So, J.D. Salinger is dead. Now we who are devotees of his work (self-described or not, wittingly or no) are left with endless obituaries, encomiums, critiques, speculations concerning the reclusive man, and, of course, the celebration and recrimination of his most famous character, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps I am simply being a contrarian (then again, all truly decent—and you can take that word in the moralistic sense or as an evaluative term of accomplishment—readers of Salinger are perforce contrarians), but when I heard that Salinger had shuffled of his mortal so-and-so, I felt the loss (scratch that, not the loss; he wasn’t writing for us anymore, considering it an invasion of his privacy, so there was nothing for us to lose as readers), I felt the passing not of the creator of Caulfield, the decrier of phonies.
Rather, I mourned the passing of the documenter of a very different sort of character, a character that was far more difficult to love, far more intransigent in his own way, indeed a character that Salinger himself only portrayed as through a glass darkly and never really face to face. I speak, of course, of Seymour Glass. (The Glass family is a group of fictional characters that appear in a number of Salinger’s short stories and in the novel, Franny and Zooey.)
Seymour was the eldest sibling of the precocious and somewhat insular Glass brood—the seven children of Bessie and Les Glass, two retired vaudevillians. All of the children (for the record, and believe it or not, from memory: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, the twins Waker and Walt, Franny, and Zooey) appeared as stars on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child”. We are never granted much detail concerning the radio show. We are never granted much detail concerning the Glass family at all. We certainly are not granted much detail concerning Seymour, and that is precisely the point (I can only imagine).
This is why I find myself mourning the chronicler of Seymour more than the progenitor of Holden. Holden was the central figure of a story (albeit a wonderful story). Seymour, however, was a figure of storytelling itself. It seems to me that Seymour represented the impossibility of representation, the enigma of narrative, and simultaneously the hope beyond hope that something may still be said about someone other than oneself. Seymour represented the unknowable nature of the known, the unfamiliarity of the familiar, the estranged character of the loved.
Salinger attempted (for lack of a better term) Seymour three times in a concerted manner. Seymour appears in the first of the short stories contained in Nine Stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; he is the main concern yet the invisible agent of the story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”; and he is the ostensible subject of the generally dismissed but nonetheless superb essay into the limits of storytelling, “Seymour: An Introduction”. We are told in the latter piece (or perhaps reminded—it all depends upon how you came to Salinger) that Seymour was improperly represented in the short story and never really appeared in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”. Then in “Seymour: An Introduction”, we are treated to an extended disquisition on what our putative author (Buddy Glass—the typical surrogate for Salinger) thinks he ought to expect from us, his readers, followed by a protracted exposition of Seymour’s features. It might not sound particularly revelatory, but it most certainly is.
You see, what my rather flippant summary fails to communicate is the in-between stuff (what Buddy at one point terms the “gluey” stuff) that arises within the non-narrative and reminds the reader why the reader is bothering to read this stuff in the first place. What Salinger confronts when he comes to describe Seymour is the impossibility of doing justice to another human being in our accounting of said human being while simultaneously confronting the impossibility of failing to properly account for the other. I realize this isn’t clear. It isn’t meant to be. Nonetheless, let us try again.
In “Seymour: An Introduction”, Buddy/Salinger repeatedly attempts to elucidate some aspect of Seymour’s character: his renovation of Japanese poetry, his sage advice concerning marbles, his glorious inability to play ping pong, his shamanic habit of puncturing the pretensions of his brother’s mundane self-delusions. With every example, Buddy gets derailed.
He begins to fret over the difficulty of communicating with an audience that refuses to talk back (or talks back too much and drives the author into seclusion); he wonders about our affection for bird watching, his own penchant for happiness (whatever that might mean for those exposed to Seymour); he endeavors to make his readers aware of the time lapse between the various moments at his writing desk. He strives to communicate, all the while realizing that he fails, that he must fail and will always fail.
That sense of failure always comes back to Seymour. Seymour becomes the emblem of our failure, our destiny to fail. Yet, Seymour is not a representation of failure. He represents the exalted success that we see, we understand, but that we cannot communicate. I realize I am idealizing a suicide. That has always worried me. I love Seymour far more than Holden. I can’t seem to help myself.