Joanna Rakoff: My Salinger Year

Rakoff, Joanna (2014), My Salinger Year, Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 5550 8.

DSC_0109Many of my reviews are positive, sometimes ecstatically so. That’s not just because I have such a sunny temperament. Much of it is due to me having not a lot of time to read non-PhD-related books and so I tend to screen my books well and read books I suspect to be very good. However, sometimes, when a book had received enough attention or acclaim, or (I have to admit) when it happens to be unreasonably cheap, I pick up books I am less sure about. This is how I came to read Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year. I had not heard of Rakoff before, at least not as a writer. According to the flap, Rakoff has published a novel and several journalistic pieces but after reading this book, I’m not entirely likely to seek out more of her work. It’s not bad, per se, and since Christmas season is upon us, I have to admit that it would make the loveliest present for that friend in your life who used to read a lot but doesn’t really any more now. Because, really nostalgia for reading is what Rakoff trades in. My Salinger Year is a nice book, a quick read, a book about a young girl’s experiences at a venerable literary agency in New York. The whole is a condensed Bildungsroman, containing personal growth and education on many levels, personal and professional, but it doesn’t read condensed. In fact, while I might complain about her writing in one of the following paragraphs, there’s an undeniable skill in writing a book that reads so easily, but which contains so much. Rakoff is clearly cognizant of literary traditions, and with My Salinger Year we are offered a very specific kind of text, executed with skill and a clear sense of priorities. Disappointingly, writing interesting prose is not one of them. But Rakoff’s book is so overdetermined and constructed that I could never shake the impression that the writing maybe was supposed to seem trite, that this was part of the overall idea. Of course, intentionally bad writing is still bad writing. Intent, to borrow a phrase from a different discussion, isn’t magic.

DSC_0236The main appeal for me with the book is its structure. My Salinger Year begins with our heroine trying to make her way in New York. It’s her first day at an old literary agency, which, while she never names it (she prefers the expression “the agency”), is Harold Ober Associates. She is dressed in a conservative outfit that would not have been out of place on a secretary in the 1960s. She is performing a role, her “role being the Bright Young Assistant. The Girl Friday” – and at the same time, the book itself is similarly performing a role. Laura Miller has already unpacked the various literary sources for the story of the young girl coming to the big city. Miller points out how Rakoff constructs scenes in a way that mimicks literary precedent, and the book as a whole is cleverly constructed to appeal both to a sense of verisimilitude and to a literary sensibility. It’s no accident that the well worn phrase “[t]he Girl Friday” also doubles as the title of a screwball comedy that Stanley Cavell read as belonging to the so-called comedy of remarriages. In the world of the book, we will also find that Rakoff breaks up with a man who she ends up getting back together with. In a way, these early pages tell us, to quote Cavell on movies, how to look at them and how to think about them. The dense referential nature of the first couple of pages eventually lets up, leading into a more emotionally charged part of the narrative, but Rakoff has taught us early on how her book works, and at least for me, it became difficult reading the book’s characters, at least the ones not connected to the agency, as something other than ciphers. That might be one of the reasons for their lack of depth and interest. Only within the hallowed walls of the agency does Rakoff deliver characters to us that are believable, characters that can stand on their own without the artifice of sociocultural allusion. This is what she cares about: the world of books and writers.

DSC01203Look, maybe it’s just me, but halfway through My Salinger Year, as much of the artifice slowly falls away or is de-emphasized, Rakoff starts discussing tangible aspects of book culture with what feels like accurate veneration. Books as objects start turning up. She sees them on shelves, she discusses spines, print, we are offered discussions and descriptions of different editions, unread books as well as tattered, yellowing, well-loved books. I love books, the tangible reality of them, and their reality is what keeps shining through the otherwise threadbare realities of My Salinger Year. Fittingly, the agency Rakoff interns at is so old-fashioned, they don’t even own a computer even though it’s 1995 already. All correspondence, all contracts, everything has to be typed up on a typewriter, and the only way to really contact the Agency is via letter or phone. The year Rakoff joins the Agency, it’s already a dinosaur, hopelessly behind the times and Rakoff’s arrival and influence leads to changes, including -hold on to your hats- the acquisition of a computer that’s even connected to the Internet. This makes the central conceit of the book (central at least according to the blurb on the back) much more interesting: Rakoff’s Agency is the one representing J.D. Salinger and while letters sent to Salinger via his literary agent did not reach him, they were also not unceremoniously thrown out. Instead, a person was paid to read them and reply using a form letter (which had to be retyped for every reply). During Rakoff’s ‘Salinger Year’ she was the one assigned this job. And that’s such an interesting idea. The materiality of writing that’s created by an environment where everything is typed, every letter, no matter how formulaic is inherently original, could have been very interesting, especially since Rakoff decided to answer some letters with more than the meagre handful of words she was supposed to use. However, while the letters keep coming up and the process of reading and pondering the letters is sometimes described in excruciating, redundant detail, Salinger’s letters are never really foregrounded. They are one element among many showing us the growth of young Ms. Rakoff. Dispensing wisdom to young fans becomes her main opportunity to shine a light on herself in a year where everything appears to conspire to make her feel bad about herself.

DSC_0246 (1)Her boyfriend is a self centered macho writer who cares more about his unreadable and unpublishable book than he does about Rakoff, her (Polish) landlady expects her to freeze in the winter and wash dishes in the bathtub in the summer (and almost kills her with some sort of dubious Polish heater, because the book absolutely needed a picaresque, ridiculous foreigner), and the publishing world in general appears to be too sophisticated and complicated for the young woman. It’s an obvious Bildungsroman set-up and so nobody is surprised (or will be spoilered) when she powers through the difficulties and comes out a changed person, with a new lease on life and a different professional determination. While a 6,000 word piece on answering Salinger’s fan-mail might have been the start of this book, it’s not the actual focus. It’s Rakoff’s coming to terms with being a woman in the 1990s, a female writer. Of all the books mentioned by Laura Miller in her review of the book (see link above), the most fitting comparison to me- seemed to be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both show us a woman alone in New York, not part of a crowd, not part of a movement, just two young women, pursuing an internship and coming to terms with the world around them. Late in Rakoff’s book, she discusses the fact that women have limited choices, that they need to pick one path only.

Publishing, books, life, I thought as I walked, through the cool air, up to the L at Third Avenue. It seemed possible to get one right. But not all three.

This resonates with the famous fig tree metaphor in Plath’s novel à clef. Plath’s protagonist has a vision of her life branching out like a fig tree, and she sees all the many choices and options she has. However,

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Rakoff’s memoir is the bright eyed glowing opposite to this. For her nothing wrinkles, nothing goes black. In a way she has written the most classic of Bildungsroman stories, which tend to have men at their center. Like Wilhelm Meister she is inducted into the brotherhood (sisterhood?) of literary people after a year of obstacles small and large.

DSC_0235That’s really an interesting aspect of the book. Despite its breezy shallowness and the flat prose, Rakoff pulls off something fascinating: she tells a story the way we expect men to tell them. She plops her character in the middle of a social context and doesn’t care about any of the connections. Near the end of the book, we are told about a weekend where she reads all of Salinger’s work and forgets about her boyfriend, and really about everything else. Reading this book is all that counts. The caricature of her Polish landlady is never really reflected on because why care? In the first half of the book, where the author drops names, quotes and comparisons to authors, books and movies in an almost stakkato like rhythm, the writer I was most reminded of was Bret Easton Ellis. In books like American Psycho, Ellis perfected a prose that is simply woven, but uses the names and places of American culture as rhythmic emphases, as a kind of modern choir to follow his characters around, pounding on the drum of proper names and shared knowledge. It’s been pointed out a few times how Ellis’ technique corresponds to Saul Kripke’s theory of naming, how it relies on especially the cluster theory of names. The vacuousness at the heart of many of his characters is buffeted and replaced by the proper names of the world around them. The world’s signifiers revolve around Ellis self absorbed protagonists, and while these assumptions tend to work in favor of male characters in literature, Rakoff has employed this exact same technique, but without Ellis’ ear for rhythm. Yet doing all of this for a female character has extra resonance. This book would be much easier to dismiss had it been written by a man. The prose (A lot of dialog has the form of “…I said, nodding. …he said, sighing.” Or “‘Wow,’ I said. Hugh laughed. ‘I know, wow.'” Or this happens: “‘Come in,’ he said and I did.” – there’s a lot of short sentences and cutesie observations (when Rakoff first hears the title of Salinger’s last published story “Hapworth”, she makes the following remark: “‘What’s ‘Hapworth’?’ It sounded mysterious. Like a secret agent’s code name.”) and the self satisfied wisdom alone are enough to stop me.

DSC_0108But it’s not that easy. The Bildungsroman and the Ellis discussion are significant. One of the reasons why Plath’s figs shrivel and blacken on the tree is the pressure on women to conform. Plath’s character turns to thoughts of self harm to relieve the pressure. Rakoff, a comfortably middle aged woman, wrote this book with the gift of hindsight, pointing out the different situation her 23 year old self was in compared to the canon of young women coming to the big city. Mary McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and many others had peculiar troubles. Rakoff’s decision to place her memoir so explicitly both right in the middle of and between broad strands of tradition highlights everything that changed – and the things that have not changed. Two male authors in the book use their fiction to (imaginatively) violate women who wronged them, and Rakoff shows us how this impacts the discursive atmosphere. All of this is interesting and the book is an engaging read and I wish those things had come up in an overall better book. There is nothing at stake, there is no abyss, no real trouble drawing us in. I already mentioned the prose, which, unbelievably, was written by a poet (click here or here for some of Rakoff’s poems). Yes, it’s interesting that Rakoff copies and differently applies masculine self absorption, but that doesn’t make that insouciance a better read. In the end, I have to come back to what I said in the beginning. If books are something that’s important and vital to you now, if writing and thinking excites you still, skip the book. But you might know people whose passion for books never went away, instead it hardened and you can still see it in them, like Han Solo in his carbonite imprisonment. This book is perfect for those friends. It trades in nostalgia, it’s genuinely besotted with books, and it rewards knowledge of literary tradition.

One of my favorite poems about New York is this one.

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John Wray: Lowboy

Wray, John, (2010), Lowboy, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-42933-1

It’s astonishing, really, how far popular fiction steeped in philosophy or theory has come. Modernist and postmodernist fiction, despite the levity and ease that the latter brought to that kind of writing, was still explicitly (and difficultly) theoretic. Writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme have, to this day, written for a certain kind of audience, a select group of readers, not small in numbers but far from representing the mainstream of popular literary fiction. Although there are young writers like the amazing Colson Whitehead, who continue writing these slightly difficult, openly brainy kinds of books, many of our younger writers have managed to create books which are sneakily smart, which tell an engaging tale that works both on a theoretical level as well as on a level concerned with the complexities of ‘normal’ storytelling. Among the writers in this vein are Lorrie Moore, whose so-so most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (review forthcoming) is part moving coming of age-tale, part intellectual exercise, obsessed with naming, meaning, and reality and Brian Evenson, who writes harrowing tales of horror, fueled by a fine philosophical mind, fed on a diet of French philosophy. Another writer is the prodigious John Wray. Lowboy, published in 2009, is his third novel, after The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). Wray is a consistently astonishing writer, and Lowboy is an incredibly good book. It’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a compelling, great read, and a smart one at that. Trust me. Read it.

Like Evenson, Wray manages to write, his literary and philosophical concerns aside, a completely convincing genre novel. This is harder to do than you’d imagine, but Wray pulls it off with aplomb. Lowboy is a mystery novel, employing many tropes and tools of the genre, and it’s an addictively readable mystery at that. From the first to the last page, the reader hurries through the book following the hints Wray has scattered throughout, exploring the dark landscapes below and above NY City. That Lowboy does work like an excellent thriller or mystery is all the more interesting, since Wray has sidelined the detective in his book, more than that: he has given him a bit part, made him second to the narrative and theoretical structure of the book. Without this move, Lowboy wouldn’t be half the great novel that it actually is. In his classic study of postmodern fiction, McHale has pointed to the detective mystery as the genre that best embodies the modernist paradigm. Modernism, according to McHale, is about finding out about the world, the one, real, indivisible world. The literary techniques that are applied to achieve that goal may vary but the goal never changes. There are problematic issues attached to that, especially if we look at fringes and peripheral phenomena. Wray tells his story through his protagonist, and robs the detective of the power to read and explain the world. Things have to be explained to him although the whole story, ultimately, is beyond him, and beyond a simple explanation, actually.

This is important, because Lowboy‘s protagonist Will Heller, nicknamed Lowboy, is an outsider, fringe, part of the periphery: he is mad. No, really, he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and as we enter the book he has just made his escape from the Bellavista Clinic (a thinly veiled reference to Bellevue, I guess) and roams the streets of NY. Or rather: he enters the intricate, labyrinthine underground world of the New York subway system. Even with his perception endangered, he can find his way through NY with ease, and a determination that makes him some kind of Theseus. In fact, this isn’t that odd a reference. Although this Theseus doesn’t need Ariadne’s help, his zeal and resolve are similarly fueled by the wish to save other lives, though in this case, it’s the whole world that Will attempts to save from fiery destruction. In Will’s odd head, the dire global warming warnings have engendered a belief in the imminent destruction of the world by fire that can only be stopped if Will (bear with me) is cooled down, which to achieve he needs to get laid. This may sound like an adventurous story a desperate teenager tries to tell a gullible girl he wants to bed, but Will completely and utterly believes it. In fact, at no point in the whole novel does Wray condescend to his protagonist, he’s utterly serious about Will’s problems and concerns, which is rare.

Mental illness is often subject to readings that celebrate the margin as different, using its symptoms as cute or terrifying images, in order to achieve something akin to an ‘atrocity tale’: connecting with normal people in the mainstream by using the margin as contrast. Wray doesn’t do that, and much of the power and drive of the book is due to Will’s genuine anguish. Sometimes Wray doesn’t offer explanations, which contributes to the mystery and tension in the novel, and even Lateef Ali, Lowboy‘s detective, is sometimes blindsided by the mentally ill people he pursues. Impressively, the mystery that surrounds Will and those like him in the book, is never really resolved, cleared up. This is not about understanding madness. Indeed, Wray appears to harbor no wish to relate Will’s thoughts and ratio in a way that makes perfect sense to his readers, who do not share Will’s predicament, and so the clinical view is completely absent from the book, although psychiatrists do make an appearance in Lowboy. Yet their explanations create as much fog as they clarify issues, and in a twist in the very last sentence of the book, John Wray makes, unambiguously, clear that Lowboy is a literary work of art, that it does not attempt to speak about people afflicted with Will’s illness. As we know from Foucault, this is a central problem: mental illness is rarely allowed to speak itself, and if it is, its speech is licensed, framed, ‘allowed’. For a writer not afflicted with the illness in question, this can be a kind of trap.

John Wray offers a few solutions. Among these is his refusal to explain Will, to make his readers empathize with him at all costs. Another is the serious, earnest nature of his portrayal of Will’s perception. Although Lowboy creates an exaggerated image of the mind-set of many teenage virgins, and of the hyperbole that teenagers are often prone to display whenever they are feeling particular put-upon and desperate, exaggeration never turns to caricature. Will’s desperation is palpable and real, and his reading of the world is different from mine or yours, but Wray doesn’t linger on the specific issue of the difference, he doesn’t spend much time with Will’s symptoms as symptoms. The seriousness (despite the fact that Lowboy is actually a hilarious book, to be honest) provides an interesting link to another genre that Wray sets his book in, apart from the mystery aspect. It’s a coming-of age tale in a way. Many reviewers have correctly cited J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as point of reference. This is appropriate inasmuch as the anger and directness of Salinger’s protagonist, and his disdain for the “phoneys” does have many parallels to Will’s behavior in Lowboy. But Will is like the light, open version of Caulfield. There is no hate, no real disdain in him, he’s wondering, trying to cope, and understand. One of Wray’s remarkable achievements is that he managed to use a difficult character in a way that is not the least exploitative, I think, that makes use of his unique situation without pathologizing him. There are many schizophrenic characters in fiction and many more who are otherwise mentally ill. Will doesn’t resemble them as much as he does the unmarked boys from modern (normative) coming of age novels.

I have, accidentally, been reading a few of those lately, from great works, like Padgett Powell’s Edisto, to dire ones, like Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, or Sue Townsend’s series of horrible books. The worse the book, the stronger the tendency to use irony and sarcasm, to distance oneself from the story through clever tricks and ruses. Clever puns and a knowing air, these can work when you’re as extraordinarily talented as the young Martin Amis who managed to pull this kind of writing off in The Rachel Papers (read my review here), but there’s a dishonesty, really, to the whole enterprise, and looking at its center you’ll find, more often than not, an unoriginal philistine mind cloaking itself in cleverness. In the bad (but well-praised) books, this is invariably the case. And what’s worse, they are horribly normative in the worst way. Iterating white male narratives, reproducing cute images of repressive myths, these books are really quite damaging to public discourse. The cleverness and irony makes it just less bearable. Caulfield is an exception, because of his directness.

Another exception, and focus of one of the best coming of age novels ever written, is the protagonist of Henry Roth’s magisterial Call It Sleep. Roth’s David Schearl (though he’s quite a bit younger than the usual characters of these books) is bewildered by the world around him, and as he uncovers the world beyond his apartment, he discovers language anew, and the world, and Truth, are revealed to him in a set of complex epiphanies, though his head can’t grasp them. This poetic and religious understanding of his environment, which unfolds in the pages of Roth’s incredible novel, is close to how madness may be described by some. There is dirt, and sex, and intrigue, but Schearl stumbles through all this without having to resort to cheap asides and ironies. Reading Lowboy, Roth’s book was the first I thought about. While the gravitas and the scale of the two novels are very different, they share a concern (also questions of cultural heritage, by the way) about how the world is read by someone who is not part of the in-crowd, whose sexuality may be differently bracketed (With Roth there’s also of course the later books to consider), someone who cannot rely on convention to make sense of it all.

This is crucial. What separates Will from ‘normal’ people is not madness, it’s that his perception of the world is fresh. Philosophers like Nelson Goodman have shown how much even the very act of seeing is translated to us via conventions. Much of Will’s oddness, when he changes into a two-dimensional world, for example, or when signs around him come alive, this is not strictly speaking mental illness. Wray has captured a fragility in narrating the everyday, by using a character at the margins, who is able to see the world the way he does because the normative narrative has pushed him so far aside that he doesn’t even develop double consciousness. Those whom we regard as sick and disabled we shelve, we box them, as/like objects. And still we punish them. So while they do not get to partake of the narrative of power, they suffer its consequences. The ease with which we as a society inflict punishment upon those whom we regard as disabled is astonishing, the forcefulness with which we ensure that the conventional reading of how limbs and minds are supposed to work is the only reading available and deviations are shelved, boxed and punished, is frightening. The cascade of story and images in Lowboy implies a cognizance of this fact, of the enormousness of this kind of oppressive structure.

Will is dangerous to himself and others, this we learn early in the book. Or is he? Lowboy captures eloquently the fine line that separates truth from normative fiction. There is a careful ambiguity to the question of how (and if) Will is as dangerous as Lateef Ali and the others think he is. Although the larger structures of state and society are not explicitly invoked, Wray scatters obvious references throughout. The fact that Lateef Ali was born Rufus Lamarck White (there are five essays begging to be written just about that name and its meanings in relationship to the novel and its contexts, political and cultural) is one such plain, but unforced reference, another is “Skull and Bones”, Will’s nickname for the wardens who pursue him through the underground, which can’t help but recall the Yale society that goes by the same name. Not only that one. Conspiracy theories, not just Sutton’s silly one, are at heart reductive, reactionary celebrations of the status quo, even when they appear to question it (cf. for example Daniel Kulla’s fine book-length essay on the topic), and as such, the nickname and the job of the two wardens in hot pursuit of Will are a perfect fit. Between Ali and the wardens, Will navigates between realistic and cliché representations of reality. The fact that he doesn’t depend upon convention and consensus to understand the world, means that he can move from a realistic world into a symbolic world of representations, where people are proxies for ideas and structures.

There’s more to the novel than that. Personally, I felt a strong connection between this book and Saul Bellow’s slanderous (but brilliant) Humboldt’s Gift, also, the use of semiotics in the book warrants many close inspections. Lowboy manages to take on a difficult kind of protagonist without falling into various traps. This book is not about understanding Will (and those like him), it continues to put off final explanations. It’s an incredibly rich book, and a review as short as this cannot possibly do it justice, but in closing, it’s important to not overstate the ideas, because, incredibly, despite all this, Lowboy is a great, suspenseful, quick read, that works on a direct, engaging level. Wray’s prose is careful, elegant and insanely precise, but also very unobtrusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book. By rights it should be a bestseller and the object of university seminars both. This is a moving, great read. Don’t miss out on it.

No Insight & Revelations

Mikki Halpin is ridiculous in the Salon.

Both Joyce Maynard and Salinger’s daughter Margaret were vilified for violating the great man’s privacy when they wrote about their own experiences with him and exposed his predatory, controlling relationships with women. Instead of exploring the insights these revelations might bring to readings of Salinger’s work (not to mention the women’s right to tell their own stories), critics dismissed their books as exploitative, attention-seeking stunts. (…) This sort of backlash is not exclusive to Salinger — when Pablo Picasso’s former wives and lovers began to expose him as a physically and emotionally abusive man, they were subject to similar criticisms.

Actually, the “not to mention” phrase is the only thing that may be relevant here. I can’t really be bothered to examine the legitimacy of the claim that the biographical facts might be relevant (producing “insights”) to the literary output of Salinger, except in a non-literary mode, but I’m currently trying to stave off annoyance while dealing with literary criticism about Bishop’s work, one, memorably claiming that you cannot understand her “enigmatic” texts without seeing them as mainly and primarily biographic statements. These critics seem to care very little about Bishop as artist and person, and it’s an enervating read. So, no patience for this kind of buffoonery today. I notice though, when I vented my irritation at Nigel Beale’s twattishness in this post and it’s followup post, I didn’t have more patience.

RIP J.D. Salinger

Oh. J.D. Salinger died.

J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.

Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.

Here is a bit from Robert Giroux’ interview (interviewed by George Plimpton) in the Paris Review

A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss. (…) So I left the Catcher in the Rye manuscript with Reynal. No reply for much too long, maybe two weeks. I finally went to see him. I said, “Gene, I’ve told you the story of Salinger visiting this office, and the fact that I shook hands with him. We have a gentleman’s contract at this point.”

He said, “Bob, I’m worried about that manuscript.” I said, “What are you worried about?” He said, “I think the guy’s crazy.”