J- D- Salinger

Story Playlist 24: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (1948) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is just about perfect. It is a story that is easy to misread, because the treasures are in the details, a Christmas tree hung with baubles that are barely visible among the pine needles and tinsel. In fact, I had to read it three times to feel that I “got it,” and I’m still not sure if I got all there is to get.

At first glance, the story seems to begin in a banal manner, then becomes awkward, cute, creepy, before an explosive last paragraph that makes you flip quickly back to the beginning, to see if you might find foreshadowing that would have clued you in to the conclusion. It is there, of course, as it must be in all good stories—none of your deus ex machina business, but an honest surprise ending.

The story is divided into two sections, plus that whammy of a coda. The first section features Muriel Glass on a long-distance call with her mother. Muriel is on holiday in Florida with her husband, Seymour, who was a soldier in the recently-ended Second World War. Muriel is a dismissive, unconcerned, and rather oblivious socialite who stuck with Seymour throughout the war, and doesn’t seem to realize that he returned a changed man, damaged goods, as so many poor, shell-shocked soldiers did (Salinger himself was one, and it is easy to project his biography onto Seymour Glass).

It took me a few reads of this opening sequence to catch what was actually going on, because Salinger ingeniously presents it to us as a straight dialogue, with almost no authorial interference, and a lot of interrupted sentences, as when two people are talking over each other or cutting each other off. Muriel’s mother is quite frantic with concern for her daughter, and refers to a number of incidents involving Seymour’s instability, and in each case we can only infer what happened. “The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away.” After a second read, I conjectured that Seymour had been involved in an accident with his father-in-law’s car, perhaps involving trees, that may have been intentional. He may be suicidal (“business with the window” and “plans for passing away”).

We also learn, obliquely, that he was recently released from a psychiatric hospital—too soon, according to one doctor. In the hotel, Seymour’s appearance prompts a psychiatrist on holiday to approach Muriel about him, but she treats the conversation dismissively. Salinger creates tension through the mannered dialogue between a concerned mother and her strong-willed daughter, who seems to want to ignore her husband’s issues since his return from combat. She also accepts that he mocks her, thinking it’s cute that he called her “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” and seems most concerned that she knows nothing about the book by “the only great poet of the century” that he sent her from Germany, and which was in German. From the mother’s insistent questions, despite casual comments on fashion and gossip, we sense Muriel’s husband is a ticking time-bomb.

The second section is where it gets odder—more playful but also creepier. A little child, Sybil Carpenter, is sent off to play while her mother goes for a martini (promising to bring Sybil the olive). Sybil heads straight over to Seymour, who is lying on the beach in his bathrobe. Seymour is charming with the young girl, but we may think it odd that a grown man is playing with a little girl unrelated to him, with no other adults around. Their interaction is friendly but their relationship clear. Seymour speaks familiarly to the child, but in a bantering way. When the girl mentions her father’s imminent arrival, Seymour says he has been waiting for him, but we can’t tell he is teasing her or if he actually knows her father. Sybil seems comfortable with Seymour—who she refers to as “see more”—and that’s reassuring. But when he kisses her foot while she’s on a raft in the ocean with him, she is startled. It’s then that he says they must go. There seems to be a sexual undertone that is disturbing, highlighted by the weird idea of “bananafish,” an imaginary fish that Seymour suggests he and Sybil look for in the water. It’s when she says she saw one that he kisser her foot, suggesting a spontaneous gesture of tenderness toward her. If we like we can consider the sexual overtones of the bananafish, certainly a phallic image as described by Seymour: “I’ve known bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas…after they eat so many bananas they can’t get out of the banana hole…they die.”

Why is Seymour on the beach in his bathrobe? His reticence to disrobe is dismissed by Muriel as shyness at being pale, but we sense that’s just an excuse for her mother, who thinks there must be something more to it. Muriel offers another explanation: “[Seymour] says he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo,” to which her mother replies, “He doesn’t have any tattoo! Did he get one in the Army?” Now, that detail seemed to be often ignored by other readers of the story—at least I could find no mention of the tattoo in a Google search—but, after several reads, it occurred to me that the sort of tattoo one would get during World War Two that one wouldn’t want “a lot of fools” staring at, is a numerical tattoo from a concentration camp. An identification with Nazi prisoners—according to his daughter, Salinger was among U.S. soldiers who entered a liberated concentration cam—would further underscore the sort of post-traumatic stress disorder that Seymour suffers from. And yet the reference is subtle, and seems to elude most readers.

In the final part of the story Seymour returns to his hotel-room, where Muriel sleeps on a twin bed. In a master-class showing how to build tension and shock in one sentence, Salinger first leads us to believe that, as per the fears of Muriel’s mother, Muriel is going to be the victim of Seymour’s violence.

He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.

That last sentence is a demonstration of skillful misdirection. By telling us Seymour looks at the girl, we assume that Muriel is the one “aimed” at, an assumption that Salinger cultivates until the final three words.

In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s readers must work, like detectives, to first recognize clues that might not seem to be clues, then use them to decode the enigmatic story, piecing together what the clues mean. A writing professor of mine once said that about 2/3 of your readers should “get” a great story the first or second time through. That means that 1/3 will need assistance in order to “get it” all, or they might not get it all—and that’s okay. “Getting it” is not requisite to enjoying the story as a whole, but each hidden attribute that you “get” feels like a miniature conquest, and enriches the overall experience.

Salinger is notoriously hard to “get,” in the sense that he lets quizzical actions and statements remain so, prodding the reader to get on his wavelength but explaining very little. My favorite novels and, particularly, short stories are those that offer up riddles that close reading will solve, opening like flowers to reveal the beauty of the story and the author’s ingenuity. And yet some writers are so good you admire their work even when you can’t determine exactly what they’re getting at with every detail.

It’s a Glass Family Affair

High school reading is a curious thing. I'd like to think that the sudden burst of teen-appropriate fiction in the late 1990s was largely driven in by the rise of Scholastic as a business and Harry Potter as a phenomenon. This no doubt explains the many reader guides available on this wealth of writing—Amy Crawford's Great Books for High School Kids, Daniel Hahn's Ultimate Teen Book Guide, Nancy Keane's Big Book of Teen Reading Lists, John Gillespie and Catherine Barr's Best Books for High School Readers, and on and on. In this day and age, the heroes of writing for teens are Sherman Alexie, John Green, Nikki Grimes, Laurie Halse Anderson, and innumerable others—and finding these others is easy in an age of Amazon and "customers who bought this item also bought…"

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, teen reads were not so easy to find. High school reading for non-honors courses comprised Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Paul Zindel. For more smart-alecky students, the diet consisted of traditional classics, ranging from Charles Dickens' seemingly interminable (then!) David Copperfield to John Steinbeck's overlong (then!) Grapes of Wrath. The geek crowd—among which I number myself—floated into Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and the newly arrived Orson Scott Card or William Gibson. But among the authors of slightly straighter fiction that had a special cachet for high school overachievers, none stood higher than J.D. Salinger (with Kurt Vonnegut and Herman Hesse often trailing in his wake).

Salinger was the Seinfeld of his day: ideally suited for the semi-cosmopolitan children of middle-class parents with more smarts than money. While Catcher in the Rye was as inevitable then as it is today—notwithstanding recent claims of its early death in the pages of the New Yorker—the aforementioned overachievers not uncommonly preferred the pleasures of Salinger's Nine Stories and his one other published novel, Franny and Zooey, to his paean to post-pubescent adolescence.

There are some awfully pleasant associations I still have with the Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, making it impossible for any re-reading of these works not to be colored by feelings of high school smugness. (Look at me! See how smart I was reading these as a high school sophomore rather than the prescribed Catcher!)

But my continued fascination with re-reading as a 40-something books that so impressed me in my 'teens continues unabated, and while Pride and Prejudice, in my humble opinion, continues to ride high, my experience with other works has not withstood the tests of time as well. Salinger may be a case in point. For the Nine Stories, I have to confess that, by and large, these have held up well—certainly much better than many short stories of the same period. Franny and Zooey, however, does not.

It's not that it's a bad novel. It isn't. It's still pretty good. It's just, well, a little overdone, a little contrived, a bit pretentious, the kind of stuff likely to feed the ego of a precocious teen reader. One can't help but suck up the mysteries of the disturbed wunderkind, the elusive Seymour—eldest of the Glass children— whose shadow and genius hang over the novel, and particularly Franny, like a wet blanket woven from the threads of an existential angst born of reading too many Tolstoy novels and Zen maxims. Salinger is not so dumb as to ignore that fact when brother Zooey rails at sister Franny: "We're freaks, that's all. Those two bastards [eldest Seymour and next in line Buddy] got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards." The freakish standards at issue boil down to Franny's discontent with—how does one put it?—the petty qualities that in some way are exactly what make us human—which is, of course, Zooey's point.

Notwithstanding inevitable triteness of Zooey's moralizing about how to accept people for who they are, warts and all, the novel irresistibly draws us into it, turning us into the very freaks with freakish standards Zooey deplores. In fact, reading the book in high school inspired the same act of freakishness that Franny has taken on of hauling around a copy of the anonymously authored The Way of a Pilgrim, the first-person narration of a wanderer who devoutly recites the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). In Franny's knapsack is The Way of a Pilgrim; and in ours then was Franny and Zooey—at least, until the end of sophomore year when SAT exams became more important.

In the 1970s and 1980s, at least, the greatest irony of Franny and Zooey was an entirely unintentional one: namely the postmodern trick of its transformation into an exemplar of what it condemns. Even as Zooey lectures Franny—and presumably readers—on the pretension of judging too harshly all the non-"whiz kids" out there, we can't help but nod our heads with the all-too-wise Zooey and sympathize with the well-meaning Franny. Hey, smart people like Franny—and ourselves—make these kinds of mistakes all the time, and it's good thing that we're smart enough to read books like this by J.D. Salinger to teach us better.

But let's be honest, how much would we have listened really if we weren't at the same time all jazzed up by the "beaverboard" nailed up on the back of the door to Seymour and Buddy's childhood room, on which "every inch of visible surface of the board had been decorated with four somewhat gorgeous-looking columns of quotations from a variety of the world's literatures"? And there you are: lengthy quotes from Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Kafka for you Western traditionalists' pearls of wisdom from Issa, the "Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna," and Mu-Mon Kwan for you intellectual mystic types into Alan Watts and Thomas Merton. If this isn't the height of pretentiousness, I'm not sure what is. And yet let's all just admit that it's cool, too. I even remember how during summer camp as a counselor in training I and others had taken to the habit, in clear imitation of this bit of intellectual self-puffery, of tracking down suitable quotes and writing on the walls of our bathroom stalls bits of geinus from Dostoyevsky and I.L. Peretz. It all certainly made for more interesting reading that "Here I sit hear broken-hearted..."

I ought perhaps add at this juncture that in some ways I repeat the criticisms leveled at the novel by Mary McCarthy in her 1962 review of the novel ("J.D. Salinger's Closed Circuit"), a wonderfully smart reading of the novel and no doubt better written and more insightful than this.

But McCarthy's criticism bears repeating, albeit contextualized by two realities: first that Franny and Zooey is a pretentious novel because its appeal is built on precocity, and being precocious is hardly a bad thing in itself. I recommended the novel to my teen daughter, and I have no qualms doing just that when I consider some of the competition, from Stephanie Meyer's teen vampire soap operas to Cecily von Ziegesar teen sleaze (she's author of the just plain awful Gossip Girl novels). Second, McCarthy wrote before she would realize how strongly the novel would tap the need of smart kids to feel smart. This is a reality that cannot be batted away and Salinger's novel, in some sense, grasps that fact. Franny and Zooey is the Jesus Prayer of the smart and sensitive soul (not the nerd, who represents an entirely different type as smartness goes). Smart kids, in their way, need their Franny and Zooey's (today these tend to be Junot Diaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao): books that bespeak their intellectual curiosity and which, in their being carried about, signal to others that their search for other intellectually curious types. And that ain't a bad thing either.