Franny and Zooey

Author: J. D. Salinger
Year: 1961
Genre: Literary fiction

Just having finished a volume of Walker Percy's densely technical philosophy, I picked up Salinger because I hoped his conversational prose would provide a change in my reading. As it turned out, the style was certainly different enough - it took me six weeks to finish The Message in the Bottle, whereas Franny and Zooey clocked in at around twenty hours - but once you scratch the surface, you find that the two books share a common theme.

Like The Message in the Bottle, Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, concerned with the search for transcendence and relevance amid the artifice of modern (particularly academic) life. Ultimately, both arrive at the idea that, since modern man cannot happily be in the world (because it's full of phoneys), we are faced with a choice between cynical alienation and religious detachment; and that, although the two orientations may share some outward similarities, they are fundamentally opposite ways of being. The choices are nothing less than suffering and enlightenment.

Franny Glass is clearly suffering. In the first quarter of the book, the story "Franny," we see her put up with her pretentious Ivy League boyfriend, stop putting up with him, criticize herself for her impatience, and pass out in a restaurant. Much of her frustration seems rooted in the classic Salinger problem of upper-class social conformity, and the near-impossibility of escaping it. But while Holden Caulfield had to be institutionalized, Franny seems to be seeking release through the gentler madness of religious mysticism, specifically the Jesus prayer.

The remainder of the book is called "Zooey" for Franny's next-eldest brother in the Glass clan (see also Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"). In this story -- almost a one-act play, really, since it's all dialogue -- Zooey, an actor, attempts to cure his sister's malaise by playing the roles of Young Groucho Marx, Philosophy Professor, and his late older brother Seymour. In the end, Franny sees through to her brother's authentic self, and this mere touch of authenticity seems to bring her peace, if not satori.

Any reading of "other" Salinger novels requires a comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, so here it comes: I found Franny and Zooey more accessible because it's not as adolescent. Like Holden, Franny is suffering with problems that people with real problems don't have time to worry about; still, her spiritual crisis has more adult, intellectual relevance than Holden's acute affluenza. We can feel bad for Holden, even fall in love with him if we're 15-year-old girls, but from Franny we might learn something.

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