The Catcher in the Rye. My fifth god of fiction, most blessed, most confounding.
In all the (admittedly few) years I have lived, only five pieces of fiction impressed me enough that I considered them as my personal gods of fiction. These works inspired me, changed the way I saw the world, altered the direction I took my life in (even if a little bit). Perhaps Holden himself from The Catcher in the Rye put it best: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” And it happened only five times so far for me in my life. Unfortunately, I have ridiculously high standards for storytelling – not out of arrogance, I hope, but rather because I am just so easily bored.
The first god was Grave of the Fireflies, which taught me tragedy. The second was The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which taught me epicness. The third was The Lord of The Rings, which taught me imagination and limitless creativity. The fourth was Azumanga Daioh, a rare breed of anime that taught me about the whimsical and optimistic, yet also the wistful and sentimental to be found in youth and life.
And then there is the fifth god, my last god of fiction: The Catcher in the Rye. And possibly the greatest.
A lot of people don’t like The Catcher in the Rye. Even more hate the book, including many of my teachers and friends. I remember how I was talking with an English teacher of mine one day, and somewhere in the conversation I said that The Catcher in the Rye was my most favorite book. She seemed to freeze for a moment, blink for a few seconds, and look at me, a little perplexed, before admitting she didn’t really like it. I guess she was thinking this in her head, like all the book’s detractors: how could you enjoy a book that was about nothing but Holden Caulfield’s angsty, teenage whining?
And I think to myself: How could I not enjoy that?
The Catcher in the Rye was probably the last book I earnestly read from cover to cover. All of the other classics and “great pieces of literature” I read in high school couldn’t resonate with me the way The Catcher in the Rye did. Great Gatsby? Yeah, I waded through that one, but it felt like an extremely weak prototype of Catcher. Huck Finn? Well, I appreciated what Mark Twain was trying to accomplish, but it felt too dated for me (though I think Twain would sympathize). Lord of the Flies? Seriously, that was some boring @$# %&!* about some psychopathic kids adults who looked like kids. Their Eyes were Watching God? I used sparknotes. I didn’t even give it the honor of at least using cliffnotes (which is infinitely better than sparknotes). To be honest, barely any story I have come across in the past five years – high school English class or not – could resonate with me even 50% the way The Catcher in the Rye did (until now, maybe).
When I see my writing, hear myself speak, listen to my thoughts as they ramble on and on – I hear a bit of Holden, too, even though I always forget, almost as if he is like a mirror into my being. And you know, every time, when I think to myself, “Do I think this is a good work of fiction?” I always almost subconsciously compare it to my fifth god of fiction. Not my first, nor my second, third, or even, I have to admit, my fourth. It is from The Catcher in the Rye where I set my standards for fiction, somehow.
I know some people enjoy reading or watching something that provokes the deepest depths of their deep, philosophical minds. Others enjoy reading or watching mindless entertainment, wrought with clichés and/or wish-fulfillment. Yet others want an intricate plot full of twists and turns, action and reaction, the great thrillers of human limits, physical and psychological. And still others want Disney a heroic, idealized triumph of goodness’ strength and might over evil (whatever “goodness” and “evil” are defined as). That’s all fine. But for me, the epitome of a good story is the immersive ambiance and the machinations of characters and their interactions; in short, two words: atmosphere and characterization. Particularly the latter.
And the tale of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye, fulfilled precisely those requirements. Good atmosphere; even better, godly characterization.
There was no lofty philosophical modernist/post-modernist/whateverist rantings, no winding examinations of the deranged aspects of the human psyche, no ridiculous and depressing melodrama, no childishly optimistic Disney-like vindications of the human spirit, no goddamn love triangles that drag on for centuries. No, it was none of this. It was, for me, an extraordinarily written narrative about very, very ordinary circumstances and its very, very ordinary character (relatively speaking). The brilliance of the book, to me, is that it just tells me something as it sees it from its own (admittedly cynical, rambling) viewpoint. You’re not supposed to find the main character likeable; you’re not supposed to be enraptured by an exciting, explosive plot; you’re not supposed to cheer him on as he magically goes through some magical “character arc” or “changes to become a better/worse person” (I don’t understand why some people believe a “good” story blatantly needs this). You only see Holden and his, quite possibly, angst-filled, even whine-filled state of mind. That’s it. The Catcher in the Rye did for me what I thought usually impossible: portray an adolescent as an adolescent, portray a person being a person and not a character. In other words, it did one hell of a job characterizing one random adolescent dude. Isn’t it amazing that both the people who love and hate The Catcher in the Rye feel what they feel precisely because Holden Caulfield feels like such a real, living person, that he can extract real, living responses (loving or hateful), responses I don’t see everyday for most fictional characters? Responses to give to a normal person and not a character? Now that’s a brilliantly-written character. And a great story, too. Because it respects me by not expecting or wanting me to overthink too much. It wants me to digest it, slowly, over time, as it subtly changes me. It gives me all I can take, nothing more, nothing less, and asks for nothing.
Anyhow, perhaps Mark Twain’s words from his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which has interestingly enough been compared to The Catcher in the Rye) sums up my ramblings: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR. -Notice”
I found storytelling beauty in The Catcher in the Rye precisely through the fact that it quite blatantly, and intentionally, wasn’t meant to be beautifully written literature. There was highborn “motive” or a grandiose “moral” or even much of a “plot.” Perhaps I can use Holden’s rhetoric of phoniness here (even though I don’t necessarily agree with it): The Catcher in the Rye is anything but a phony. It is authentic. It might be unpleasant, even frustrating and annoying, but it is authentic. (That’s not to say motives, morals, and plots are automatically phony and can’t be authentic.)
For when I think of my gods of fiction, and the effect they had on me, The Catcher in the Rye jumps to my mind first. The others – sure, they were just as influential on me, maybe even more – but they just cannot compare, somehow. Even Azumanga Daioh, which I consider the happy, mirthful antithesis of The Catcher in the Rye – even that, which I see as a natural compliment to The Catcher in the Rye… even that still plaes in comparison.
It’s funny I’ve finally accepted all this and understood it fully, five years later. And all this came to me, now, at last, because I think I might have found a worthy heir to The Catcher in the Rye. At least for me.
It’s an anime, of all things (for better or worse), but if that’s how it’s supposed to be, so be it. For as I watched it, flitting through episode after episode, scene after scene, amazement after amazement, layer after layer, depth after depth, wonder after wonder, I was, very slowly, irrevocably reminded, for the first time in five years, of Holden Caulfield and The Catcher in the Rye. Reminded, for the first time in five years, of the dialogue; the fullness of personality; the struggle, both silly yet serious. Reminded, for the first time in five years, of the bittersweetness of those years, the age of troubles, the days when the things that fueled the economy of the empire, the world no less, dwindled and society collapsed.
I still remember the day I first got the book. After reading the first few chapters, I asked an upperclassman friend of mine who had read the book the previous year, “What’s the point of this?”
He loved The Catcher in the Rye, so naturally, he replied, “There’s no point. That’s the point.”
After that, I found myself enjoying the book more and more. I found its point in its not having a point. I came to love it too. And I finished the entire book in a day (or two days… I don’t remember).
A triumph of no triumph, a victory of no victory, a glory of no glory. It taught me a favorite sentiment of mine: the pointless, meaningless struggle to do something you know is futile, to face death (in this case the death of childhood) with a smile. It spoke to me in the language of literature that I enjoyed, the language which was, while arguably vulgar and aimless, also, at the same time, intimate and familiar, tranquil (in an odd way) and simple (but not simplistic). It spoke to me, angst or no angst, whining or no whining. Even now, when I am older, and no longer trapped in my own little adolescent bubble (I think), it still speaks to me (albeit in a slightly different way). Somehow. I’ve heard from some people that The Catcher in the Rye is like a mirror: it doesn’t show you about Holden and his worldview so much as it secretly reveals to you about yourself and your worldview at the moment you read it.
And so, now, there it sits, above the others, a god of fiction, lofty and vain, yet humble in its own way, too. And there it sits, and there it will sit, unchanging. It won’t change, ever. The only thing that will change is me.
And Holden; well, Holden will always be a friend. Sure, he might not be the best person – and maybe he really is a bad, whiny, angsty, self-centered little twit as some argue (although they always seem to forget that this is a young guy whose freaking little brother just died (I’d be depressed and angsty too if I had an awesome kid brother who died)), but he will always be a friend and inspiration (in a weird way), unchanging. As he himself puts it, “I’m not too sure old Phoebe knew what the hell I was talking about. I mean she’s only a little child and all. But she was listening, at least. If somebody at least listens, it’s not too bad.”
Thank you, Holden. Thank you, J.D. Salinger. Thank you, The Catcher in the Rye. Thank you, my fifth god of fiction. Thank you for listening. These five years wouldn’t have been the same without you.
P.S. On a brighter note, I decided to buy a copy of the book on Amazon for one penny the other day. I’m such a goddamn phony. I really am. Or just a goddamn cheap Asian. Wait… is there a difference?