Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#36 A previously banned book

The Catcher in the Rye  - J.D. Salinger 

Since its publication in 1951,  The Catcher in the Rye  has probably has had the most fascinating distinction of being the most banned, censored and challenged books, as well as being the second most taught book in American high-schools. 

It tells the story from the first-person point of view of the 16 year-old anti-hero Holden Caulfield as he embarks on a journey towards a complete nervous breakdown. To begin with he is from a well to do, upper class, white American family and he has failed four of his five papers at his most latest school – Pencey Prep. He is about to be sent home from school , but he decides to take matters into his own hands and runs away from there to spend a few days in a hotel  since in his own words he needed “a little vacation”.  The frustrations and ennui of teenage life mirrored in Holden’s narrative of what happens in the weekend he spends in Manhattan has made this book a haunting voice of the angst driven adolescent across the years.

It probably has one of the most memorable opening lines which are oft quoted:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

There is from the very beginning an unrestrained use of many words which were seen as excessively vulgar (especially in the 60s and 70s), and Holden is relentless in bringing to light what he exactly thinks of the “phony” society around him. This was one reason for the controversies that surrounded this book. Also, the fact that he smokes a lot, has complete disregard for rules, and is a truly fantastic liar. The reader begins to realize pretty soon that Holden is on a downward spiral towards depression and a subsequent breakdown. He contemplates running away from home and even mentions suicide a couple of times.

These references to extreme depression, suicide and his anti-authoritarian stance has come together to create a halo of controversies that surrounds this book. Its persecutors believe that this book has inspired murders, suicides, and moral profanity and clamours for it to be banned. The association of The Catcher in the Rye with the murder of John Lennon by Mark Chapman and John Hinckley’s failed assassination of Ronald Reagan didn’t help it either (when the police arrived at the scene of John Lennon's murder, they found 25-year-old Mark David Chapman reading aloud from The Catcher in the Rye. He'd bought a copy of the book—his favourite—en route to murder John Lennon; in it he wrote "This is my statement," and signed as Holden Caulfield. The next year, police found a copy of The Catcher in the Rye at the home of John Hinckley Jr. after he attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan).

Moreover, there is nothing much happening in the book, one pathetic incident after another (for eg: a night out in a fancy hotel; a date with an old girlfriend; an encounter with a prostitute, and a mugging by her pimp). It was a subversive and unconventional story in more ways than one. However, with the benefit of distance from its year of publication, one can see how banning a book on teenage rebellion is only going to make rebellious teenagers seek it out even more. And that is exactly what happened I suppose.   

However, I must tell you, Holden is extremely deceptive. There is another person altogether if you can look through the subtext. He is probably one of the most well-read protagonist I have come across. He refers to a lot of books he has read including Romeo and Juliet , Thomas Hardy and Somerset Maugham. In fact the only exam he doesn’t flunk is English.

“They gave me Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. I thought it was going to stink, but it didn’t. It was a very good book. I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”

One thing that will probably bothers us as we read is his self-confession that he is “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”(Ch 3). And there begins a sense of unreliability in his narration. Then again, we are inside the head of a troubled teenager, and I fully admired how the author unravels his rambling state of mind for us. His sarcasm and witty liners are crazy and funny at the same time.

He shoved my book back with his hand so that he could see the name of it. ‘Any good?’ he said.
‘This sentence I’m reading is terrific.’

Holden is tortured by the battle to come to terms with himself, with his little sister Phoebe, and their dead brother Allie. Like many adolescents, he feels that the world is an alien, hostile and comfortless place run by “phonies”. When asked what he intends to be when he grows up by his kid sister Phoebe, he replies he wants to be a “catcher in the rye”, which is a reference to a song by Robert Burns where a person catches the children playing in a field of rye before they fall off the cliff. It has a symbolic meaning which points to him trying to save other kids from losing their innocence and ‘saving’ them from adult life. Hence the title.

Despite the many controversies, The Catcher in the Rye continues to hold its place as the defining novel of teenage angst and alienation. It is also has avoided being turned into a movie these past 66 years, and it will probably continue to remain so since the highly secretive author J.D. Salinger refused to sell the movie rights. Well, Holden Caufield would have approved – “I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang imitating them…All I need is an audience. I’m an exhibitionist.”  Well, needless to say, he will definitely be assured of an audience for a long time to come.

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