J.D. Salinger had a troubled relationship with the world. One symptom of this was that he didn’t publish very much. There may be some posthumous work on the way, but for now, there are just four books.
After The Catcher in the Rye, after Nine Stories, Salinger became preoccupied – or perhaps obsessed – with the Glass family. Franny and Zooey circles mostly around the two youngest members of the family; and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction concentrates on the two oldest. In each of these books, a short story introduces a couple of characters, and then a novella explores them in greater detail.
I want to write about Seymour, Salinger’s most complicated, most enlightened and least stable character. He was the first member of the Glass family introduced, and on his first appearance, in the story A Perfect Day for Bananafish, he committed suicide. Seymour: An Introduction, tells us more about him. A lot more. And as the title suggests, it doesn’t bother too much with narrative. It’s formless and plotless because Seymour’s character dictates the form and content:
His character lends itself to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that I know of, and I can’t conceive of anyone, least of all myself, trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings.
So what we get is ‘a thesaurus of undetached prefatory remarks about him’ (p.83), a scrapbook of his life, as if a proud father was handing out snapshots. Or a proud brother actually, because the novella is written from the first person pov of Buddy Glass. Buddy’s pov gives Salinger licence to enthuse, to grab the reader like the Ancient Mariner and pour out his feelings about Seymour. H.E. Bates said Hemingway was ‘a man with an axe’ – in this novella Salinger is a man with a hose-pipe, gleefully spraying words on to the page.
Seymour: An Introduction is a love story like no other. It’s an idiosyncratic, contrary, almost experimental piece of writing – the art of the fiction is limited to portraying a character. It’s as if the effort leaves nothing over to placate the confused or the unsympathetic who make other demands on the story. Like, it should have a story, for instance. Salinger instead wants the reader to accept that his character is intrinsically interesting, and needs no framework of plot or structure to support him.
So Buddy sets off, offering a bouquet of parentheses to warn us that he intends to be digressive, that he’s not going to be ‘moderate or temperate or brief’. It takes him twenty pages to describe Seymour’s physical appearance, and even this can’t be done without digression. Seymour as poet is at the heart of the novella, but the apparently peripheral (the size of his nose) is given as much weight as the more obviously important. Detail accumulates; physical, anecdotal, spiritual.
So by the end, we have a portrait of a character. It feels like a starting place – now that the introduction is out of the way, a narrative can begin. Instead, this book was followed by near silence until Salinger’s death in 2010. This makes the ending feel more significant: Buddy’s off to teach a class of over-privileged schoolgirls. That doesn’t sound like much fun, but thinking about Seymour has left him with an overwhelming sense of love, not just for Seymour himself, but for his fellow man. Salinger’s moral often seems to lie in his characters’ love for each other, which opens out to include everyone else, including emblematic figures like the librarian Miss Overman, or the Fat Lady in Zooey, as well as the ‘Terrible Miss Zabel’ in Buddy’s class, and even the reader. Perhaps what’s most poignant and affecting about this novella is that Seymour, and Salinger, are trying very hard to overcome their troubled relationship with the world – but they’re failing, and will always fail.