Portnoy’s Complaint, Zooey’s Remedy
Salinger may have predated Roth, but he was also a step ahead
A young man taking a long, languorous bath is paid a visit by his mother, who sits down (presumably on the toilet seat) to chat, and, despite her son’s half-hearted attempts to get rid of her, remains there for most of the next 48 pages. She’s come to talk about the young man’s college-aged sister, who is in the living room in a state of nervous collapse, attempting to reach enlightenment by repeating a mantra, the “Jesus Prayer,” to herself. In the meantime, the girl is refusing even to eat a nice bowl of chicken soup. How long is it going to take for her to reach enlightenment, the mother asks the son. Not long, he replies. If she keeps going with the prayer, “a procession of saints and bodhisattvas [will] march in, carrying bowls of chicken broth.” The mother says she doesn’t think this is very funny.
The scene, which takes up almost a quarter of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, is classic American Jewish comedy, but it’s just as notable for the joke it doesn’t make: the obvious one about emasculating mothers who hang out in the bathroom with their grown sons. When the mother, Bessie Glass, touches her son Zooey’s bare back as he shaves and compliments how “broad and lovely” he’s gotten, he recoils—not because she’s broken an Oedipal taboo, but because he’s afraid that too much reflection on the beauty of his physical form will corrupt him spiritually. Zooey has plenty of complaints, but Portnoy’s is not one of them.
What do we do with J.D. Salinger, the midcentury American Jewish anomaly who wrote the episode above (which the writer Janet Malcolm has called “one of the most remarkable mother-and-son scenes in literature”) and many like it? As the writers who’ve eulogized him in the past week have demonstrated, we can love him with a slightly defensive fervor, as though a superior critic might at any moment squash his literary reputation forever; or look beyond his small oeuvre to the subcultures of fans it has spawned; or use the strange path of his career to think through larger questions of what we want from our authors. But how do we do with Salinger what we do with most famous writers when they die—that is, figure out where they fit into our individual and collective literary canons?
One potential place to “put” Salinger would be with the other American Jewish male writers who came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s—authors like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, who’ve come to define an era in American Jewish literature. Up to a point, this makes sense: like various among them, Salinger served in and wrote about World War II and critiqued the culture of the American boom times that followed. Like them, he masterfully combined elements of high and low art, a practice that since then has become almost synonymous with the American aesthetic. And like them, his work was frequently animated by a quarrel with the religious affiliation of his youth. But—and this slight distinction makes all the difference—he was picking a different fight with Jewishness. It had nothing to do with the strangulations of insular community life, or the struggle to move beyond immigrant parents and become American, or to move beyond a castrating old-world mother and become a man. Salinger’s assimilated, upper-middle-class characters don’t have to worry about these things; in fact, Franny and Zooey Glass and their five siblings—his most Jewishly identified characters—are, like Salinger himself, technically only half-Jewish. The specter of intermarriage (or, to put it in more Rothian terms, the possibility of banging shiksas) isn’t a taboo-smashing fantasy, here; it’s a very comfortable fact.
Salinger’s quarrel with Jewishness was about structures of thought that are much less visible and less risible than the clannishness of immigrants: he objects to the premiums placed on education, analysis, intelligence itself. The Glass family stories concern the attempt of seven brilliant siblings to escape from brilliance—and, in particular, from the psychoanalytic thought that permeated Jewish intellectual life at the time. If Alex Portnoy visits his Dr. Spielvogel in an attempt to cure himself of the strangulating effects of parochial Jewish community, the Glass children turn to eastern religion to escape the limitations of a world where everyone sees an analyst.
In a well-meaning educational experiment that forms the background of Franny and Zooey, the eldest and brainiest of the siblings, Seymour and Buddy, force-feed the youngest, Zooey and Franny, on a steady diet of Buddhist and Christian mysticism from the time they’re small children. Their syllabus includes “the Upanishads and the Diamond Sutra and Eckhart,” “Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankarachya and Hui-neng and Sri Ramakrishna.” (Moses, for his part, comes up exactly once, marshaled by Zooey as an example of a prophet who “was a nice man, and he kept in beautiful touch with his God, and all that,” but was no Jesus.)
The plan backfires: like many graduates of progressive schools, Franny and Zooey grow up to feel that their idealistic education has rendered them even less capable of interacting with the outside world than they would be otherwise. Each twist of the knot makes the siblings more dependent on each other, trapped in a dialectic of knowledge and “no-knowledge” that no one else understands. They spend the duration of the book sitting around their messy Upper West Side apartment (“Bessie’s kibbutz,” Buddy calls it) stroking their cat, Bloomberg, and arguing about how to get out of the metaphysical mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Other than in relation to their heritage, no one ever explicitly mentions Jewishness, but the whole thing is so Jewish it makes you wonder if, by contrast, Alex Portnoy could just as well have been Armenian.
The tragedy of Salinger’s career, as many critics have noted, is that he seems to have been, ultimately, unable to get out of the intellectual trap he so brilliantly described his characters being stuck in. It’s hard not to wonder whether they—and he—might have been able to pry themselves loose if they had had a slightly less dismal view of sex. There’s virtually no sex, at least in any conventional sense of the word, in any of the Glass family stories. (There’s an implication in “Franny” that the young woman and her boyfriend have slept together, and some even read the story as implying that she’s pregnant.) The only way it even comes up, for the most part, is in abstracted form as “desire” or “attachment,” which the Buddhist-influenced siblings believe ought to be avoided; or, even more abstractly, as the cure for malaise recommended by psychoanalysis, for which they have unanimous contempt. This is, in fact, where Salinger diverges most sharply from Bellow, Mailer, and Roth, all of whom were profoundly influenced by psychoanalytic thought and whose explicit writing about sex changed the way sex was written about—and perhaps even how it was performed.
It’s quite possible that Salinger would have had a longer career if he had allowed his characters more plot-motivating desires (carnal or otherwise), but it’s just as likely that the very good work of his that we do have has been underappreciated because we just don’t know what to do with his lack of what, in Franny and Zooey, he derisively calls “testicularity.” Or, to be more precise, critics don’t know what to do with him. Fiction writers seem to, though. Mailer, Bellow, and company are hardly dusty, and Roth, for all we know, may have his best years still ahead of him—but it’s Salinger’s presence, more than any of theirs, that can be seen in much of the fiction currently being produced by young writers, including his lack of engagement with sex. Last month, cultural critic Katie Roiphe lamented in a New York Times Book Review essay that “young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent” to Roth, Mailer, Bellow, and Updike, have “repudiated the virility of their predecessors.” She blames a censorious brand of feminism for the alleged generational shift toward “passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite.” To whatever extent she’s right about the phenomenon, she’s wrong about the cause. Possibly one or two of the young male writers she accuses of prudery have read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. Every one of them has read Salinger.
Until close to the end of the book that bears her name, Franny remains inconsolable, reciting the Jesus Prayer and refusing to eat. Finally, through a theatrical bit of trickery, Zooey gets her attention. “How in hell,” he asks her, “are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don’t even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it’s right in front of your nose?” Compared with what Alex Portnoy might do with a cup of chicken soup, there’s nothing remotely shocking about this moment. But on its own terms, it’s radical. Chicken soup and the mothers who proffer it, here, have lost the power they have elsewhere to keep a young American in a Jewish ghetto. Instead, in this brief moment when Buddhist thought and Jewish family life are reconciled, chicken soup becomes an object of transcendence, a communion wafer or an om—and the mother who bears it just might be Buddha, or Christ, in disguise.