The OF Blog: Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year

For a moment, I paused in front of the wall of Salinger books and looked at the titles, the familiar spines.  My parents owned most of these:  paperbacks of The Catcher in the Rye and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – an Introduction; a pristine hardback of Franny and Zooey.  But I had read around them.  Why?  Why had I skipped Salinger?  Partly due to happenstance.  My high school English teacher never assigned Catcher.  No older sibling put a copy in my fourteen-year-old hands and said, " You have to read this."  And then my Salinger moment – the window between twelve and twenty, when everyone in the literate universe seems to go crazy over The Catcher in the Rye – had passed.  Now I was interested in difficult, gritty fictions, in large, expansive novels, in social realism.  I was interested in Pynchon, Amis, Dos Passos.  I was interested in Faulkner and Didion and Bowles, writers whose bleak, relentless styles stood in stark opposition to what I imagined Salinger to be:  insufferably cute, aggressively quirky, precious.  I had no interest in Salinger's fairy tales of Old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world.  I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey.  I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita.  Even the names of the stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever:  "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."  "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut."

I didn't want to be entertained.  I wanted to be provoked. (pp. 51-52 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Memoirs are tricky beasts to tame enough in order to review them.  Trying to lasso a writer's experiences and perspectives in, to place them within the context of your own assessments is more difficult than merely assessing plot, prose, characterization, and theme.  A memoir can be filled with beautifully-flowing sentences and gorgeous images and be as full of life as a vomit-covered toilet after a night of vapid partying.  Some stories just need more than technical brilliance in order to justify their raison d'être.  Perhaps it is as little as a fleeting encounter with another human being, a little yet profound twist in one's life narrative direction, but something is needed to help the reader to latch onto something, anything while reading about the minutiae of another's life.

Joanna Rakoff's memoir of her 1996 experience working at a New York literary agency (which she refers to throughout as simply, "the Agency"), however, has several things about it that make it an interesting and entertaining memoir.  Her descriptions of life working for one of the oldest literary agencies and their rather antiquated office procedures provides a fascinating look into New York publishing just as it was changing higgledy-piggledy into the digital age.  It is also an examination of the casual sexism that many young professional class women experienced in the era in which the debate raged over what type of suit/dress to wear.  Yet these are only part and parcel of her overall experiences during this defining, transformational year.  It was the year that she became acquainted with J.D. ("Jerry") Salinger.

Salinger only directly appears in a few scenes of My Salinger Year, mostly in the context of the numerous fan mails that Joanna, as literary assistant/secretary, has to answer with a form letter informing them that Salinger does not read nor reply to his fan mail.  Yet it is in these letters, from adolescents in North Carolina to World War II veterans in Nebraska, that reveal Salinger the writer's influence much more than anything the man himself says in the course of his periodic and brief phone conversations with the Agency's workers.  Reading these scenes reminded me of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran in its discussion of how literature can impact readers' social perspectives and be an agent for change.

And yes, Salinger (or the combination of his endearingly awkward phone conversations, the fan mail, and Rakoff's eventual reading of his œvre) acts as a catalyst on Rakoff.  Her relationships with two men, her former fiancée and the failed novelist live-in boyfriend she had that year, changes as she reads Salinger's stories and sees elements of his characters in them, particularly Franny in relation to Lane.  These revelations are organic, never appearing to be forced or stretched.  By memoir's end, Rakoff has changed from the nervous and determined to be proper young professional described in the opening Winter section to the resolute, independent-minded young woman who resigns her position in order to continue her personal and professional development elsewhere.  My Salinger Year is the story of Rakoff's development, due in part to her belatedly encounter with Salinger's writing, and it is a fascinating one for how adroitly she mixes the literary and the personal to create a breezy yet at times profound read.  Highly recommended.

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