Monday, October 17, 2011

Questions for J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey

Below are different kinds of questions for different kinds of readers, published by the Cathedral for All Souls.


Section I: Describing the Structure and Language of Franny and Zooey

1. Two stories rather than a novel
Franny and Zooey is not a novel, rather two stories, the second one considerably longer than the first--and we could call the second one a novella. All I want to do here is to indicate that this book is comprised of two stories that, A) stand independently, and B) combine to form a larger story.

Publication history: “Franny” and “Zooey” were published respectively in 1955 and 1957 in The New Yorker, and then published together as Franny and Zooey, the book, in 1961.

2. The different narrative points of view of the two stories
And here I just want to point out that the two stories, “Franny” and “Zooey,” are told in two different points of view. The first story, “Franny,” is told by a narrator whose identity we don’t know—a third person, omniscient narrator. The second story, “Zooey,’ is told differently—in this instance, by Buddy Glass, older brother to Franny and Zooey. Buddy identifies himself as the narrator of “Zooey” in its first pages, on pages 47-50. Question #4, below, will treat the unusual narrative point of view of “Zooey.”

3. What is the effect of the two stories standing separately, one about “Franny” and one about “Zooey”?
Another way to ask this question would be to speculate as to why Salinger published the book as two stories, rather than integrating the two stories into a novel. But let’s leave that question aside—if Salinger’s intentions can be recovered, I don’t know how to recover them. More useful to us would be to describe the effect of the structure of the book-- the emotional effect, on us. And my proposal as to that effect is as follows (I offer it as a way to invite your own proposals):

In being in her own story, by herself, in the first part of the book, in a world of Lane Coutells, Yale games, “section men”, “ego,” and so on, Franny’s vulnerability is intensified. What she’s up against she’s up against more vulnerably in not being able to face it with a Glass sibling at her side. That Franny is alone in the first story is for me part of the success of the book entire—-part of its poignancy, part also of what the book has to say about the influence of family—particularly when the family is a loving one. (And who knows, maybe for you the Glass family is less than loving…if so, I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts when we meet.)

Also, the difference in narrative point of view between the two stories, which I described in Question 2, perhaps intensifies for us our sense of Franny’s “aloneness” in the first story. To repeat, in that first story she’s being narrated by an unnamed consciousness, someone who is not connected to her. Then, when she is with her family in the second story, she’s being narrated by a member of that family--her older brother, Buddy, someone who knows her, believes in her, is rooting for her.

(Please note that the word “vulnerability,” to describe Franny, is my extrapolation. Nowhere, to my awareness, does the word appear in either story.)

What are your thoughts, here? Am I making too much of the book’s structure; am I being too fancy? Do you agree with what I’ve said above? Disagree? Please support your observations with reference to the text.

4. The narrative structure of “Zooey”--the only one of its kind, to my knowledge, in American fiction
In this question, I just want to underscore the strangeness of the narrative point of view of “Zooey.” To repeat: The story starts out as told by a first person narrator who identifies himself as “Buddy,” older brother to Franny and Zooey. Then, by the fourth page of the story, this “Buddy” tells us that “from here on in,” he’s going to refer to himself in “the third person.”

“We will [. . .] leave this Buddy Glass in the third person from here on in. At least, I see no good reason to take him out of it.” (50)

What in the world do you think is going on here? What a convoluted, head-bending, plausibility-straining way to write a story. Yet it’s the way Salinger writes it. He could have done it much more simply; he could have told both “Franny” and “Zooey” from the point of view of an unidentified, omniscient narrator. Why do you think Salinger took the more difficult course? It’s amazing, but “Zooey” is actually a first person story…all the way through!

To me, that Buddy narrates this story, but in a way that renders him impalpable, is, well, very important, and I’ll say why I think it’s important when we meet. In the meantime, what do you think?

5. The resemblance of both stories to long scenes in a modern play.
In both “Franny” and “Zooey” there’s a lot of talk about the theater. Also, both Franny and Zooey have acted, and/ or are actors. There’s also a script in “Zooey,” on p. 71, which we read as though from Zooey’s perspective. I find it interesting, perhaps telling, that the form of these stories resembles a play. What do you think about this resemblance? Do you notice it too, or is it just me?

6. Both stories feature a lot of writing, or text-within-text. What do you make of this?
In both stories you have a lot of text-within-text. Here are the five examples I see:

a) the two fully excerpted letters. In “Franny,” there is a letter from Franny to Lane, which Lane reads at the beginning of the story. In “Zooey” there’s the very long letter from Buddy to Zooey, which Zooey reads at the beginning of the story.

b) Again, the script Zooey reads in the bathtub, on p. 71

c) the excerpts from world literature transcribed by hand on the white beaverboard in what had once been Buddy’s and Seymour’s bedroom. These excerpts are on pp. 177-179.

d) The longish footnote at the bottom of pages 52 to 53 in “Zooey.” This is not an example of text-within-text; I include it because, like the examples above, it heightens your awareness that you are reading, and that this story is a written artifact.

e) Seymour’s journal entry, from Feb. 1938, written on shirt cardboard, which Zooey takes out of the desk in Seymour’s and Buddy’s bedroom, on p. 182.

Question: Why do you think F and Z is so focused on reading? Is this focus simply to show the highly literary culture of the Glass family? Or is something deeper going on here? Maybe something is being said about reading, about living your life inside of prose, or of recording, or of remembering, your life, in prose.

7. There is glamour to this story, and there is beauty to this story, and they’re different things
What do I mean by glamour? Partly it has to do with the way the characters talk—so cleverly, so gracefully, and so (for us) entertainingly. They’re funny, smart, well read; they know so much, and are moreover so responsibly aware of the problem of knowing so much, they almost qualify their sentences out of existence. And then somehow those sentences land supply on their feet. Who talks like this? I wish I could talk like this. And then there’s how talented they are—these children are so intelligent they have to be on the radio! And then there’s the physical beauty of Franny and Zooey. And the attractiveness of their class, and of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and of coming from that class, and of living in that neighborhood, yet still getting to wear your housecoat every day. There’s how enviably literary the family is, that it’s just a given that you’ll major in English at an excellent college and date a Yalie who hangs out with readers of a sensibility to refer to Rainer Maria Rilke as “that bastard.”

And then there’s the beauty of the story, which is, from my perspective, different than the glamour of the story.

Sometimes as I re-read Franny and Zooey I find myself wondering if the glamour isn’t somehow meant as a distraction from the beauty—as a red herring, in a way. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita works in a similar way—and indeed Robbin Whittington raised this very question when we read Lolita a couple of years ago. I even wonder if this glamour-as-distraction problem isn’t a part of Zooey’s and Franny’s problem, or confusion. Thoughts?

8. The spirit of the book: “Were most of your stars out?”
The writer Adam Gopnick had a lovely remembrance of Salinger in the New Yorker soon after Salinger’s death. Gopnick concluded this remembrance with a line from another of Salinger’s long stories about the Glass family, this one entitled, “Seymour: An Introduction.” Here’s Gopnick:

In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Seymour, thinking of Van Gogh, tells Buddy that the only question worth asking about a writer is “Were most of your stars out?” (Adam Gopnick, “J. D. Salinger,” The New Yorker, February 8, 2010.)

What a great question, a great image: “Were most of your stars out?” (I love “most of.”) For me, “most of” Salinger’s stars were definitely out. How about for you? Why, or why not?

Section II: Content and Theme Questions

1. What kind of “person” or “sensibility” is narrating the “Franny” story? (And, is the sensibility narrating “Franny” similar to the one that narrates “Zooey”?)
Go back and have a look at the way the narrator of “Franny” sees and narrates Franny and Lane. What sorts of things does this narrator notice? What is this narrator’s attitude toward Lane and Franny and their particular story? The narrator here could hold lots of different attitudes toward Lane and Franny, their milieu, their moment in life, etc. That’s an obvious observation, yet one worth holding in view. There’s a certain narrative posture here that’s very special; and I’d like to talk about it when we meet.

One example of this “posture” that strikes me every time I read F & Z comes toward the end of “Franny,” when Franny is in the ladies’ room at Sickler’s. She’s in her enclosure, and without an “apparent regard” for the “suchness of her environment,” has sat down. She then places her hands over her eyes and presses, “as though to paralyze the optic nerve and drown all images into a voidlike black.” The following is the image I’d like to underscore:

“Her extended fingers, though trembling, or because they were trembling, looked oddly graceful and pretty.” (22)

What sort of personality might notice this particular detail of Franny at this particular moment? Her eyes are shut, she’s presumably in a kind of crisis; and what this narrator sees is not just her fingers, and not just that her fingers are trembling, but that, trembling, they look “oddly graceful and pretty.” Also, note the qualification, “or because they were trembling,” which effectively sets the whole image trembling, reminding us that despite the wisdom of this narrator and of his way of looking at the people he writes, there is only one of him, one, limited, mortal encounter, author to authored. The gaze here, the delicacy of consideration is…well, as I say, special, and vital/ vitalizing to this story and this book. (I’m being vague so as not to bias your sense of this narrator with my own.) How would you describe this narrator? And, is this gaze/quality of regard like the one in “Zooey”?

2. What sort of trouble is Franny in? Is she genuinely in it?
To me, Franny seems in real trouble. The trouble, as I see it, has to do with the complexity of her awareness and self-awareness. How does she seem to you?

3. A Mystical Offering, or a Love Story?
The narrator of “Zooey,” who is Buddy Glass, says of himself at the beginning of his “home movie” that he knows “the difference between a mystical story and a love story.” He continues:

“I say that my current offering isn’t a mystical story, or a religiously mystifying story, at all. I say it’s a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.” (49)

How does “Zooey” bear out Buddy’s claim that it is a “love story, pure and complicated”? How is this a love story? I think it’s easy to forget that that’s what’s going here. What are your thoughts?

4. Are these stories (in part) about talking?
The book entire is made up of three very long conversations—athletically conducted, rapturously conducted, exhaustive and exhausting conversations. I’m going to leap ahead and say that it seems to me that what this book is mainly fascinated with is talking*--with the particular way the Glass family talks to one another, and, beyond the Glasses, with the way members of a particular class and/ or social environment talks, or talked, to one another, in the middle of the last century in the northeastern United States. (By the way, I’m not at all sure this second observation is correct.) What are your thoughts?

*To be fair, what the book seems to be fascinated with before anything else is this particular family and the way they care for one another and also navigate, together and alone, modern cosmopolitan life. But the medium through which Salinger pursues those fascinations is talk, conversation. And it’s always interesting to ask of a body of writing which came first, the medium, or the content (in this case, familial love, modern life, etc.) given expression by that medium. It’s not recoverable, which came first, but wondering at that question allows for the appeal to the artist of certain of life’s forms, for sounds, shapes, rhythms, patterns--forms that take hold within him or her and lead to understandings that could not have been attained any other way.

5. Zooey: What’s Going On With Him
For me, the 40-some page exchange between Franny and Zooey is one of the more delightful I am aware of in modern American literature. Yet for Franny and Zooey the exchange is often a painful one. On this reading I was more attuned than in readings past to Zooey’s experience, in particular to the confusion he expresses very near the story’s end.

“I don’t think I ever really meant to try to stop you from saying it [the Jesus Prayer]. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell was going on in my mind. There’s one thing I do know for sure, though. I have no goddam authority to be speaking up like a seer the way I have been. We’ve had enough goddam seers in this family. That part bothers me. That part scares me a little bit.” (195)

I also found myself more attentive than I’d been in readings past to Zooey’s placing his face in his hands twice while in Buddy’s and Seymour’s bedroom. These are two of the only moments of quiet in either story. I can’t tell if this is a useful question, but here goes: What is going on with Zooey in this story (“Zooey”)? It’s funny: He is the one who does all the teaching, and nearly all the talking, yet his may be the deeper anguish. (Anguish, btw, is not a word Salinger uses, or, it seems to me, would ever use.) What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

6. Franny: What’s going on with her?
By the end of the book, Franny is smiling up at the ceiling, presumably in a state of peace. Does this image seem the right one for the end of this story, the right conclusion to Franny’s “pilgrimage”?

7. Why do you think Mrs. Glass is in “Zooey” to the extent that she is?
She could have taken up much less space in this story, yet is as fully realized a presence as either F. or Z. Why do you think she is?

8. Christian and Eastern spiritual teachings conflated in the book
Do you think they are? I sort of do, on this reading, but I could be wrong. What are your thoughts? Please be specific to the text in your answer. I guess I don’t finally feel that this is a book about Jesus or even about the Jesus prayer so much as it is about spiritual seeking, which, for some of the Glass children, has resulted in real peril. Where does the problem lie, then? With the world? What are your thoughts?

9. Zooey and Franny (and the other Glass children) “funnel-fed” religious philosophy
“Funnel-fed” is Zooey’s description of the manner in which Seymour and Buddy taught the younger Glass children religious philosophy (both Christian and Eastern.) What’s the effect of this education on Franny and Zooey? Is it helping? What does the book propose is the alternative? Does the book propose an alternative? Am I thinking about this issue correctly/ in a way that’s faithful to the book? This is sort of the same question as # 8.

10. Seymour’s suicide haunts the story
Does Seymour’s suicide haunt this story? The Glass family’s apartment feels (to me) haunted in lots of ways. Does it feel that way for you? Please be specific to the text in your answer.

Section II continued: Questions for Personal Consideration

11. Does this seem to you like a young book, somehow, a book that’s more likely to move you when you’re young?
I don’t at all mean the book seems lacking in some quality it “should” have, that it’s naïve or jejune (I’m actually a huge fan of this book.) Yet still the book feels as though written for a Franny or a Zooey. What do you think?

12. Does this story remind you of your own family? How, or how not?

13. Does Franny and Zooey mean something different to you, now that you know how Salinger led his life?

14. Have you ever said a prayer continuously, or tried to meditate continuously?
Was the prayer the Jesus Prayer? Or, maybe you tried doing something similar, like meditate all day every day for several days in a row. What was (is) the experience like?

15. Why did you come to Franny and Zooey on this reading? Did you get what you had come for?

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