Image Credit: Penguin Books Ltd, 2010
If you’ve managed to make it to university without having read any J. D. Salinger then I congratulate you, few of us manage it. The Catcher in the Rye, by far Salinger’s most famous work, is a staple of secondary school reading lists and its protagonist Holden Caulfield has become the literary poster boy for middle-class teen angst.
One of Salinger’s lesser known works however, is Franny and Zooey. Comprising of one short story and a novella that were both originally published in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1957, Franny and Zooey is part of Salinger’s series of shorter works following the lives of the fictional Glass family.
Originally from the Upper East Side of New York, all seven of the Glass family siblings were child geniuses, featured in their youth on the popular radio show ‘It’s a Wise Child’. Now all in their twenties and thirties, the youngest sister Franny is enrolled at a liberal arts college and her brother Zooey is an aspiring actor, living with their mother.
Franny and Zooey represent a more resigned version of the resentment we saw in Holden. The first story sees Franny suffering from the beginnings of a mental breakdown at university, and in the subsequent novella we follow her as she returns home to the family’s apartment in New York where Zooey (who is arguably teetering on the edge of a breakdown himself) attempts to comfort her.
The part of this book that has always stuck with me is one specific quote. After having left college and moved back into the family apartment, Franny is speaking on the phone ranting about what it’s like living with her brother Zooey in the midst of her mental breakdown. She says “it’s like being in a lunatic asylum and having another patient all dressed up as a doctor come over to you and start taking your pulse”.
I laughed out loud when I read that section for the first time and I think back to it often, usually when I’m dolling out unsolicited advice to my friends - advice I never follow myself of course.
When I first read that line, it seemed to me to be about hypocrisy; of claiming some position of authority you have no right to. Zooey is treating Franny like his patient, when of course he himself hasn’t a clue what he’s doing either, is just as depressed and confused and struggling with life as she is. But the more I thought about it, the more dressing up like a doctor and taking some pulses from time to time began to seem like just part of the bill of being a good friend.
As stressed out students, we’re in the same boat most of the time, albeit a boat that feels like it has several holes in it and a faulty navigation system. We go through the same heartbreaks and academic worries, the same periods of poor health and low mood. None of us are perfect, none of us have it all figured out.
But when duty calls and you’ve got a crew member down, you have to forget the fact that you too are in that same boat, that you’re tired and stressed and overwhelmed as well and instead go out and give the advice you know you should be following yourself.
You dress up like a doctor you go and take some pulses. You dish out some advice like you know what you’re talking about, in the knowledge that if not next week then definitely at the least the week after that you’ll have switched places with your patient and be on the receiving end. It’s not about hypocrisy, it’s about somehow muddling through together.
What Franny and Zooey stands to teach us is nothing all that profound. But it confirms for me that those ideals you hold when you’re young about the glamour of being an adult and of leaving behind teenage confusion and getting your life together are as unrealistic as they are desirable. Instead we muddle through and we take it in turns pretending we’ve got it figured out to help everyone else muddle through too, and I think hidden within that falseness is something kind of beautiful.