The 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. The seminal book on teenage angst. A landmark piece of literature. Unique for its time, raw, troubled, and frank to the point of hurt.
Those who have read it are many. Those who haven’t ought to.
The Catcher In The Rye‘s brilliance hinges on a simple and basic premise: teenage frustration. A teenager facing expulsion from yet another high school shows us what he feels, talking us through his last night there, then taking us on a journey through New York City, where he roams around for a few days and nights, until Wednesday, when he can finally go home. He can’t go home before that, he tells us, his parents will know he got expelled again. He wants to buy himself some time.
Manhattan provides the perfect outlet for our teenager to roam around in. It’s not enjoyable. Holden Caulfield — our teenager’s name — despises everything he sees because the city pretends to be something it’s not. He considers everyone phoney and contrived. Very few situations meet with his approval, and they always carry a caveat. It depresses him and haunts him. From one setting to the next, bouncing from person to person, Caulfield drifts on, a lost soul trying to last until Wednesday.
It’s not that he’s a bad person, or spoiled — he’s a little bit of those things, but nothing too dramatic. He’s simply very observant. And what he observes upsets him. He has a hard time accepting the rawness of life, and the show people have to put on to get on with life — he hates that. He considers society a charade not worth playing, a game where everything hinges on a misguided sense of properness that keeps sucking everyone in, including himself, deeper and deeper into its winter.
In his effort to stay out of the cold he does what he so readily criticizes in others. He is obnoxious, selfish, dismissive, uninterested, and doesn’t give a damn about the people he interacts with. He means well, but things come out different. They get lost in the process. They become complicated.
He doesn’t realize it — and even if he does, he can do nothing about it. The charade absorbs Caulfield, pushing him farther out into a world of isolation and callousness.
As the boy tries to make it through another day, lost in the town where he grew up in, he struggles — a digit among digits, a stranger among acquaintances among strangers.
A boy among beasts and harlequins.
The premise is simple and genial. The perfect tragic irony. A teenager not yet adept to dealing with life’s contradictions — can we ever blame such a character? — offers us a scathing criticism of how insane society can become and the dubious pillars it is founded on. He is the perfect tool to speak out candidly, without sounding didactic. His voice resonates with an immature yet appealing sense of reason, which we, too, shared when growing up, to each our own. We identify with Caulfield. He becomes the perfect messenger for bad news and ugly truths. We can’t shoot him down because he is troubled and confused and on the brink of disaster himself. How can we crucify a child with issues, insecurities, and, last but not least, enhanced perceptive skills?
Haulden Cofield is too perceptive for his own good, too immature to handle what he sees and feels.
Thank goodness for it. His demise is our cautionary tale, the wakeup call we need every now and then. We see how life plays out, catching us in its ever increasing folds, in its countless edges and drop-offs. We remember what it once was to be young and visionary, how we felt when others made us do things that made no sense. How some things still don’t make sense, but we do them anyway, despite not knowing exactly why. How we have come to accept certain things, finding reason behind the unreasonable logic that drives society. It’s important we see the process unfold, realizing where in this process we got lost and absorbed.
It’s even more important we remember what we held dear, so that we don’t take our lives for granted. So that we remember the purity we left behind as children, to each our own, in our effort to belong and be respected.
Failure to see into the core of our past will render us jaded, turning life into a tainted and depressing affair. Into a long, dark winter, the stretches of which new youths will roam in their effort to find warmth and purpose.
As parting thought, let us note that The Catcher In The Rye is an early commentary on the phoney reality of the Simulated. It identifies and reveals all the acts and tricks and copies we put out there to mimic what we deem important. Caulfield, so dependent on purity, spots them with vicious ease, revealing them for the simulacra they are, real and present in every sense of the word, yet meaningless and hollow, with a veneer that lacks the essence of the original. From plays and movies, to parties and celebrations of Christmas, from greetings and pleasantries to recreations of old happenings and recreational social activities, we get to see how the unfulfilling part of modern life has more to do with the layers added between pure sensation and our reproduction of it than with anything else. It’s an issue of getting lost in translation. Our language used to be simple – now it is complex and removed from its roots, and so are we, disillusioned children playing in rye fields, lost, disoriented, falling off the treacherous cliffs that await on the fringes of adult, jaded society.
Such is life perhaps, unfair and brutal. Holden Caulfield gets to experience its setup during his epic journey through the civilized wilderness, and we get to experience it with him, reminded that life is not sweet because it’s fair. It’s not fair. It’s just life. That’s what makes it precious, its mind-boggling animation. All we can do is immerse ourselves in it, going through its disorientating field and making the best of it.
If catching bodies falling off the side cliffs is what we need to do, then so be it. And if we have to fall in the process, lost in the chorus of our own damn song, let it be. Whatever the case, it’s a time well spent. It keeps us active and searching, curious, spirited.