Monday, May 25, 2009

the papes

Per Berg Journalism Piece.
A Caricature of Contradictions.
I'm going to type this against my better judgment and by the end you’re going to be mad at me but I can't help it. The following is from the book The Catcher in the Rye.
“Oh I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don’t know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
“You don’t care to have somebody stick to the point when he tells you something?”
“Oh, Sure! I like somebody to stick to the point and all. But I don’t like them to stick too much to the point and all. I don’t know. I guess I don’t like when somebody sticks to the point all the time.”
Thoreau claimed that as the ease of communication went up, the quality of communication would go down. Now technology has us connected forever with "lol's" and "wtf's." I'm not complaining, but J.D. Salinger probably is. Free flowing communication, the pinnacle of which at this point is something called "Twittering," is redefining our lives, merging and digitizing them. Privacy is the antithesis of communication. The word itself is an abstract idea to most young people today. The definition of the word "privacy" can evolve to fit its context, sometimes exponentially. Some people are forced to experience an extreme that is hard to fathom, and sometimes they enjoy it. In this way the word is like a homonym with itself, forking out pending intensity. When confronted about being an asshole to some of his more avid fans, Jerry Seinfeld said, "They don't understand that the television only works one way." Celebrities have to take the bad with the good and nourish themselves on scraps of sympathy/love from the public. As with love, the question is: how far will you go? How much will you sacrifice to get some privacy? To some, it's not even a question. The word represents a philosophy. Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes," refused to sell the rights to his characters because it would devalue the ideas presented in the strip. Bill Watterson is a house hold name, but nobody knows what he looks like- there are only rumors, "He looks like Calvin's dad but with a mustache." The only secondary media that Watterson allowed Calvin and Hobbes to take root in was the book, a noble vessel worthy of the subject matter. Hollywood is always after the hot commodity book, and authors always have a price. Books have a pre-existing audience that will give the new movie an edge; a better chance of “opening.” Jaws was adapted from a novel, so was Psycho, from the book by Robert Bloch. Watterson is the only artist to take a stand against the incestuous vampire that is Hollywood. Well, there was one other- author of the "one that got away," the object of Hollywood’s collective unrequited love: The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger inspired millions with his extreme new definition of "privacy." He disappointed millions more, but they don't understand that the page only works one way. Salinger would not appreciate being compared to Jerry Seinfeld, but Bill Watterson... I bet the two are friends, corresponding via coded snail mail, maybe telegrams. Secret meetings between people who want nothing more than to remain in isolation is a bit of a contradiction, though.
"There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." - J.D. Salinger
Salinger hasn't published since the 60's. He gave one brief interview in 1972 when some of his earlier works were published without his consent. He expressed his feelings, "I'm still trying to protect what privacy I have left." Also: "I don't necessarily intend to publish posthumously," he said, "but I do like to write for myself.(3)" Salinger's view is hard to swallow. Especially because we know whatever he doesn't feel like sharing with us is damn good. He knows the public's mouth is watering, it probably disgusts him. His wife told a trespasser, "Whatever he says, he says in his books.(2)" Consider this, from Catcher: "They were exactly the same morons that laugh like hyenas in the movies at stuff that isn't funny. I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it. I wouldn't even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I'd play it in the goddam closet." When asked what he thought about the success of Catcher in the Rye, Salinger said, "It's been a nightmare.(2)" Salinger hid out in Europe for months when Catcher was first released in the states in 1951. He thought he had weathered the initial storm of success, not the case. Catcher in the Rye is one of the top 25 bestselling novels of the twentieth century. The final words of Catcher in the Rye pound the reluctant sentiment home, it’s even ironic as Holden Caulfied, the protagonist, declares his regret about talking to the reader: "I'm sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I even think I miss that goddam Maurice. It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
Holden Caulfield is one of the most famous characters in 20th century literature. Not one goddam kid who ever read the book didn't relate to him. He loves to horse around, exaggerate/flat out lie, dance, and listen to good whistling. And he really sucks at expressing himself. And he HATES Phonies, especially Hollywood. J.D. Salinger and Holden are forever linked because the book is more than mildly autobiographical. But then, as a kid, Salinger's peers remember his bloated sense of his own destiny. They say he used to proclaim that he would one day write the great American Novel(1). In a hypocritical twist, Salinger also toyed endlessly with the idea of getting rich in Hollywood. Hypocrisy is the ultimate freedom. As a young developing writer, he had a split personality between a true artist and a ham, commercial writer. These feuding philosophies were put to rest when Catcher in the Rye was published (The book rejected commercialism, but ended up being commercial, or at least extremely successful). Holden fantasizes about seclusion towards the end of the book: ""I'd pretend I was one of those deaf mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they'd have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They'd get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I'd be through with having conversations for the rest of my life." Before Salinger completely disappeared in the 60’s, he corresponded consistently with various contemporaries. His letters were extremely flashy; you could tell he was enjoying himself. He preferred the truncated communication that long term letter correspondence offered. Seymour Glass is another of Salinger’s famous characters. In a letter to his parents from summer camp he declares, “O my God! I am relishing this leisurely communication.” Long distance is key, so is location.
"That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose." - Holden Caulfield
It might make you feel sorry for the author. But even receiving our sympathy would be a breach of contract. Salinger wants nothing to do with us. The clarity of his convictions is inspiring. This essay is a moot point unless it severs the link with its subject entirely, as if Salinger ceased to exist and instead was only a figment of our imaginations- like Shakespeare. I mean I'm pandering to an idea instead of a person. There is only Holden and Salinger’s other babies. However there is one thing about Salinger that is not reflected in Holden- his perfectionism.
Salinger had one brief experience with Hollywood before he shunned it. In 1949 his short story, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" was adapted into the movie, "My Foolish Heart," a cheesy melodrama. Salinger once berated the editor of The New Yorker for removing a comma from one of his short stories(1). In the case of this movie, the changes were more than just that of a missing comma. “An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's." Salinger even went so far as to criticize Earnest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck. Hemmingway and Salinger had met and corresponded earlier in Europe during WWII while Salinger served. Roger Corman, a famous Hollywood low budget exploitation movie producer is said to have maintained that there are two kinds of writers: real writers and Hollywood writers (Hemmingway and Steinbeck both took cracks at writing screenplays in Hollywood, and both have had their work adapted). Jean Renoir, a French filmmaker, said that movies can never be considered an art because there is too much compromise involved. Movies are a collaborative effort. J.D. Salinger has very clear, if extreme, ideas on collaboration.
Vann Brasher would be an average reader if he wasn't the smartest person I know: one time I couldn't fit my Gatorade bottle in the cup holder of my car. After I expressed my frustration at the prospect of nestling the bottle in my crotch the whole drive; Vann took it from me, tightened the cap, and slipped the bottle into the holder upside down. He's a chemical engineering major at UW, "Yeah but it's all about how much Holden Caulfield sucks at communicating. It's sad because he's confiding in you and you know how smart he is, but everyone he meets thinks he's stupid. I was rooting for him every time to get an idea across; he came close a couple of times." Salinger uses amorphous vocabulary and exaggeration so Holden's thoughts are open to interpretation: "crap" “and all” "it killed me" "or something." I told Vann I used to think that you were defined by what you hate more than what you love. (Holden is asked by his kid sister in the book if he can name one thing that he actually likes. He can’t think of anything.)
"Really, you used to think that?" He said.
"I don't anymore."
"I know, it's retarded." He said.
I was trying to keep up, "The thing about being defined by what you hate is then you could only hate like one or two things, so you'd actually have to love everything."
"Yeah. And people never actually hate what they say they hate."
The most noteworthy suitor for Catcher in the Rye was Francis Ford Coppola. After the success of The Godfather, an adaptation of Mario Puzo's book in which Coppola successfully made the material his own; and after the initial travesty of the production of Apocolypse Now, also a loose adaptation- this time of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Coppola was in serious doldrums. He took solace in Catcher in the Rye. He had never related to a feeling of frustration so intensely. His frustration stemmed from Hollywood, and you can imagine how Cather in the Rye would have comforted him. For many, it is a revelation alone just to realize that it's possible to not like movies. Coppola begged and pleaded with Salinger, writing him a heartfelt letter about how much the book meant to him. No dice.
"I almost was once in a movie short, but I changed my mind at the last minute. I figured that anybody that hates the movies as much as I do, I'd be a phony if I let them stick me in a movie short." - Holden Caulfield
Catcher had some great narrative patterns that would translate to film well- culture references and tangents that don't pan out. Holden talks about different books and authors a lot, and his A.D.D. tendencies are funny and charming. Quentin Tarantino utilized both of these ideas indirectly in Pulp Fiction, though probably just coincidentally. And Holden Caulfield himself is such a great character, but a movie of Catcher in the Rye doesn't make any sense for several reasons- particularly because Holden hates movies so much. Hollywood loves to make movies about writers, but this subject is at best an oxymoron and at worst a Catch 22. It would be hypocritical, if maybe a bit charming, for a movie to have a serious anti-movie theme. Holden elaborates: "But the worst part was that you could tell they wanted to go to the movies. I couldn't stand looking at them. I can understand somebody going to the movies because there's nothing else to do, but when someone really wants to go, and even walks fast so as to get there quicker, then it depresses the hell out of me. Especially if I see millions of people standing in one of those long, terrible lines, all the way down the block, waiting with this terrific patience for seats and all." The cleverest indirect use of an idea from the book is Dr. Strangelove’s iconic climax, a literal interpretation of this Holden Caulfield quote, “Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear I will.” In Catcher, Holden's older brother, D.B., serves partially as an outlet for Salinger's feelings towards writers in Hollywood, "Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me."
Privacy brings ideas of identity to the forefront, and the inverse of any given outlook can be equally effective. Salinger spent years indirectly kneading and annealing his own identity through his literature- all that remains is a Shakespearian myth. There is one other person who could secretly be friends with Salinger, Andy Kaufman. It's even possible they could be the same person, Andy faked his death in 84'...just kidding, he's dead, I think. Kaufman lived in the public domain. His life was an act of pandering to an audience, hypothetical or not. He developed multiple full personalities that grew beyond his control and eventually overshadowed whoever he was when the curtains were down- whether he was impersonating Elvis or wrestling women. Salinger would be envious of this defense mechanism. For Andy, it took a life long dedication to performance art and mass hoaxes, but Salinger dedicated his life to something as well. By the way, Salinger used to be an actor and a playwright in high school and college.
If our illiterate world doesn't end too soon in a big blast or an O2 craving whimper, Salinger's work will eventually enter the public domain- including whatever it is he's been cooking up all alone these years… That is if he doesn’t pull a Kafka and try to have all his manuscripts burned- Kafka requested they were burned because he thought they were not worthy of an audience, Salinger would have his work burned because any audience would not be worthy. In fact, Salinger’s last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, features Seymour Glass writing home to his family… the narrator and the audience are fabricated by Salinger; incestuous, cut out the middle man and kill the messenger. The result of Salinger’s work entering the public domain is Catcher in the Rye will get made into a movie and Salinger will turn in his grave (Salinger is over 90, still kicking). Movies have bested their book counterparts before, though it is extremely rare/objective (Fight Club, anyone?). But Catcher in the Rye is untouchable, and Hollywood's faithful obsession with it is a little pathetic. But thanks to Salinger, a precedent has been set- and a distinguished line established that for the life of me I think only includes Salinger and Bill Watterson, and the inverse Andy Kaufman… and maybe Howard Hughes. All throughout Salinger’s literature is a reverence for the innocence of childhood. Calvin says, "The problem with the future is it keeps becoming the present." Holden says, "I mean how do you know what you’re gonna do until you do it?"
So there Bill, Jerome, and Andy are- all sipping tea; the March Hare, Mad Hatter, and the Singing Mouse. These people exist to us now only through their work... They have given their whole lives to an idea, a price paid with ease and without regret. John Updike says of Cather in the Rye: “Salinger has done the very rare thing of actually putting a new person on the surface of the Earth. Holden Caulfield does have the funny quality of existing, somewhere, now.(4)” Salinger was on the cover of TIME in 1961, against his will: “The writer is Jerome David Salinger, and almost all his fictional characters seem more real, more plausible than he.(1)” Salinger, Watterson, and Kaufman have all become mythologized, and it's up for debate how big there ego's really are- but being mythologized can be very boner inducing to an egomaniac. It's sort of like the fantasy of witnessing your own funeral; people talking about you like you weren't there. Kaufman often fantasized about faking his own death, Pauly Shore actually did it. But their fame, these three (not Pauly), is inconsequential; it was an inevitable side effect.
The whole situation is rife with irony. But what I get the biggest kick out of is this quote from the book, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." At this point, J.D. Salinger is just fucking with us.
I emailed Vann about my pointless paper woes after wrestling with all these long-shot commonalities. He replied: “Maybe the point of your paper should be umm.., it would start something like: I'm going to type this against my better judgment and by the end you’re going to be mad at me but I can't help it. Then it will be a lot of praise for Holden, Salinger, and Watterson but it will be a bad thing to do and you will know it and it will all be very ironic or something. It will definitely condemn intense literary analysis by analyzing literature intensely.” Thanks Vann. In the end let me just say I like J.D. Salinger… and Hollywood.

Hamilton, Ian. In Pursuit of J.D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988
Michael Garofalo. Wisconsin Author Trip: Meeting J.D. Salinger. June 8, 2007. NPR Morning Edition. January 14, 2009.
Fosburgh, Lacey. J.D. Salinger Speaks About His Silence. Nov. 3, 1974. The New York Times. Jan 14, 2009
The Message of J.D. Salinger: An Analysis of the impact of Catcher in the Rye. Tucson, Ariz. : Motivational Programming Corp., c1969
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. New York. Little Brown and Company.