Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – excerpt from the first story ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’.
A superb short story collection, published in 1953. Most of these stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, and the Glass family – featured so strongly in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (excerpt here), Seymour An Introduction (excerpt here) and Franny and Zooey – also stroll through the pages of Nine Stories. Sometimes they are peripheral characters, or only exist in memory (like in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” – my favorite story in the collection) – but sometimes, like in ‘Perfect Day for Bananafish’ they take center stage. If you’re immersed in Salinger-land then you know all of these people like you know your own family. Wes Anderson is obviously hugely influenced by Salinger, although his own sensibility of course has much to do with his film-making – but he is haunted by the Glass family, and it shows.
Siblings. That relationship. Especially in precocious kids who maybe didn’t have the best childhood. What binds us together (or doesn’t bind us together?) In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, Seymour An Introduction, and Franny and Zooey, we meet the Glass family at various stages … all post-Seymour’s suicide. He is the oldest brother. A poet. A Buddhist. Obviously brilliant, but obviously troubled – he would never have had a conventional path. But, as Salinger writes in Catcher in the Rye (excerpt here), it is those who follow another path, or hear another drumbeat – however you want to call it – who sometimes have the hardest time of it, especially in a society that values conformity above all else. And Salinger was writing from the 1950s, a time of great conformity (which, ironically or not so ironically, engendered a lot of great art) – when you either had to drop out and be a biker Beat dude on the fringes of society, or join the masses. This is oversimplified, naturally – but often it is the oversimplification of cultural movements and forces that bring out some pretty good art – movies, music, poetry … People reacting to what they see as some larger forces. Salinger is right on the edge of all of that. His Holden Caulfield is deeply surrounded by conventionality – he is on the path all of his peers are on. His boarding school is, obviously, a hotbed of conventionality – even with all the different characters – and even if no one says anything to him, Caulfield gets the message loud and clear: “Why can’t you be … more … well … NORMAL?” As someone who has struggled with my own sense of self and surrounded by forces which seem to either want to tell me who to be (those are easily ignored) – or say to me: “Why aren’t you like everyone else?” (not so easily ignored – if you listen to questions like that long enough, the end result can be neurosis) I understand Holden Caulfield’s struggle, and I also understand JD Salinger’s antipathy for phonies, fakers, and people who “play along with the rules” in order to fit in. We’re kind of approaching Joseph Heller territory here (excerpt here), where the Catch-22 is: the entire world is fucked up. If you accept the rules, you are fucked up yourself. If you DON’T accept the rules, you will be viewed as THE most fucked up, even though you are saner than everyone. Yossarian knows that “people” are trying to kill him. His commanding officer shouts, in frustration, “Of COURSE they’re trying to kill you – it’s a war!” Yossarian thinks that is the stupidest explanation he has ever heard. How on earth will that change his experience of flying above the earth knowing that people down there are shooting up at him? And how on earth is he supposed to NOT take that personally??? “They’re trying to KILL ME!” he shouts to anyone who will listen, and you know, he’s got a point. He’s not swayed by generalized explanations about “war” or “duty” or “patriotism”. He just wants to avoid the bullet. Heller writes about huge societal forces – swaying enormous groups of people in one direction … and within that, there is a ton of variety … and those who try to resist that sway – are seen as certifiable lunatics. Ken Kesey is another one who writes in this vein. You know, these are all 1950s writers.
Seymour Glass is a mystery – regardless of all of the time Salinger spends on him. There are great gaps in our information about him. We know he was beloved by his siblings. We know that he treats little kids with respect – he meets them at their level, maybe he finds their honesty refreshing. Seymour Glass seems to have a hard time with, you know, “fitting in”. And choosing to NOT “fit in” is sometimes a lifelong commitment – and you have to just deal with the fact that you are outside the norm, and people will not understand you – or they will fall silent when you answer a question, because they won’t know what to say … There are expectations placed ON us, and we can either submit or rebel (and this is not to say that those who DO submit are drones, or unthinking people – so do not purposefully misunderstand me here) – there are those who DO “fit in” with the cultural norm – naturally, and it deeply expresses who they are, what they want, and what they expect from life. So bully for them. Seymour Glass is trapped in a world that thinks he is a weirdo. He has been outraging convention for years – no matter what he does. You hope against hope that someone like that is okay with the fact that everyone thinks he is weird … and despite the fact that Seymour kills himself, it is still not clear why.
“A Perfect Day For Bananafish” tells the story of Seymour Glass on a holiday in Florida with his wife Muriel. It is the only time that Seymour is the lead of a story. For the most part, we hear about him through others. So here we are with him. It’s a brutal story. Short, unforgiving, and mysterious. It opens with Seymour’s wife Muriel on the phone with her mother – Muriel is in the hotel room in Florida, painting her nails and smoking a cigarette. Muriel’s mother is beside herself with worry, and is obviously kind of obsessed with how weird Seymour is. He has a tattoo. There are vast swathes of stories behind her words – things left unexplained – Seymour said something inappropriate to “Grandma” when Grandma revealed her plans for her funeral … things like that. Seymour is unpredictable. It is worried over. He plays the piano in the hotel bar?? Has he done anything else wildly inappropriate? Does he call Muriel by that awful nickname? Muriel seems exasperated with her mother, and keeps trying to reassure her that everything is fine – but eventually it is revealed that Muriel spoke to a psychiatrist and his wife who are staying at the hotel – and yes, the bar was really loud so they had to shout … but there is something creepy about Muriel going behind her husband’s back like this. Muriel doesn’t seem like a bad sort, and it is refreshing how she treats her mother. Seymour’s nickname for Muriel is “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948” and Muriel thinks that is hysterical. So I like Muriel for that. But Muriel’s mother is absolutely horrified. Tramp?? What? Her daughter has obviously married a maniac. Muriel seems a bit more philosophical about her husband’s idiosyncracies – the fact that he wears his bathrobe on the beach, the fact that he gave her a book of poetry in German and told her she should learn the language in order to read it … You know, he’s not malevolent … but you definitely get the sense of forces larger than Seymour Glass trying to marginalize him or psychopathologize him. Who knows.
Next scene is on the beach. It’s shattering and I’ve read it a million times and I still can’t get to the bottom of it. Seymour lies on the beach. A little 4 year old girl named Sybil who is also on vacation with her parents has befriended Seymour (she calls him “See more glass”) – and they go swimming together, and Seymour tells her a story about bananafish, a tragic breed of fish who swim through a hole in a cave in order to eat the bananas there, and then they gorge themselves until they become so fat they can’t exit the cave again. They die. A rather grim story for a 4 year old, but you know … little kids can handle grim stories better than adults can. You ever read the actual Sleeping Beauty? That’s some scary shit. So Sybil, floating on the raft, starts to peer into the water for bananafish, and reports to Seymour that she saw one swim by and he had six bananas in his mouth!
Seymour then heads back to the hotel. He stands in the elevator, in his bathrobe, barefoot. Another person in the elevator keeps glancing down at Seymour’s bare feet and Seymour can’t stand it anymore and calls them out on it. “My feet are normal and I can’t see the slightest God-damn reason anyone should stare at them.” Woah. A kind of scary moment where social norms are totally set aside. You don’t talk to strangers in elevators. And if someone is behaving in a rude manner, staring at you, you should grin and bear it, perhaps keep your mouth shut. Having seen Seymour now only in context with his encounter with Sybil – where he is sweet, humorous, kind – it’s jarring how rude and angry he is in the elevator. What is going on with this man?
If you haven’t read the story, be aware that there are spoilers coming up. Seymour returns to his hotel room. There are twin beds. His wife lies asleep in one of them. Seymour goes to his suitcase, takes out a gun, sits on the other twin bed, puts the gun to his temple and fires.
It’s horrifying. It’s horrifying because it ends right there and you know that the gun blast will wake up his wife – and that she will be left with the mess and the horrifying sight of her husband with his brains blown out in the next bed.
It’s my favorite kind of short story. The “meaning” is left out. Whatever it “means” is between the words. It’s 15 pages long. It’s nothing, a snippet, really. But every time I read it, I either notice new things, or I remember, yet again, why the story haunts me.
Here’s an excerpt.
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger – ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’
Sybil released her foot. “Did you read ‘Little Black Sambo’?” she said.
“It’s very funny you ask me that,” he said. “It so happens I just finished reading it last night.” He reached down and took back Sybil’s hand. “What did you think of it?” he asked her.
“Did the tigers run all around that tree?”
“I thought they’d never stop. I never saw so many tigers.”
“There were only six,” Sybil said.
“Only six!” said the young man. “Do you call that only?”
“Do you like wax?” Sybil asked.
“Do I like what?” asked the young man.
“Very much. Don’t you?”
Sybil nodded. “Do you like olives?” she asked.
“Olives – yes. Olives and wax. I never go anyplace without ’em.”
“Do you like Sharon Lipschutz?” Sybil asked.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” said the young man. “What I like particularly about her is that she never does anything mean to little dogs in the lobby of the hotel. That little toy bull that belongs to that lady from Canada, for instance. You probably won’t believe this, but some little girls like to poke that little dog with balloon sticks. Sharon doesn’t. She’s never mean or unkind. That’s why I like her so much.”
Sybil was silent.
“I like to chew candles,” she said finally.
“Who doesn’t?” said the young man, getting his feet wet. “Wow! It’s cold.” He dropped the rubber float on its back. “No, wait just a second, Sybil. Wait’ll we get out a little bit.”
They waded out till the water was up to Sybil’s waist. Then the young man picked her up and laid her down on her stomach on the float.
“Don’t you ever wear a bathing cap or anything?” he asked.
“Don’t let go,” Sybil ordered. “You hold me, now.”
“Miss Carpenter. Please. I know my business,” the young man said. “You just keep your eyes open for any bananafish. This is a perfect day for bananafish.”