The Known World feels like a book that took a long time to write. The writing proceeds at a slow but churning pace. Jones meticulously ties each character to one another, to the land, to the curious circumstances of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. We are taught in school that slavery was a black and white affair, but Jones takes great pains to describe a human landscape where such distinctions are blurry: the most powerful man in Manchester County, William Robbins, dotes upon the two children he has fathered with his slave, Philomena; Oden, the Indian, exaggerates his cruelty towards blacks to maintain his tenuous superiority; and Henry Townsend, the gifted young black man at the center of this novel, acquires a plantation full of slaves from which discord flows, imperceptibly at first. The lesson is the messiness of slavery made real by the vivid lives of each character. Over the course of the novel, Jones sketches out each character, from birth to death, using deft flashbacks and flash-forwards that are scattered throughout like crumbs and give the book a marvelous depth. In this sense, the book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book ends before the Civil War begins, and so the triumph of good over evil is not allowed to mitigate the brutal picture of slavery that Jones paints. Perhaps because it was so assiduously researched, this novel feels like history and it feels like life. Here’s hoping that Jones’ next one doesn’t take ten years to write.
The American war novel, in popular mind, carries three defining traits. It needs to be big. Tome-like, something that’d make Ernest Hemingway and James Jones and all those dead, mustachioed alphas brood with envy. It should skew light on emotion (that’s what subtext is for) but be heavy on descriptions of the natural world. Trees, sand, mountains, et cetera. All beautiful in ways people cannot/will never be, because, sigh, the human heart confounds. And there’s got to be bullets and blood, trauma and ruin. War stories demand it. It’s what makes them war stories.
Then there’s John Hersey’s neglected classic A Bell for Adano. Its credentials as a war novel are certainly bona fide — it’s set during the Allied occupation of Sicily in the midst of World War II, opening with the line “Invasion had come to the town of Adano.” The credentials of the author are bona fide, too, as Hersey served as a celebrated war journalist on the European front as well as in the Pacific. (He’s perhaps best remembered for his reportage from post-atomic bomb Hiroshima for The New Yorker.)
Though a force in its time — it won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a film starring Gene Tierney — A Bell for Adano hasn’t endured the same way other war novels of that era have, perhaps because it defies the traits mentioned above. It checks in at a breezy 200ish pages, and reads faster than that. Passages of the Sicilian town and countryside are few and far between, giving way to lengthy dialogue exchanges and (gasp!) even sequences of plot. As for the bullets and blood, the closest thing to combat described in the book is an errant fishing boat being blown apart by a sea mine.
But make no mistake, A Bell for Adano is a war story through and through. More specifically, it’s a story of military occupation. The book’s foreword introduces Maj. Victor Joppolo, U.S. Army, a good man the unidentified narrator implores upon the reader, and more importantly, a capable one. Joppolo has been assigned as the administrator to small, coastal Adano. He’s the head occupier, though you wouldn’t know it for much of the first half of the book — he stumbles, he blunders, he fails. But he also learns. He immerses himself into the governance of the town, from the duties of the police chief to those of the priests to those of the fishermen. He ignores an order from higher that bans carts, the lifeblood of the local economy, risking his own career. And while his right-hand Sgt. Borth begs him to “remember the alleys, sir, clean the alleyways,” Joppolo dreams grander: weeks prior to the Allied invasion, Benito Mussolini melted down the town’s 700-year-old bell for rifle barrels, the bell that once warned Adano the ancient king of Naples was invading. Joppolo aims to find a worthy replacement for that bell, first for his own ego and legacy, then for the town itself.
I suspect that all reads rather quaint, belonging to a time and place when American foreign intervention was both clean and just; martial invasion and occupation carry dark associations for us in 2016. And Joppolo, a true believer in democracy and an idealist, never questions the mission’s purpose or intent, something his contemporary equivalents in the armed forces (both the real and the fictional) would find puerile at best, and deeply stupid at worst. But the messy ambiguities of the human condition resonate throughout A Bell for Adano, most noticeably when Joppolo’s rigid principles confront the confusion of everyday life in post-fascist Sicily. Throw in a love story involving Tina the fisherman’s daughter with a hint of scandal (because, umm, Joppolo has a wife back home), and it doesn’t matter that Hersey’s war story defies the war novel traits. It just matters that it’s interesting and forceful and good.
For all its merits, A Bell for Adano is not a perfect book. Hersey sometimes falls into the stilted language that can happen when even an excellent journalist tries his hand at fiction, like he’s writing left-handed. Minor characters are sketches, speeches are didactic, and there’s a lack of emotional texture that’s pervasive. Sicilian stereotypes run rampant, from the dandy town crier to Tina’s “welcoming” sister. And for all his absurdity, the Gen. George S. Patton stand-in hasn’t aged well: caricature and legend have coalesced too fully by now. A moment of tenderness is what the general needed on these pages, not more foolish rage.
As an Iraq vet who first read A Bell for Adano after leaving the army, I couldn’t help but reflect on my training and reading assignments prior to our deployment upon finishing it. We raided a lot of mock houses, shot a lot of balloons and silhouettes, and read true stories of valor and bravery. I value all of that, still, because it contributed to my men coming home, to me coming home. But we didn’t study or talk much about moral courage. And that mattered a lot over there, and it’s what Hersey focuses his novel on, at the expense of more standard war tropes. “You see,” the narrator writes in the novel’s foreword,
the theories about administering occupied territories all turned out to be just theories, and in fact the thing which determined whether we Americans would be successful in that toughest of all jobs was nothing more or less than the quality of the men who did the administering…only men can guarantee, only the behavior of men under pressure, only our Joppolos.
There’s not much of meaning or lasting worth that can be gleaned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but perhaps evidence that America’s just not very good at occupation qualifies. We’re awful at it, actually. Maybe that’s due to the nature of our all-volunteer military force, separate and distinct from the nation that wrought it. Maybe it’s because our military isn’t, in fact, a foreign constabulary. Maybe it’s because Gen. George C. Marshall was right when he said, “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.” Regardless, it’s important to know such wasn’t always the case, even if whatever it is we’re doing now feels like a far cry from pushing back a fascist onslaught. Moral courage still matters. Only our Joppolos, indeed.
In 18th-century England, most everyone got smallpox, an infectious disease that results in terrific rashes and blisters on the skin. Facial scars left over from an infection were a common occurrence. This was true for everyone, regardless of class or station in society, except for milkmaids. It was widely known that milkmaids who came into contact with cows blistered with cowpox, and who developed blisters on the hands they used to milk their cows, would not develop smallpox, even if directly exposed to someone who was suffering from the disease.
“Vaccination is a precursor to modern medicine, not the product of it,” writes Eula Biss, in On Immunity: An Inoculation. “Its roots are in folk medicine, and its first practitioners were farmers.” During an epidemic in 1774, an infected farmer transferred pus from a cow into the arms of his wife and two small boys, using a darning needle. “The farmer’s neighbors were horrified,” Biss notes. Nonetheless, his family developed immunity to smallpox.
Both the effectiveness of vaccination and the horror and outrage it can provoke live on with us to this day.
On Immunity is a wide-ranging book, covering topics as diverse as pesticides, metaphor, and vampires, with influences ranging from Greek myth to Voltaire to Susan Sontag. Biss traces our understanding of the undead along with our understanding of germs, blood, vaccination, and capitalism, which has often been described as blood sucking. (Marx: “Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more is sucks.”)
Biss explores many of the ways in which vaccination has been used to exploit and oppress the powerless. “The poor,” Biss points out, in a passage about forced vaccination campaigns, were often “enlisted in the protection of the privileged.” This has been true in countries across the globe.
But those being oppressed often fought back.
The working-class people who resisted Britain’s 1853 provision for free, mandatory vaccination were concerned, in part, with their own freedom. Faced with fines, imprisonment, and the seizure of their own property if they did not vaccinate their infants, they sometimes compared their predicament to slavery.
“Vaccination, like slavery,” Biss writes, “raises some pressing questions about one’s rights to one’s own body.” Set in these terms, the moral argument about vaccination concerns the individual, not society.
The fight against vaccines rages on, though it is no longer a working-class struggle but rather a struggle fought by the privileged. The public face for the anti-vaccine movement is celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who has raised questions about the connection between vaccines and autism, and has argued for parents’ rights not to vaccinate their children. These arguments against vaccines continue to center on the individual; that is, not ‘what’s best for society?’ but rather ‘what’s best for my child?’
Vaccines do benefit the individual; however, as Biss explains, their real strength is in the community.
If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.
An individual who has been vaccinated, but who lives in a community in which few people have been vaccinated, is more likely to become ill than a person who has not been vaccinated but who lives in a community where a large percentage of people have been vaccinated. Vaccinating oneself is about protecting one’s community more than it is about protecting oneself. “We are protected not so much by our own skin,” Biss writes, “but by what is beyond it.”
Were Biss a different kind of writer, this book might have been a point-by-point rebuttal of Jenny McCarthy and others in the anti-vaccination community. The results of scientific studies, after all, clearly support the use of vaccines. Readers hoping for such a rebuttal will no doubt find the book perplexing. Biss’s project, it turns out, is far grander than a simple explanation of the facts.
Each of the 30 concise chapters of On Immunity has an element of “separateness” to it. That is, each is able to stand on its own as a self-contained micro-essay. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that they are all interdependent — much like the individuals who make up a community.
Some chapters of On Immunity are downright gothic, while others fall well within the traditions of literary criticism and nature writing. Biss explores the impacts of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring (1962), the book that brought the harmful effects of pesticides, especially DDT, to the public’s attention. Interestingly, Biss explains what she, and others, see as problems brought on by the movement to phase out DDT — “DDT is not exactly what Carson feared it was” — including a resurgence of malaria in parts of Africa.
Silent Spring, though remembered as a forceful argument against pesticides, was not without nuance. “But the enduring power of [Carson’s] book,” Biss writes, “owes less to its nuance than to its capacity to induce horror.” Though Biss indulges in horror throughout the book — quite literally in the figure of Dracula — On Immunity bears no resemblance to a fear-mongering polemic.
Admirers of the book-length essay will find this work remarkable. Few writers are able to so seamlessly stitch together literature, theory, personal experience, and science. Still, it’s hard to imagine Jenny McCarthy and her followers paging through On Immunity, and so, in comparison to Silent Spring, one wonders what type of effect it will have on the body politic.
On Immunity is as much a book about trust as it is a book about vaccines. The current anti-vaccine crusade is grounded in a lack of trust of medicine, of science, of each other. Its arguments are based on the assumption that we can separate ourselves from those around us. Biss provides an inoculation against mistrust, against the primacy of the individual to the detriment of the community. Perhaps, as she makes her nuanced arguments, Biss is engaging in a radical act of trust, assuming that the public is capable of understanding more than simple sound bites.
“Our understanding of immunity remains dependent on metaphor,” Biss writes, “even at the most technical level.” In On Immunity, the concept of immunity becomes a metaphor for ourselves, for the ways we relate to one another, the way we live as a social body. We cannot separate ourselves from the poor, or the sick, or the Jenny McCarthys. “We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”
As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels’ strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime’s final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN’s arrogance and Geraldo Rivera’s foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson’s narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote — or ancient history — compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson’s daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels’ concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson’s epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.
Before I say anything about Kenneth Slawenski’s compelling but adoring biography of J.D. Salinger, I have a question: does anyone really, really understand just why Seymour Glass blows his brains out at the end of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? The editors of The New Yorker didn’t, although they eventually published it. John Updike didn’t, but that didn’t keep him from calling the story a classic. Vladimir Nabokov thought it was an “A-plus story” but never said why. The story was published in 1948, three years before The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s been confounding readers ever since.
You remember what happens. A married couple, Seymour and Muriel, are vacationing in Miami. Muriel, pretty but vapid, sits alone in a hotel room, drying her nails and talking on the phone to her mom, who wants her to come home. The mom thinks Seymour is crazy. She cites instances, says something about the army releasing Seymour from the hospital too soon. Muriel shrugs it off and talks about fashion. Meanwhile, Seymour is on the beach talking to Sybil, a little girl he has come to know. They talk about Muriel, whom Seymour doesn’t seem like. Apropos of nothing, Seymour quotes T.S. Eliot. Seymour and Sybil take a raft and hit the waves. He tells her about bananafish, which crawl into underwater caves, eat so many bananas they can’t get out, and die. Sybil claims to see such a fish and Seymour suddenly decides to go back to shore. He heads for his hotel room. On the elevator up, he accuses another guest of staring at his feet and being a God damned sneak about it. He goes to his room, sees Muriel asleep on the bed, puts a gun to his head and fires. End of story.
WTF? Critical analysis seems to turn on the little girl’s name: Sybil, therefore Sibyl, the mythological seer. Slawenski, a good if somewhat stiff reader of Salinger, offers an even more complicated theory that suggests Seymour spent too much time reading Eliot and Blake. Both ideas may be perfectly correct, but they ignore the fact that Seymour packed the gun to begin with, beside which Eliot and mythology just seem like so much literary filigree. Presumably, Seymour feels trapped, like the bananafish, but the events of this day offer less than perfect motivation. It’s not clear even Salinger knows why Seymour killed himself, because he keeps coming back to it in subsequent stories, as if there’s something he forgot to say, some detail he meant to add.
The story is the kickoff to Nine Stories, a classic collection distinguished by ambiguity and ellipsis. It was also the beginning of a long journey. In the 25 years of Salinger’s publishing life, Seymour was his constant companion, evolving in seemingly autobiographical ways as the author became more immersed in Eastern philosophy. He’s the brilliant spiritual loner, too preoccupied with the next world to connect with this one, and in death he becomes a ghost his family cannot exorcise. In Franny and Zooey, Seymour’s little sister has a nervous breakdown on the road to spiritual perfection. In Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, a hilarious social comedy, brother Buddy recalls the disastrous events of Seymour’s wedding day. In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy circles around his memories of Seymour, trying to make some sense of him. It’s Salinger’s most direct effort to say who, what or why Seymour is, and it’s a numbing experience; little more than an endless ramble, and quite the longest novella ever written. Buddy mentions a short story he wrote in the late forties, where Seymour “not only appeared in the flesh but walked, talked, went for a dip in the ocean, and fired a bullet through his brain in the last paragraph.” But the Seymour of the story, he says, was actually more a reflection of Buddy himself, written not long after Seymour’s death, after the both of them had “returned from the European Theater of Operations.” The story, he says, was written using a German typewriter.
In other words, Seymour (or Buddy, who seems to be channeling him, even though he gets little more than static) was tormented by what he saw in the war, as Muriel’s mother suggested, specifically in Germany. That seems like it should be the last word, except that it’s not. We still have Salinger’s bizarre final testament to Seymour: “Hapworth 16, 1924“, which landed with a thud when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1965, taking up a whole issue and marking Salinger’s final publication.
It’s composed of seven-year-old Seymour’s impossibly brilliant 65-page letter home from summer camp, in which we learn that he has already died and been reincarnated several times. It was a strange, unbelievable prequel: the young man who killed himself in a Miami hotel room was actually a homegrown Dalai Lama! As character development goes, it feels desperate. It was also a retread, as the young Seymour isn’t all that different from the title character of Salinger’s story “Teddy,” another child genius touched by some kind of Zen-like divinity.
After that, the clock stopped. Salinger was dead as a writer but, in his Seymour-like way, lives on. His books have never gone out of print, and his earliest and best work remains distinct, irreplaceable, and influential. By the time he got to Hapworth, alas, he had eaten his last banana. He was 46, holed up in a remote house in tiny Cornish, N.H., living off royalties that by the mid-1980s were bringing him about $100,000 a year. He devoted what turned out to be the next half of his life to saying nothing and saying it loud enough for all the world to hear. Rumor had it he still wrote and even completed a few novels, but that remains to be seen, or not seen.
Reading Salinger’s biography is a little like reading the fiction: the more time you spend in his company, the more anxious you are to leave. As far as telling the story, this book has a lot of merit. Slawenski collates all the known facts, tracks his movements over the years, and shows how his art was shaped by both World War II and religion. He does an especially good job of putting Salinger’s experiences in context, particularly where his military years are concerned.
On the other hand, he lacks detachment. He doesn’t hide the warts, but he doesn’t always notice them. To paraphrase Updike paraphrasing Salinger, he loves the author more than God does. He does a very thorough job, however, and it’s not his fault that his subject turns into such a fusty, frosty, petulant bore.
The book starts off quite interestingly, as Slawenski presents a young man who was a little like Holden Caulfield, the narrator of Salinger’s most famous novel: born to an affluent Manhattan family, he attended prep school, and was a bit of an outsider. Far from being a self-loathing manic-depressive, he was arrogant and cocky. The family called him Sonny. He was tall, lanky, affable enough to serve on the entertainment staff of a cruise ship, and he got dates. Among his early conquests was Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright, whom he found attractive and classy but also vain and dull. When she dumped him for Charlie Chaplin, he turned her into Muriel Glass.
Readers know Salinger on the basis of the four slim books he allowed into print, which together give the impression he’s never been anything but mature and polished. The 22 stories that make up Salinger’s apprentice work apparently tell a different story; as described here – and Slawenski makes one wish they don’t stay uncollected forever – they were largely commercial fiction that showed promise and occasionally impressed the right people.
When the story “Slight Rebellion Off Madison” was accepted by The New Yorker in 1941, Salinger was poised to enter the big leagues. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the magazine postponed publication for five years; the story of a rich kid on a date in Manhattan, where he does a lot of drinking, talking and crying, suddenly seemed irrelevant. While the delay was a crushing blow, it probably helped Salinger in the end. He joined the Army and took his character Holden with him. He would see extensive action in the war and participate in key events: he was in Normandy on D-Day, when a full two-thirds of his division was wiped out, spent a bleak winter fighting off Nazi forces in the Hürtgen Forest and, thanks to his command of the language, even worked in counterintelligence as his regiment moved into Germany.
“The notion of J.D. Salinger rushing from house to house, seizing villains, and grilling them under naked lightbulbs might appear absurd to us today but that is exactly what happened,” Slawenski writes.
After thinking he had seen the absolute worst the war had to offer, he helped liberate Dachau. “You could live a lifetime,” he later said, “and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose.” In the end, he would receive five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.
Through it all, writing in barracks and foxholes, he was finding Holden’s voice. What began as a series of stories would eventually be shaped into one long picaresque tale about a troubled kid with a messianic complex, wandering through Manhattan, pondering society at its most phony and the city at its most vomity.
“I know this boy I’m writing about so well,” he told an early editor. “He deserves to be a novel.“ The story took on a tragic dimension; the specter of dying young – like Holden’s brother 10-year-old brother Allie, who remains forever innocent — hangs over the novel. The novel’s famous final lines were Salinger’s own answer to why he would later find the war so hard to talk about: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The novel that resulted, The Catcher in the Rye, is a masterpiece of narrative first person voice: self-observant but not always self-aware. Holden reveals himself in ways he fully intends – cynical, smart-alecky, funny, romantic – and ways he doesn’t, exactly; he’s immature, annoying, and at times a bit of a phony himself. He speaks in a jazzy, rhythmic argot of goddam, moron, “like a bastard,” “kills me,” “depressed the hell out of me,” and ”sexy,” which can mean either attractive or horny. It’s a voice as genuine as Ishmael, Huck Finn, Humbert Humbert, or anyone else you care to name.
The war affected other Salinger stories as well. Like Sergeant X in “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” Salinger suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, in a strange life- imitates-art-imitates-life twist, he supposedly fell in love with his first wife, Claire, because she embodied his imaginary war orphan, Esme, and would serve as the inspiration for Franny Glass.
During this time, Salinger, who was raised in a joint Catholic-Jewish household and had embraced Zen Buddhism, studied the 1,000-plus pages of The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna, which completely changed his game. It was the book that proclaimed the gospel of Vedanta, a monotheistic religion that absorbs a lot of religious traditions, “accepting all faiths as being valid as long as they lead to the recognition of God.” As Slawenski explains: “The aim of Vedanta is to see God, to become one with God, by looking beyond the shell and perceiving the holiness within” – all of which he started working into his fiction from that point, most successfully in Franny and Zooey.
The two long stories that make up this novel have a fascinating publishing history, as both were published separately in The New Yorker and one almost didn’t make it. Fiction editors William Maxwell and Katherine White couldn’t stand “Zooey” and rejected it. Editor William Shawn not only overruled them, but also worked on the story with Salinger for months. Both stories were a huge success with readers; much less so with critics, who found both characters a couple of preening, self-absorbed, condescending ninnies – views which Norman Mailer suggested “may come from nothing more graceful than envy.”
I think the novel is the best exposition of Salinger’s own religious quest, and in a curious, roundabout way reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; it erases the line between “religious novel” and “novel about religion.” It’s also very energetic. Slawenski ably digs away at the novels Vedantic ideas, but he misses the fact that it’s so dramatically, irrepressibly alive. He misses Franny, the greatest college girl in American Literature, with her spiritedness, her “irreproachably Americanese” figure, and her thoughts running a mile a minute as she burns through one cigarette after the next.
Speaking of which, it’s one of the greatest cigarette-smoking novels ever written. Everyone smokes like a freight train; every cigarette has character, every puff has an idea. Smoking is what releases the torrent of thoughts between the two characters as they thrash out the possibilities of praying without ceasing. Zooey drags on his stogie “as if it were a kind of respirator in an otherwise oxygenless world.” It may also be the first novel where there really is such a thing as chicken soup for the soul.
If Slawenski doesn’t always feel the verve of Salinger’s fiction, he does feel his pain, which is considerable. The man was besieged by enemies from every corner. Over and over in this book, I found myself wondering: how it is that a brave, dedicated Nazi-hunter, a genuine inglorious basterd, could get so completely sidetracked by editors who make suggestions to his precious copy or reject it, or publishers who want to pimp out his books with crass covers, or a crummy Hollywood adaptation of a story, or media invaders or readers showing up on his lawn. For a veteran of Hürtgen and Dachau, it seems like small potatoes, and nothing unusual for anyone bent on being a successful writer. But J.D. was simply not the kind of guy to weather the frustrations and get back to his typewriter. He lived in a small world that demanded unswerving loyalty. If you’re an agent like Dorothy Olding, who protects his privacy with your life, or an editor like William Shawn, you’re on the side of the angels. If you’re Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, who bungled an anthology that Salinger was banking on, or his English publisher Jamie Hamilton, who made the mistake of letting a bad paperback cover slip his notice, you’re alienated forever. Slawenski is so quick to take Salinger’s side in all this that at times he sounds like a posthumous enabler.
As far as the facts go, I found little to question outside of one: the news that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948, inspired Lolita would likely come as a surprise to Nabokov, who was writing his masterpiece at least as early as 1947 (longer than that if you include the early draft from 1939).
Anyone looking for clues to Salinger’s lost years is going to be disappointed: 40 pages covering 45 bland years of marital battles and legal troubles. Perhaps that’s all there is. Maybe, as Buddy Glass once said, “where there’s smoke there’s strawberry Jello, seldom fire.”
Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk — somewhat unsurprisingly — is about what we don’t say when we say things.
Recently re-issued by NYRB Classics, Rosenkrantz’s Talk was a small sensation when it was first published in 1968. The book condensed a series of summer-long conversations between three late-20-somethings — one modeled after Linda herself — during one sweltering and sandy summer spent at the beach in East Hampton, N.Y.
Thanks to a ’60s script of psychedelics and psychoanalysis, Talk is characterized by introspective and scrupulous self-analysis. The three friends — Emily, Vincent, and Marsha — spend their 1965 summer discussing what most young people discuss: sex, relationships, and more sex. Much of the pleasure of Talk is the fact that though we readers feel we are reading a “script” — inherently a type of contrived and falsified dialogue — in fact we are reading the actual, although slightly altered, conversations of three friends over a Hamptons summer.
In 1965, Rosenkrantz lugged her enormous tape recorder — what she calls “the bulky monster” — to the beach and recorded conversations. The end product was some 1,500 pages and a stable of some 25 characters. She condensed the tome of transcribed papers to a slim 250-page paperback and reduced the character count to three. Marsha — modeled on the author — is an aspiring writer; Emily is a young actress who recounts her struggles and triumphs; and Vincent is a gay painter who shares in Emily and Marsha’s candid conversations about S&M and masturbation.
What made Talk such a sensation in the 1960s was that not only the salacious content, but the fact that it was a series of recorded conversations presented as a novel. In an era of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Rosenkrantz’s book was a hybrid of sorts. Talk took its premise from theatre, but its politics from the likes of The Feminine Mystique and the recent legalization of the pill. It was a character study; a story of three under-represented and oppressed classes — women, gay men, artists — which were given an unobstructed avenue to see their conversations and experiences and stories shared. The voices of women and gay men were so often marginalized; Talk made them the focal point.
But Rosenkrantz had a hard time convincing a publisher of the book’s literary and cultural merits. She shopped it around for over a year, sending out countless manuscripts to prospective publishers and collecting “a long trail of less colorful rejection letters,” as she recently wrote in The Paris Review. Many editors were shocked by the risqué and confessional content contained in the conversations. Rosenkrantz writes that one well-known editor rejected the proposal, calling the book “repellently raunchy.”
In early 1968, Talk finally saw daylight. Publishing house Putnam — as a means to avoid any type of legal consequences after publication — presented the work as completely fiction. Rosenkrantz says that she was thrilled when the book was finally published but admits that she had been “completely complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate — which was to present raw reality.” Talk, published as a work of fiction, would not carry the same cultural and literary currency had it been released under its original “mandate.”
Then, as now, the intersection of truth and fiction is a complicated place. The quality of Rosenkrantz’s extracted conversations is both visceral and intimate. But equally there is a falseness that belies their sense of authenticity.
Case in point: in one exchange, friends Marsha and Emily are discussing Emily’s recent “breakthrough” in her acting class. Emily was able to cry on cue in a monologue she performed from La Notte. (Emily is talking about performing a scene from a play; we are reading a “scene” from Talk.) In this particular monologue she describes, Emily was asked to weep after reading a letter her character receives. As a way to “embody” her character, Emily pretends the letter is from one of her own former lovers, Philippe. Emily imitates her own actions when she received a letter from him, as she performs the scene from La Notte for her class. The fact that Emily and Marsha are discussing a moment of acting — ironically about a scene from La Notte where no words are spoken — really serves to only point out their dialogue, their exchange, the fact that Emily and Marsha are talking, but also are not.
It would appear that their conversation is based on a real exchange of ideas, in which Emily is talking about her efforts to show an “authentic” character in her acting class. Emily then goes on, telling Marsha that later at a party the following evening, a crush of hers named Michael Christy, appeared and her “hysterical feelings” for him were filtered from “damaged, love feelings about Phillippe.” The overwhelming irony underscoring this is that Emily’s rawness and realness on stage is truer than the performance she gave at the party. The exchange calls into question the whole idea of character and performances we all give in our daily lives, at work, at home. Rosenkrantz’s indulges in a clever paradox here: Emily is fake when she’s being real and is real when she’s being fake.
Talk offers these wonderful — if slightly meta — interventions into the daily lives and (recorded) conversations of young creative people, as well as those from social and gender groups otherwise marginalized by the larger 1960s cultural milieu. This is what made Rosenkrantz’s book (not “novel”) so revolutionary and transgressive. It is recorded away from mainstream America and at the beach, a place so often for self-reflection and deeper, more intimate prying. It is also set in a hub of queer and non-heteronormative people and experiences and ideas, all of which are examined and told through the dialogue of Emily, Marsha, and Vincent.
What adds to the more political dimensions of Talk is the sheer excess of dialogue Rosenkrantz presents. The fact that the entire book is a series of exchanges between two women — and often their gay friend Vincent — is deeply transgressive in the context of 1960s mainstream publishing. While the 1960s offered rare moments of feminist and queer representations, like Leslie Gore’s hit song “You Don’t Own Me” or CBS’s notorious “The Homosexuals” TV interviews, women and gay men were not often given space for individual and unmitigated self-expression. Talk is not just about giving women and gay men the space to be open and honest about their sexual and emotional lives, but acknowledging that this is a legitimate and real set of experiences.
As a point of comparison, look at popular film representations of women at the time. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the star of the film is undressed and then slaughtered 40 minutes into the narrative; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), about a lonely call girl whose entire existence is mediated by a nameless cat, rich men, and a cantankerous and aggressive upstairs neighbor; and Barbarella (1968), in which we see Jane Fonda shoot alien men with beehive hair and low-cut skin suits. While these films suggest they are giving “air time” to more women and women’s issues, they only masked a more insidious silencing of women by a larger patriarchal world.
Talk disengaged with and disturbed this. It said that women speak about sex, drugs, alcohol, S&M, masturbation, boys, adultery, abortion, the pill, vaginas, urination, underwear, penises, and periods. It vocalized an unfairly hidden world.
Rosenkrantz’s title emphasized this simplicity; it is a book with “just” talking in it. But what was so important about Rosenkrantz’s intervention (recording these conversations) and then regurgitation of these discussion was that talk, as a literary device or indeed as a type of text endemic to the cultural and political sphere of the time, was not taken seriously. Rosenkrantz elevated it to argue that the discussions women — and, to an extent, gay men — have about sex and relationships and everything else are worthy of print and publication and politics.
Although Rosenkrantz later made a name for herself — ironically enough — by producing popular baby name guides (Cool Names for Babies is one), Talk is an era-defining text. With its unvarnished “realism” and its celebration of marginalized groups, Talk argues that the everyday language of men and women is valuable, important, and worthy of a book.