Everyone knows The Catcher in the Rye, but the J.D. Salinger book that’s meant the most to me is Franny and Zooey, in part because it’s literature’s greatest brother-sister story. Classic fiction gives us plenty of brothers-in-arms; contemporary novels have pushed sisterhood to the forefront. But fiction about the brother-sister dynamic is rare. I say this as someone who spent the last three years writing a novel about a brother and a sister, looking for models beyond Franny and Zooey—a book I’ve loved since high school and long wanted to emulate—but finding nothing else out there.
The Catcher in the Rye has been universally embraced (just yesterday, the NY Times' Michiko Kakutani dubbed it a “pitch-perfect portrait of adolescence”). But it’s always struck me as an unlikely classic: the portrait of an almost tragic figure with broken mind, possibly one that won’t be repaired. Holden Caulfield narrates his story from an institution, where he’s come to “take it easy”; at the end of the book, despite a hint that his rest-cure has worked, he’s still unable to commit to what he’s going to do next. This is a novel that puts the isolated hero through a series of tests that in the end seem to be stronger than he is.
In contrast, Franny and Zooey details a spiritual crisis that is confronted—apparently successfully—by a family forced to take care of one of its own. Ex-vaudevillian parents and their seven brilliant children, former stars of a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child,” (I wish I could have heard that broadcast, just once!), the Glass family is shattered by death. There’s a brother lost to World War II, and more centrally, there’s saintly Seymour, a kind of depressed, childlike guru—he’s the one in Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish ” who shoots himself in the head while his wife sleeps in bed next to him.
Franny and Zooey tells of the youngest Glass siblings over the course of two episodes: Franny’s nervous collapse in a restaurant, followed by her convalescence on the couch in the family’s ramshackle Upper East Side apartment. Zooey is at first reluctant to address his sister as she mutters a half-coherent mantra on the couch. But in the conversation that is the centerpiece of the book, handsome Zooey, with his stylish flop of black hair and his cigarette balanced on the soap dish, sits in the bathtub, as his comical mother, Bessie, in her bathrobe on the other side of the shower curtain, rattles on in her musical, italicized speech (“You could use a haircut, young man. You’re getting to look like one of those crazy Hungarians or something getting out of a swimming pool.”)
It’s Bessie, a heroic mother if ever there was one, who convinces Zooey that Franny’s situation can’t be ignored; it’s Zooey who determines the plan that will restore Franny to vigor. Then brother and sister, each too smart for their own good, banter back and forth, pushing each other's emotional buttons in a way that only siblings can.
In the book’s final pages, redemption emerges in the form of Salinger’s hybrid-Buddhist/Christian/Jewish philosophy of kindness and oneness. Salinger plays on the old aphorism, “It ain’t over ’til the Fat Lady sings,” by giving Zooey the words to convince Franny of her connection to the world: “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t…the Fat Lady.”
I haven’t made much of a secret about the fact that I undertook my new novel, Robin and Ruby , inspired by Franny and Zooey—wanting to capture the simplicity and elegance of its form, the compressed period of time it covers, the microscopic attention to gestures and conversations. But as I wrote, I started to feel that there was something unsatisfactory in the way that Franny’s collapse was a problem that had to be solved by Zooey; it was too much like the hysteria always befalling brilliant women in mid-20th-centruy fiction (think The Bell Jar or The Interior Castle). Did we need one more book about an unstable woman being saved by one of the men in her life?
None of the women I knew were in need of rescue. It seemed I had to respond to Salinger on my own terms. My story was set decades later, on the other side of feminism; my Ruby was going to be taking women’s studies classes in college; she was going to tell her boyfriend if she was unhappy with him (unlike Franny, who tells her beau how much she misses him while guiltily thinking that she doesn’t miss him at all). Ruby would do what Franny couldn’t, which is get herself out of her own trouble, and perhaps even hand over a bit of wisdom, or at least a fuck-you, to her bossy older brother.
It’s perhaps too didactic—to self-consciously corrective—to claim that writing Ruby’s story was a way of “letting Franny speak.” I had other inspirations as well—the 1980s as a social moment, the Jersey Shore as a setting. But it’s absolutely true that over the past three years of writing this novel, I’ve felt myself involved in a long conversation with J.D. Salinger, in particular the Salinger dedicated to exploring how a brother and sister might muddle their way through their early twenties together. Perhaps that’s why his death yesterday felt like a kick to the gut; even though the man had retreated from the world long ago, his novel remains, despite some of its last-century elements, so vital.
Franny and Zooey gave the world a cast of characters that Holden Caulfield might deem phonies or snobs. But I’m not sure Holden’s opinion is the one that matters to me. The Salinger tale that ends in institutionalization or suicide leaves me cold. The Salinger that ends with its heroine recognizing “just what to do next,” as Franny does here, is the one I return to again and again. You can follow Holden to the duck pond; I’d rather be in that cluttered Upper East Side apartment, smoking cigarettes in the bathtub and bantering with Bessie, doing my part to help get Franny off the couch.