I’ve known the name Holden Caulfield – known him to be the protagonist and unreliable narrative of The Catcher in the Rye – for years and years. It’s one of the books that my professors in college would reference without hesitance, sure that everyone had read at some point.
Only somehow, I hadn’t. Until now (and I’ll add here that my husband was so shocked I hadn’t read this classic that he went out and got it for me).
Within the first few pages, I realized how many assumptions I had already formed about this book. And in fact, the ways that the novel actually ruptures those assumptions is precisely what made it so interesting to me. (and boy, was it interesting). So, for this book review, I wanted to call out my own assumptions and the ways that J.D Salinger ruptures them.
First, I knew Holden Caulfield to be considered an “unreliable narrator” but I never guessed that he would be so aware his own capricious nature. But in fact, he’s very self-aware. He says himself that he’s a liar, and that his mood can change suddenly. But because he himself acknowledges his inability control these changes, the reader finds themselves sympathizing with Holden, rather than blaming or resenting him.
Second, I expected a story about a young man, but what Holden Caulfield really offers us is the story of a generation. The truth is, not a whole lot happens in the plot of this narrative. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that it’s not always clear what Holden is looking for, what he needs, or what he wants. But I think that’s the point: he doesn’t know, and perhaps many of his generation didn’t know. Amidst the abundance that characterized America post WW2, Holden’s outlook and mindset seems to directly challenge the notions of the American dream as perpetuated by Hollywood and the general society.
Finally, I expected this “great American classic” to employ the formal, dated language that we (too often) associate with classics. But there is none of that here. In fact, I would argue that Salinger breaks every “rule” we’ve ever been taught in our English classes about what makes “good writing.” Holden’s language is extremely repetitive, often crass or low-brow, and sometimes downright ridiculous. And yet, that same language feels authentic and familiar in a way that (it seems) a piece of “classic literature” rarely is. I can only imagine that, especially for young readers, this would be incredibly illuminating in terms of what “good writing” is, and what a “good story” embodies.
Through Holden’s story and voice, Salinger showed readers that, in fact, the American novel didn’t have to look or sound like anything we’d seen before. And maybe, just maybe, it could even look and sound like us.