A guide to the classics: The Catcher in the Rye
|September 13, 2011||Posted by Jess Kadow under guide to the classics|
I don’t want to sound too judgemental or put anyone off right from the start, but The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was possibly the worst book I have ever read. I’ve refrained from calling it a novel because I’m not sure it deserves to be labelled as one. And it definitely does not deserve to be called a classic. What would you expect from a classic novel? A captivating plot filled to the brim with intrigue and shocking twists? An exhilarating journey where you live life along with the characters, overflowing with sympathy at their tragedies and rejoicing at their successes? A feeling of satisfaction when you reach the climactic ending and turn over the last page? Well, this had none of these features. It stunned me with its utter pointlessness and emptiness; this block of writing is devoid of any real emotion, contains only one developed character and has a narrative that was so irritating it sapped away all possible enjoyment, leaving only the bleak foundations of what I tentatively call a ‘plot’. And this is masquerading as great literature.
The story begins with the protagonist, the sixteen year-old Holden Caulfield, as he is expelled from his fourth school, Pencey prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. And everything goes downhill from there. A quick plot summary to provide a taster of the background would be most appropriate here, but it is difficult for this particular novel because I could summarise the entire story in approximately three lines. It’s not so much that nothing happens. It’s just that nothing interesting or eventful happens, so there is little to pick out and describe. I didn’t feel myself warming to the exciting pages where I followed Holden to various locations across the town, just for him to turn round and wander off aimlessly somewhere else as soon as he got there. The novel was full of these inane details so that by the end I was still waiting in a state of dreary hopelessness for the plot to kick in. If you chopped out all the sections of this book that could be placed unceremoniously into the category of ‘unnecessary embellishments’, which were often as boring as they were inconsequential, then the whole story could be boiled down to the random wanderings of this boring, irritating, insensitive, judgemental, indecisive and immature teenager.
Of course there is more to it than that. Holden Caulfield is supposedly a victim of society, a poor boy who is suffering from what I have seen described as a nervous breakdown. The reader is then supposed to be led into questioning the role of society in its care of young people taking the leap into adulthood and how social norms affect people in certain ways. It is clear that Holden is a disturbed individual, but I didn’t see much evidence of a breakdown. What I saw was a boy who had decided not to make anything of his life, meaninglessly meandering through the streets of New York City in a desperate attempt to avoid seeing his parents, who would scold him for being expelled yet again. In this way he wanders aimlessly around and meets lots of people who he insults and offends in various different ways because of his hideous judgemental attitude, causing him to label everyone around him as “phony”. Even his style of narration grated on my nerves; the endless repetition of swear words and boring adjectives that he re-used over and over again drilled into my mind and rotted there. I felt the boredom creep throughout my bones as for the umpteenth time I read that someone was a fake or someone else was stupid, because branding others was all this meaningless, one-sided character seemed capable of doing.
Small sections of the novel provide a glimpse into the past, a compilation of fragmented old memories, some which have grounding in the story and others which don’t. The only other human being, besides his much more likeable little sister Phoebe, that Holden ever seems to care for is mentioned several times in these interludes into the past, but never occurs as a present day character. Perhaps she is meant to symbolise the beautiful days of his past, but his feeble attempts to get in touch with her seem to just make him more bitter, and they certainly didn’t garner any goodwill from me, who had to watch this boy become a social reject by pushing everyone away and not even trying to claw his way back into life.
Holden isn’t supposed to be a bad character, just someone who is struggling to cope with the transition from the innocent dreams of childhood to the hard reality of being an adult, according to the reviews anyway. But there is little in his very sceptical views on life and other people, his disdain for people he labels as “phony” or his tendency to act in a crass or rude manner towards his friends, that suggests he longs for innocence, or even childhood. In fact, most of the cruel adult world that can be seen is the suffering that Holden himself causes, whether it is directed towards others or himself. It doesn’t even seem to have crossed his mind that he could be labelled as responsible, because he is such a self-absorbed human being that he can’t see his own weaknesses. He is constantly searching for women that might want to have sex with him, and this hunt takes up a considerable amount of time, receiving no offers because every woman he meets he bullies, pesters or insults in some way. He is a nobody, alone in the big outside world, but completely incapable of gathering sympathy because of the fact that he is unapproachable, judges everyone before he knows them despite being more obnoxious than anyone else in the novel, and seems to hold an utterly pessimistic attitude towards life and people. This irritating little schoolboy won no affection from me and I don’t understand how this terrible excuse for a story ever became highly renowned in the literary world.
Nowhere in this novel did I find in myself a shred of compassion or sympathy for the hideous amalgamation of negative traits that Holden Caulfield represents. He is a non-entity, a nothing character with no soul or ambition. Simply a lonely wanderer intent on boring the reader out of their mind with inane comments and his irritating indecisiveness. The string of everyday events that folded out of the character were equally as unexciting and J.D. Salinger succeeded in creating a world so devoid of any feeling or engaging factors that there were several points when I considered dropping the book into a nearby dustbin in disgust. This novel is as phony as Holden Caulfield and his warped view on life and definitely not something I would recommend to anyone.