Without exaggeration, I have read Franny and Zooey every year since I was in college, so about 40 times. I usually re-read it in the spring to set my compass for the rest of the year, spring being the time of renewal. Every time I read it, it affects me differently—depending where I am in my life. This current reading, I’m looking at the theme of intellectual entitlement.
At once both a mystical story and a love story, at its publication in 1961, it was described both as a modern Zen tale and as a metaphor for modern society. Some critics suggested it was an "appallingly bad story", stagey and self indulgent, but that it also showed Salinger's "evolving beliefs”. Both of these assessments are true.
Franny and Zooey is really two stories published together in one book. It’s two stories in a narrative series of stories about the Glass family that takes place in 1955 New York City’s upper east side. Franny is the youngest Glass, and Zooey is the second youngest of seven uniquely gifted children born from 1920s Vaudevillian parents.
Narrator Buddy Glass (the family writer-in-residence and Salinger’s alter ego) describes he and his siblings during their daily appearances on a radio program, “It’s a Wise Child”, from 1927 to 1943 as “insufferably ‘superior’ little bastards that should have been drowned or gassed at birth”. That observation is true enough, too—all member of the Glass family are over the top, theatrical, flamboyant, chock full of ego. It’s why I like them, I relate to them, and why I annually check in to see how they are still faring.
Salinger writes of his Glass family stories: “It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I'm very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I've been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill." Other stories about the Glass family include “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, “Down at the Dinghy”, and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”.
My colleague Gaby was fortunate enough to visit the recent J.D. Salinger exhibition at the New York Public Library. It included "manuscripts, letters, photographs, books, and personal effects drawn exclusively from Salinger's archive." She was impressed by the extensive collection of religious-based books, his many hand-written notes to his publisher and others, and his unique way of keeping character development notes. Salinger, evidently, was strongly against publishing Franny and Zooey as two stories in one book; he preferred they stand alone.
“Franny”, a short story, was originally published in The New Yorker magazine in 1955, followed in 1957 by “Zooey”, a novella. Together, to me, their two stories combine to reveal a symbiotic, close relationship of two eccentric, complicated siblings examining and discovering themselves in their formative early 20s. When I began reading this book, I was an English Literature college student, like Franny, so the draw was obvious. In the years since, I was Zooey’s age, trying to figure out my destiny without being a “phony”. Ever since, I read it because it is at times touchingly funny and achingly honest; their stories dive into what it means to be a compassionate human in this sometimes very complicated world.
Franny and Zooey is available as an ebook on OverDrive. A version of this review was previously published in the Aspen Daily News.
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