presents his thinking. Here, the form and its effect are more essential than the concept, as the form disguises the insight of the concept, and this dynamic of alienation can only be accomplished through the social aspect of the dialogue technique. Franny is disenfranchised by the lack of authenticity she finds, and driven mad by the rank sentimentality she seems to find at all corners; she is seeking “Christ Consciousness” in repeatedly saying the short anthem of the Jesus Prayer, seeking a method to activate her heart and only feel, and in turn, freeing herself from affect. Zooey astutely points out that if Franny is going to undertake the endeavor of perpetually devoting herself to the prayer, she should at least understand Christ, and that her childlike dislike of Christ (little Franny Glass could never get behind a Jesus that throws tables and idols around the temple and values man over the birds) is causing her to conflate Him with configurations of figures she more subjectively endorses, and blocking any attempt she might have of finding the active heart consciousness she is seeking. Zooey exclaims,”Oh my God what a mind! Who else would have kept his mouth shut when Pilate asked for an explanation? Who beside Jesus knew that we were carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside, and we’re all too stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look. Jesus was a supreme adept, by God, on a terribly important mission. If God had wanted someone with St.Francis’s winning personality, He would’ve picked him; you can be sure. As it was, he picked the best, the smartest, the least sentimental, the most loving, un-imitative master he could possibly have picked. And when you miss seeing that, you’re missing the whole point of the Jesus prayer.”(172) Zooey masterfully deconstructs Franny’s attempt at the prayer here, but at least at this point, his insight gives Franny no succor, or understanding, for it is shrouded in digressive, unfocused tantrums in which Zooey refers to their mother as a fat old Druid,” comments on the ridiculous nature of non-native New Yorkers who wear sport coats with blue jeans and hang out in the village, calls Franny’s “breakdown” tenth rate and convenient, smokes an obnoxiously large cigar, any dissects the paucity of the ambition of television executives. Franny is driven to furious tears of frustration, and it becomes clear that nothing Zooey has said pertaining to the prayer has been comprehended. This is the masterful aspect of Salinger’s employment of the narrative dialogue technique. In isolation, the above quoted material on the prayer amounts to a wondrous type of scholarly insight, and an explanation of the historical Christ that even non-Christians and secularists might find useful. But it does not resonate with Franny, and we are reminded that ideas do not exist in a vacuum, and that they only become useful, and even coherent, when expressed in a kind of cooperative social context. And this is the essence of this productive and wonderfully drawn novel—the audience can both consume the abstract ideas presented by the precociously brilliant characters, and more importantly, witness their outcomes in relation to the reactions of the people that they are meant to be spoken to.
These ideas of context and human receptiveness are further reinforced by a sly aside in the novel where Zooey reads a letter from his older brother Buddy. Buddy sits to write with a spontaneous and specific purpose—an encounter with a young girl at a grocery store in which the young girl declares that she has two boyfriends, and that their names are Bobby and Dorothy reminds Buddy of oldest brother Seymour’s belief that the difference between boys and girls is an illusory one, and he wants to tell Zooey why they undertook his education in the fashion they did. But Buddy is a “writer,” and the import of his spontaneous desire to write is watered down by his admitted vanity and love affair with language, so much so that a pressing letter about the nature of Franny and Zooey’s philosophical upbringing becomes disguised under laborious amounts of digression on the craft of acting, the nature of taking advanced degrees, and arcane anecdotes about lunches with John Barrymore and embarrassing revelations about their intrusive but good -hearted mother Bessie. Buddy’s instinct to drop his groceries and rush home from the store to write is a pure and natural one, but his insistence on not editing himself from his meaningless digressions both wanes his energy and alienates Zooey from the letter’s central purpose. Again, we only truly understand this through the lens of Zoey’s reactions and behavior while reading the letter. The inclusion of the social, dialogic dynamic in this text transforms the novel from a bloviating mass of pedantry to a truly ingenious construction that not only introduces innovative ideas, but studies the relation and results of those ideas, focusing on how they are communicated, and the effects of those styles of communication on both the speaker and the mostly alienated listener. Any concern for usual narrative rhythm or dramatic arc would inherently distort who Franny and Zooey are as characters and concepts, and that would be a damn shame too; as they’re people worth knowing, or, at the very least, people worth an argument about why we never want to know anyone like them, ever again.
Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1991.