Review: Catcher in the Rye
Author: J. D. Salinger
By Rhys Tarling
It’s almost impossible in 2016 to review The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, without acknowledging its enormous cultural impact. This was the novel Mark Chapman – the man who shot and killed John Lennon – was repeatedly reading aloud at the crime scene until he was arrested. It’s the main influence of countless films, tv shows, songs, and novels.
It’s almost comical to consider its legacy before remembering it’s just a story about a confused and insolent 17 year old boy dicking around New York City for a few days.
Most of the novel’s power derives from the main character, Holden Caulfield. Readers are either immediately utterly repelled by this mopey, self absorbed brat, or enchanted by the coolest, funniest, and sexiest version of your own angsty and alienated self – your milage may vary.
His immediate and visceral effect on the reader is largely due to the stream-of-consciousness writing style Salinger adopts here – we’re privy to just about every passing thought that wanders through this boy’s damaged psyche and it is by turns depressing, hilarious, pitiful, and relatable. Keep in mind the damaged psyche part – what Holden is thinking and what’s actually happening around him are sometimes mutually exclusive, and so is the key clue that Salinger didn’t create a character intended to be despised, or a spokesman for the alienated and disaffected, but instead a richly drawn character who’s trying (and often failing) to figure out what the hell is going on with himself and everyone else.
For a novel aimed at teenagers in 1951, it has aged remarkably well. The texture may be a little softer than you’d think considering all of the controversy surrounding the novel (“damn”s, “hell”s, and two “fuck”s is about as harsh as the language gets) and the colloquial slang occasionally gives away its decade, but the off beat rhythm feels just quintessentially teenager. Consider these two gems, “I’m always saying “Glad to have met you” to people I’m not glad to have met at all. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.” And “I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”
Also, perhaps not unrelated, this novel, for all the analysis, and all the bile and praise thrown its way, doesn’t get enough credit for being as funny as it is. In fact, the humour works on quite a few levels, mainly on the chasm between what’s actually going on and what Holden thinks is going on, or the cutting insults he imagines on the fly.
The Catcher in the Rye is a polarising work of fiction. Put aside the scores of mixed opinions and its legacy if you’re approaching this work for the first time, and instead be open to recalling what it felt like to be on the cusp of 18 years old – and then be glad you’re not.