In which I review Franny & Zooey, J. D. Salinger’s novella about the neurotic youngest siblings of the Glass Family, living in luxurious despair in 1950s New York City.
What it’s about: New York City, the 1950s. In the first story, “Franny”, 20 year-old college undergraduate Franny Glass arrives by train for a weekend visit with her boyfriend Lane. After dropping Franny’s bags at a boarding house, Lane takes her to lunch at a fashionable restaurant. Franny attempts to be interested in Lane’s stories of college life, but quickly grows bored and peevish, and refuses to eat her chicken sandwich. After complaining of feeling faint, she excuses herself and goes to the bathroom where she cries for five minutes, then regains her composure and returns to the table. Lane questions her about a small green book she has been carrying. Franny explains that the book, The Way of a Pilgrim, describes a Russian mystic learning the power of “praying without ceasing”, and tells Lane that she has been practising the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” like a mantra. Lane shows little interest, and pushes Franny to finish her lunch, anxious that they not be late for a collegiate party and football game. Franny faints and regains consciousness in a back room of the restaurant. Lane goes to call a taxi to take Franny back to her lodgings, leaving her alone, silently reciting the Jesus Prayer.
The second story, “Zooey”, focuses on Franny’s elder brother Zachary (“Zooey”) Glass, a 25 year-old television actor and the youngest surviving son of the family. Zooey sits in the bathtub in his family home, smoking cigarettes and reading a four-year old letter from his elder brother Buddy, which discusses their elder brother Seymour’s suicide several years earlier. Zooey’s mother Bessie comes into the bathroom, and they have a long conversation about Franny, who appears to have had a nervous breakdown and is refusing to eat. Zooey bickers with and insults his mother, and makes frequent requests for her to leave him alone. Bessie ignores his abuse, but tells him he is too judgmental and intimidates others easily, and wonders why her once “happy and loving” children are now unravelling. Through the course of their conversation, we learn that Bessie and her husband Les are retired vaudeville performers, and that the Glass children were once stars of a popular radio programme It’s A Wise Child. Now in adulthood, Seymour is dead, and another brother Walter was killed during World War II; Buddy is now estranged from the family and teaches English at a women’s college in upstate New York; another brother, Waker, has become a Roman Catholic monk; and only their sister Boo-Boo lives a comparatively happy life as a suburban housewife and mother.
After Bessie leaves, Zooey gets dressed and goes into the living room, where Franny is lying on the sofa with the family cat Bloomberg. Zooey employs various means to engage Franny, describing them both as damaged (as a result of Seymour and Buddy corrupting their minds with quasi-Buddhist philosophy), accusing her of selfishness and questioning her motives for reciting the Jesus Prayer. After upsetting her to tears, Zooey retreats to Buddy’s and Seymour’s old bedroom and reads a series of philosophical quotes posted on their bedroom door. He makes a phone call to Franny, pretending to be Buddy and speaks to her kindly. Franny eventually realises it is Zooey, but they continue to talk. Zooey shares with her some wisdom handed down from Seymour – that she should live with optimism, resume her passion for theatre, and continue to recite the Jesus Prayer if it comforts her. Zooey hangs up, and Franny lies in their parents’ bed, comforted by his words and smiling as she stares at the ceiling.
Why it’s a classic: Franny and Zooey began life as two separate short stories, published in The New Yorker magazine in 1955 and 1957 respectively, and brought together in book form in 1961 – a decade after the stratospheric success of his novel The Catcher in the Rye had made him a literary celebrity. Franny & Zooey was the second collection of his short stories about the Glass Family, following Nine Stories published in 1953. Both volumes were commercially successful – Franny and Zooey spent 26 weeks in the New York Times fiction bestsellers list – but were largely panned by critics. “Zooey was called “an interminable, an appallingly bad story” by Maxwell Geismar and “a piece of shapeless self-indulgence” by George Steiner. Alfred Kazin lambasted Salinger for doting on the “horribly precocious” Glass family: “I am sorry to have to use the word ‘cute’ in respect to Salinger,” he wrote, “but there is absolutely no other word that for me so accurately typifies the self-conscious charm and prankishness of his own writing.” John Updike, Salinger’s contemporary and a competing giant of American letters, observed that “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them…. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.”
Despite this critical flogging, Franny and Zooey has continued to enjoy popular success, never going out of print since its publication, and is regularly cited, along with Catcher, as one of Salinger’s most-loved works. His tragicomic depiction of bourgeois neurosis and witty sardonic prose appears to have influenced every major American writer who wasn’t inspired by Ernest Hemingway, including Richard Yates, Tom Robbins, Lydia Davis, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers. John Green, a popular author of young adult fiction, has commented that “anybody who writes about teenagers does so in the shadow of Salinger”.
Franny and Zooey has never been filmed in the English-speaking world. After an unsatisfactory film adaptation of an early short story, Salinger insisted that none of his other works be made into films, and aggressively pursued any attempts to breach his copyright. In 1995, Iranian filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui made a film called Pari, a loosely based and unauthorised adaptation of Franny and Zooey. An enraged Salinger halted a proposed screening of the film in New York three years later.
In 2001, Wes Anderson made a more subtle nod to Franny & Zooey in The Royal Tenenbaums, a comedy-drama about an eccentric family of child geniuses who struggle to adapt to adult life. Anderson’s characters exist in the same privileged New York milieu as the Glass family, sharing the same loveable/irritating qualities of self-absorption and emotional paralysis. There’s even a scene where the depressed daughter Margot (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) has a conversation in a bathtub with her concerned mother Etheline (Angelica Huston). Anderson’s adaptation of Salinger’s deadpan style was so on point that the film attracted a very similar critical drubbing to the original stories. A O Scott’s review in the New York Times called the film “endearing and unbearably show-offy” and “a gilded lily that spoils its perfection by insisting on it”, with scenes that “suffocate in cuteness” (yep, that word again).
Salinger’s reputation received a major body blow in the 1990s after the publication of writer Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World, detailing her nine-month relationship with Salinger in 1972 when he was 53 and she was 19. At the time, Maynard was roundly criticised for abusing the famously secretive Salinger’s privacy and attempting to profit from her association with a revered literary figure. In 2018, Maynard published an essay in The New York Times, describing her relationship with Salinger in much starker terms as abusive and sexually coercive, and accused her former critics of a sexist conspiracy to defend a sexual predator. Unsurprisingly, Maynard’s critique found a more sympathetic audience in the age of #MeToo. “At least for now, it seems Maynard has won,” Cathy Young wrote in 2019. “Largely on the strength of her account, Salinger has been posthumously relegated to the limbo of #MeToo-tainted, “problematic” cultural figures, which probably accounts for the awkward half-silence around his centenary.” In fairness to Maynard, Salinger’s reputation hasn’t suffered that much. Catcher in the Rye is still a required text in many American high schools, and sells around 250,000 copies a year – suggesting that, for better or for worse, Holden Caulfield and the Glass family will be around for a while yet.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet made of Zooey’s stubbed-out cigarette butts. If the literary world is divided into those who can’t stand Franny & Zooey and those who love it, I happily claim allegiance with the latter tribe. In her excellent 2001 article “Justice to J. D. Salinger”, Janet Malcolm notes “I don’t know of any other case where literary characters have aroused such animosity, and where a writer of fiction has been so severely censured for failing to understand the offensiveness of his creations”, but adds, “In fact, Salinger understood the offensiveness of his creations perfectly well.” Franny and Zooey are characters who know they’re annoying, both of them aware that their prickliness and impatience with others keeps them from fully integrating with the world. That irritability seems to run both ways – in Buddy’s letter, which takes up the opening pages of “Zooey”, he reminds Zooey that even their radio audiences hated them: “the Glasses were a bunch of insufferable ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth.”
It’s little wonder then, that Franny and Zooey take refuge from what they perceive as a hostile world. Both narratives are characterised by an intense physical and emotional claustrophobia. The characters each hide in bathrooms to avoid other people, and in “Zooey” neither of them leave the protective cocoon of the Glass residence, a careworn and rather sad museum of their childhood celebrity. In this hermetically sealed universe, the siblings shut themselves up like cursed characters in a fairytale – perhaps fearful of being as fragile and breakable as their surnames – with nothing but their own neuroses and memories of happier times for company.
It’s this sense of the Glass’s self-imposed isolation – their rather snobbish view of themselves as exceptional and interestingly damaged – that seems to enrage so many readers. Our distance from them is also heightened by Salinger’s third-person narration. Franny and Zooey appear like specimens trapped under Petri dishes and held up for observation, with little of the warmth and immediacy of Holden Caulfield’s confessional “I”,
So what makes us interested in two upper-middle-class kids who are too smart for their own good, unable, despite their privilege, to pull themselves together? Because of how wittily and perceptively Salinger sketches them. It’s easier, especially in our post-feminist age, to sympathise with Franny, a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who exhibits the symptoms of what we would now classify as an eating disorder. We recognise too the pressures on Franny to be charming and sympathetic, even in the face of the awful Lane. Like Buddy Willard in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (an interesting companion piece to Franny & Zooey), Lane represents everything that’s appalling about 1950s American white masculinity: he’s smug, pretentious and condescending, and enraged when Franny doesn’t play her assigned role of adoring girlfriend. (There’s also the possibility that Franny could be pregnant – Salinger was aware of this interpretation, and left things deliberately ambiguous, though it’s not followed up in “Zooey” or later stories).
While Salinger doesn’t get as deeply into Franny’s consciousness as Plath does with Esther Greenwood (or as he does with Zooey), he’s at least aware of the pressures descending on women like Franny, nice middle-class girls expected to get their MRS degrees and settle down to a quiet life in the suburbs, like the offstage Boo-Boo. Is it any wonder that Franny feels anxious? Even her chicken sandwich and giant glass of milk radiates with an antiseptic horror, her failure to eat policed by the disapproving Lane, the over-officious waiter and later by her mother and Zooey. Though she has nearly no dialogue in “Zooey”, Salinger treats her with care and sensitivity, alive to every tremor of her vulnerability. It’s telling, too, that he ends “Zooey” not with its protagonist but with Franny – alone and still murmuring her Jesus Prayer, but hopefully in a happier and safer place. Her moment of respite seems so fragile and so hard won, that we can’t help but cheer for her and breathe a sigh of relief.
Zooey is a more difficult nut to crack, though Salinger clearly intended him to be jarring. Part of the fun of reading Salinger is to watch as he lines up all the evidence for hating Zooey – his arrogance, his self-conscious good looks, the fatuousness of his acting career, and especially the jarring observations of his family. Boo Boo describes Zooey as “the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo“, while their mother delivers a more damning assessment:
“[Y]ou make people nervous, young man… You either take to somebody or you don’t. If you do, then you do all the talking and nobody can even get a word in edgewise. If you don’t like somebody – which is most of the time – then you just sit around like death itself and let the person talk themself into a hole. I’ve seen you do it…. If you don’t like somebody in two minutes, you’re done with them forever… You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.”
It’s dialogue like that – blunt, unsentimental, uncomfortable in its intimacy – that makes “Zooey” a bracing read, even in our modern age where we’re much more used to bad behaviour and dysfunctional family dynamics. Janet Malcolm calls the bathtub scene “one of the most remarkable mother-son scenes in literature”, and she’s right. The persistence of their argument, the familiarity with which they take swipes at each other, the discomfort of the enclosed physical space and the slight air of transgression of a mother watching (and admiring) her adult son’s naked body make a scene that’s apparently about nothing crackle with dramatic possibilities. There’s also their chain-smoking, which Salinger describes in forensic detail, like stage directions. For Malcolm, the cigarettes “enact a kind of parallel plot”, echoing “the life-and-death character: of Bessie and Zooey’s discussion.
Bessie is, for my money, one of the best-drawn mothers in literature, and a minor masterpiece of Salinger’s tragicomic tone. She haunts the bathroom in what Zooey calls “her pre-notification of death uniform”: a “hoary midnight blue Japanese kimono” with “occultist-looking folds” and pockets containing an assortment of smoking equipment and hardware tools that make her “chink faintly as she moved about in her large apartment”. Like most of the Glasses, she’s both mildly ridiculous, abrasively astute and horribly damaged.
As we learn later, Bessie is also the repository of her family’s grief after the deaths of Seymour and Walter. “Where once [her] eyes alone could report these facts, with an eloquence and a seeming passion for detail that neither her husband nor any of her surviving adult children could bear to look at, let alone take in, [now] she was apt to use this terrible Celtic equipment to break the news, usually at the front door, that the new delivery boy hadn’t brought the leg of lamb in time for dinner or that some remote Hollywood starlet’s marriage was on the rocks.” Writing like that has no place anywhere but in a great work of literature, and it’s all the more heartbreaking for being delivered so casually and near-flippantly.
What redeems Zooey (and all of the Glasses, ultimately) is Salinger’s gradual revelation of the grief that hangs over their house like a curse. A contemporary writer would milk Seymour’s suicide and Walter’s killing for all its melodramatic worth, or drag the family into a messy, talky group therapy session with Dr Phil. Salinger knows better than to overplay things. Instead, the deaths come up only occasionally – Buddy’s letter, Zooey’s visit to his brothers’ bedroom, Franny eventually admitting that she misses Seymour – till we realise that their grief has permeated everything. For the Glasses, grief is a pain too severe to be confronted everyday, but too overwhelming to ever be properly forgotten. As baffled as we are by Zooey’s endless ranting at Franny, we know it’s coming from a place of love and concern – his unspoken fear that Franny might follow Seymour and take her own life, and his desperation to find some way of getting through to her. To our relief, he succeeds, and then does the most generous thing possible – hangs up the phone and leave Franny (and the readers) to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet.
Much has been written about Salinger’s interest in Zen Buddhism, and the key role of Franny’s prayer in her mental recovery. Personally, I’m less convinced that the book is a paean to Buddhism so much as it’s a tribute to the inescapable mess of family life. When thinking of the Glasses, I’m reminded of a line from Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, another masterpiece of American family life that has Salinger in its DNA: “Fucking family. Feeble and forlorn and floundering and foolish and frustrating and functional and sad, sad. Fucking family. Fiend or foe.” Franny and Zooey is the story of three lost souls for whom family is both friend and foe. Salinger treats them as savagely and kindly as we treat our own families, and finally throws them (and us) a bone, with a glimmer of hope that things might just turn out OK in the end.
Quotable Quote: “But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam “unskilled laughter” coming from the fifth row. And that’s right, that’s right – God knows it’s depressing. I’m not saying it isn’t. But that’s none of your business, really. That’s none of your business, Franny. An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s. You have no right to think about those things, I swear to you.”