Category Archives: J. D. Salinger

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Empathy Challenged

“Writers don’t write from experience,” the poet Nikki Giovanni once said, “if you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

As an African-American, Giovanni might feel an urge to communicate the seemingly incommunicable—what it is like to be in her skin. She may also feel the complementary urge to live in someone else’s. And to approach understanding anyone, you need to open yourself to others’ understanding. Maybe you have to believe people can be understood and ought to be. At least it’s a start.

In my literature classes, we encounter authors with varied and interesting experiences, many of whom focus on characters’ joys and doubts, crises and triumphs—in other words, their humanity. Some of my students share that humanity. They hunger for characters who will help them see the world from a different angle. They talk about characters as if they lived next door (but rarely stepped into the light), and they wonder what happened to them after the last page.

They ask charming questions, and harping that someone created these neighbors, friends, or curious strangers—that they aren’t real—threatens empathy worth protecting.

But some students aren’t ready to empathize. “Why are we reading another fill-in-the-blank book?” someone will ask, “I don’t care about fill-in-the-blank.” Some say, “I don’t like books that have fill-in-the-blank in them,” implying I’ve stepped out of bounds in asking them to do something they don’t like.

I’m not sure how to answer. They’re right—if you can’t put yourself in a book, how will it reach you?

At the same time, I can’t see the value in reading about someone exactly like me, even if I could find such a book. Reading is paradoxical. On one hand, we hope to identify with the story and with the people who populate it. On the other hand, our own experience mirrored back offers nothing new, no reason to read at all. My best students hope to gain experience they haven’t gained in life. Their hope goes a long way toward fulfilling their aspiration.

The advertising bathing us day after day discourages empathy, teaching us to want relief, not challenge. We’ve lost much of our appetite for discomfort and quickly exhaust patience with quirky characters. Nick Carraway is a wimp. Romeo needs to stop being such a drama queen. How could George stand Lennie so long—shouldn’t he put him in an institution where they can care for him more properly?

I’d like to get over my cynicism about the future of reading. Self-centered perspectives seem a natural part of growing up, and I certainly remember the fun of shooting down great works. You can cajole most students into recognizing a book’s merit. All is not lost.

But I struggle more than I used to. How do you teach someone to care? How do you teach them to look for themselves in characters they consider unlikable?

Once, in an essay on The Catcher in the Rye, I asked, “How do you think J. D. Salinger hopes we will feel about Holden? How does your reaction to Holden compare to Salinger’s aim and how does that help you assess the book’s success?”

Many students recognized Salinger daring us to like Holden. In making Holden so troublesome, a few argued, he tested our capacity to face our own flaws. Others, however, complained about Holden’s dated expressions, his dated, no longer shocking behavior, his annoying verbal ticks, his unbearable imaginary troubles, his hypocrisy. They suggested Holden ought to stop feeling sorry for himself and just get on with life, asking, “What does he have to complain about really?”

One student put it, “Who wants to understand him? Who cares?”

I wrote in the margin, in my quietest handwriting, “What about the death of Holden’s brother?” and “Do you think Holden’s parents are giving him the support he needs by sending him to a series of distant boarding schools?” and, finally, when my patience wore thin, “Aren’t your judgments of Holden just as harsh as his judgments of others? Can you see a little of yourself in him?”

No reader can empathize with every character. I understand that. The vehemence of rejection, however, sometimes scares me. The study and appreciation of literature may require empathy, but doesn’t life require it more?

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, J. D. Salinger, Laments, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Catcher in the Finn or The Adventures of Huckleberry in the Rye

Teaching Huck Finn after Catcher in the Rye, I’m struck—again—by how much the second book owes the first.  Both boys suffer in their doubt.  They navigate without maps but, even if they had them, neither boy seems capable of reading a map’s signs.  Despite their impressive independence, neither can sustain himself, neither can accept help, and neither can pray.

Most of my students find Huck more likable.  Huck uses of the n-word heavily and, maddeningly, fails to abstract his affection for Jim into a rejection of Slavery. But Twain’s implicit affection for Huck usually wins readers over.   Huck is a liar like Holden—they see themselves as terrific fiction makers—but students often think Huck kinder because he witnesses violence without adopting it.  He is a victim.  Huck’s father Pap beats him regularly and, before Huck’s escape, chases him around a locked cabin with a knife, calling his son the “angel of death.”  Huck overhears thieves planning to kill one of their own.  He spies on a feud and the death of a new friend.  He watches an assassination of one man by another and the impotent crowd that wilts in the killer’s righteousness.  Yet Huck doesn’t take up violence himself.  Disillusionment never really sticks.  He remains a nice boy.

In contrast, Holden experiences little violence—a pimp punches him in the stomach over the price of a “throw”—but he often imagines violence.  He wears “a people-shooting hat” and thinks about chopping a guy’s head off with an ax, and pictures slamming the heads of profanity-writers against the steps until they are “good and bloody.”  He calls someone “a royal pain in the ass” in a fit of anger, and readers hear about his punching out all the garage windows after his brother’s death.  My students know he has a fuse and scoot back in their chairs when I ask if they could be Holden’s friend.  He may be more perceptive than Huck—not a wise fool but a wise smartass—yet readers trust him less.  His disillusionment galls them.  Most waffle over whether he’s a nice or not.

The difference creates reverse polarities. Some readers appreciate Holden in the end, but loving him requires heroic empathy and generosity.  You have to see his flaws—and who can’t?—without blaming him.  Every class contains a healthy number of Holden haters, people entirely intolerant of his voice.  At the opposite extreme, my students forgive Huck so much.  Though I find the escape Tom orchestrates for Jim unfunny, the pointless torture of a gentle and affectionate man, my students excuse Huck because resisting Tom isn’t in Huck’s nature.  And they laugh.  They are ready to see tearing up the letter revealing Jim’s location as a rejection of Slavery when it isn’t.  Many leave the book eager for a sequel despite Huck’s abject misanthropy in the last few paragraphs.

When students ask which book I like better, I hide behind art and say both have merits.  Salinger did not rewrite Huck Finn.  He was not “copying,” but transmuting what wasn’t new even in Twain’s time.  After all, how many naïve protagonists is an experienced reader likely to meet?—I could be writing about how Twain rewrote Tom Jones.  Salinger places his hero in a world less blessed with landmarks and thus speaks to his own zeitgeist and personal battles. Huck has the great issue of his century to define himself against. Holden has no clear moral imperative to orient him.  They are books, I say, refitting literary conventions to new times.

Still, my answer is a dodge.  For me, they are equally agitating—one because the main character’s affability can’t save him from unconscious cruelty and the other because the hero’s failings kill most of his credibility.  A solicitous reader sees these books are not what they purport to be.  Are readers meant to embrace either Huck or Holden?  One’s sweetness masks bile.  The other’s bile drowns its sweetness.

I’d be cutting my own throat if I said what I’d like to—my students aren’t asking the right question.  Are we supposed to read only what we like?  As unpopular as it is to say so these days, books can be medicinal.  While it’s wonderful to enjoy reading, some great books go well beyond entertainment, and some aren’t entertaining at all.  I’d like to tell my class to look for works that bother them.  I’d like to tell them to stop thinking about “good” and “bad”—I’m so exhausted hearing about it—and study their response.  A better question may be, “What does your reaction to Huck or Holden say about you?”

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