Wow, I am conflicted about this book.
Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
I read this book for school, and I had no idea what to expect. From the first pages, I was in love with the vividness of Holden’s voice, but I was also frustrated with the lack of plot.
I love and hate this book, and I have a lot of thoughts, but most of them are half-sentence “yeah, but”-s that refuse to coalesce into a review. Because I read this book for school, I also have a lot of other people’s comments in my head, a lot of which I disagree with.
Let’s start with Holden. A lot of people in my class described him a whiny, selfish, and lazy, which is kind of fair, I guess. But Holden is also a poster child for depression, something that a ton of people (including, apparently, my teacher) missed, and for me, it explained a lot of his character flaws.
Seriously, I goggled symptoms of depression and Holden hits basically all of them at some point or another.
I’d love to hate his guts for all the times that he mentions something that he’d like to do, then says he “isn’t in the mood for it”—but when I looked at his apathy through the lens of depression, I couldn’t hate him for it. He’s damaged and lonely and cynical, and he has a ton of opportunities to make his life better that he doesn’t take, and of course that is frustrating as hell to read about. But he’s also living in a time before antidepressants existed and a world that says guys don’t need therapy.
It really frustrated me how often people in my class wrote off Holden as bitchy and stupid when he so obviously needs help. How are we supposed to deal with mental illness in a positive way when our class discussions reinforce the “depressed people are just people who are too lazy to smile more” narrative?
However, Holden also has a fairly crappy personality, even factoring his depression. He’s oblivious to his own self, out-of-touch with the struggles of people who aren’t rich and white, and incredibly judgmental. He’s hypocritical and immature. There were times when I wanted to bash Holden in the head with some common sense. When you get down to it, Holden is the kind of character people hate, and though I didn’t want to fall into that majority, I did at times.
I LOVED the way JD Salinger wrote Holden’s voice, though. It goes beyond your average first person, drawing the reader in and giving you an incredibly clear picture of who Holden is. (Which sometimes backfired, since who Holden is can be really annoying.) His cursing felt natural, and his voice was clear and alive.
My biggest problem with this book is the lack of plot. There is no clear arc, besides Holden slowly dissolving in a mess of self-hatred and sleep-deprivation (okay, that’s overly simplistic, but you get the idea). Lots of things happen, but they are disjointed and muddled, never gelling into a clear plot. It was hard to get into the book when I had no idea where the book was going. The book ended suddenly, almost as if JD Salinger just stopped writing and sent it into the publisher.
But I can’t write off this book entirely, because every few chapters, there would be an intensely emotional few sentences and I’d fall back in love with the story. Hidden in the jumbled mess of Holden’s New York explorations are some gorgeous tidbits about life and loss. A lot of them are sad, not exactly inspiring, but they make you feel something, and think.
I would recommend this book to people who are willing to read a book that will frustrate them, but that will offer a window into the mind of a person struggling with depression. JD Salinger did an amazing job crafting his character, so if you want an example of intense first person, you should also read this book. And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t need a clear plot arc to enjoy the story, you should definitely pick up this book.