I interviewed for a job recently, largely off the strength of this blog. The interviewer, who, after clicking around this site surely knew a lot more about me than I’d like, said: “The thing I like about you is your authenticity. You seem to be honest, no matter what you’re talking about.”
This was a big compliment for me, even though I ended up not getting the job.
Even now, the comment still warms me from within. It means I am doing something right. It means I am being the person I want to be. The kind words multiple interviewers gave me about this project warmed me against the sting of rejection.
Why does that word carry such a positive charge for me? And why is it such a deadly sin—in my perception—to be fake?
These are the questions that were knocking around in my head while I reread “Catcher in the Rye.”
“Catcher in the Rye” is J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece. It depicts a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, a young prep-school kid kicking it around New York after being expelled. I’ve read the novel two or three times before, and every time, it strikes me differently.
“Catcher” is one of those books that really needs to be read at a certain time in your life. As a general rule, people who read the book as teenagers tend to like it, often quite a lot. People who read the book as adults usually can’t stand it.
Why is that?
The answer’s easy: the book is written from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, a whiny 17-year-old. Catcher in the Rye is world-famous, and Holden Caulfield is one of the most enduring characters in modern literature. But that doesn’t change the fact: he’s a bratty teenager who thinks he knows better than everyone around him. Even Holden’s younger sister Phoebe finds it irritating, as we can see from this exchange towards the end of the novel:
“You don’t like anything that’s happening.”
It made me even more depressed when she said that.
“Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don’t say that. Why the hell do you say that?”
“Because you don’t. You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t.”
“I do! That’s where you’re wrong—that’s exactly where you’re wrong! Why the hell do you have to say that?” I said. Boy, was she depressing me.
“Because you don’t,” she said. “Name one thing.”
“One thing? One thing I like?” I said. “Okay.”
The trouble was, I couldn’t concentrate too hot. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate.
To a teenager, Holden’s character can be eminently relatable. To an adult, his perspective often seems limited, and overly bitter. He calls everyone “phonies.” He hates the movies. Many of the performative aspects of society seem to drive him crazy. He’s unpleasant to most of the people he meets, considering them beneath him in some way or another.
Holden is famously obsessed with authenticity. His need for real, true, and undisguised human love and interaction is slowly driving him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. The book is actually framed as a story Holden tells from a sanitarium or mental hospital of some sort, after he has been hospitalized. A lot of readers miss that part, because Holden himself certainly doesn’t emphasize it. It’s there if you look though.
“Catcher in the Rye” is often described as an “end of youth” book.
As I read it this year, for the third or fourth time, it felt sadder than it had ever seemed before. Holden strikes me as less authentic, and more desperate. The kid is scrabbling at the edge of a precipice, trying to grab hold of anyone to anchor him to the real world. He can’t do it though. He’s desperately trying, but anytime he touches a person who might have some way of anchoring him, instead of closing his fist and gripping tight, he reflexively opens his hand, and keeps on falling.
There are a lot of theories about why Holden acts this way. The clearest are the most literal. Holden is haunted by two aspects of his past: his dead brother Allie, and sexual abuse, which is only lightly mentioned in the text.
The bigger, more thematic concern, is that Holden is struggling to hold on to his innocence and youth in the face of impending adulthood, with all its phony concerns.
It’s a good novel, whether you like Holden or not.
That much is undeniable. You’d be forgiven for being unable to finish it, though.
Holden glorifies authenticity. He’s selfish. He basically thinks that if you do something for other people, it’s phony. Obviously, this worldview is completely incompatible with real, adult life. I run a blog called this is youth, for chrissakes, and even I’ll tell you that. Here’s Holden describing a piano player in a bar:
I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddamn closet. Anyway, when he was finished, and everybody was clapping their heads off, old Ernie turned around on his stool and gave this very phony, humble bow. Like as if he was a helluva humble guy, besides being a terrific piano player. It was very phony—I mean him being such a big snob and all. In a funny way, though, I felt sort of sorry for him when he was finished. I don’t even think he knows any more when he’s playing right or not. It isn’t all his fault. I partly blame all those dopes that clap their heads off—they’d foul up any-body, if you gave them a chance. Anyway, it made me feel depressed and lousy again, and I damn near got my coat back and went back to the hotel, but it was too early and I didn’t feel much like being all alone.
“If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddamn closet.”
Here’s Holden’s obsession with authenticity laid bare. Ernie doesn’t even know how to play good any more, because he’s doing it for an audience instead of for his own self.
One wonders what Holden Caulfield would think of social media.
It’s pretty easy to guess.
But I also find, the older I get, the less I care what Holden Caulfield would think of things. I find myself identifying less and less with this stubborn, cynical youth.
So I guess the question is: is that a good or a bad thing?
Now that I’ve forced you to listen to what I have to say, I suggest watching this Crash Course video, and listening to John Green’s thoughts on the novel. It’s a pretty entertaining primer on the book and some of the techniques that make it so effective.