Sunday, November 26, 2006

A friend of mine and I were discussing books we read in high school. This buddy had just started re-reading "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, and he couldn't believe how different the experience was. Ten or fifteen years passed between his readings. In between, he married, had kids of his own, and traveled the world. He promised to mail me the book when he was finished. Last Monday, his paperback copy arrived. I remembered days and days of reading Catcher the first time, but it only took two sittings this time. I also found myself laughing out loud more often. I read "The Catcher in the Rye" for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen. The narrating character, Holden Caulfield, is sixteen. Now I am twenty-nine. Sixteen has transformed from older and worldly when I first read Catcher, to innocent and naive this time around. Since my first reading, I've acquainted myself with a major character in the book: New York City. As safe as the city is now, the idea of Holden roaming clubs, hotels, bars, streets and parks alone gave me the most peculiar feeling. Rather than identifying with Holden himself, I found myself seeing the whole novel from the eyes of the adults that he encounters. The idea of a distraught young man wandering aimlessly -- half hoping to bump into some consolation, some explanation -- it all made me want to try helping poor old Holden. Mr. Antolini's half-sober speech -- his earnest but pathetic attempt to save Holden -- left me completely confused and befuddled when I first read it. In fact, the awkward scene that follows dominated my memory of Mr. Antolini's character. I only remembered that Antolini frightened Holden by patting him on the head. I had forgotten that a paragraph earlier Antolini had tried saving Holden from the impending nervous breakdown. The book evoked sympathy in me; my first reading was mainly confusion, but I did empathize with Holden. The extra years helped me understand Holden's experience and emotional exhaustion. The claustrophobic sense of a narrow path in life (like being stuck in an elevator going up and down) was a mystery to me then. At fourteen, the world seemed infinite. NYC was a concept, an ideal. Now it is a place I go for work; it is a train ride away. Amazingly, what I gained in understanding, I lost in empathy. Just as the city is no longer just an idea to me, a wealthy but discontent intellectual young man has become familiar too. Holden has become merely an archetype, rather than a blurred reflection. Memory and witness of illness, suicide, abuse, and psychological breakdowns have filled the gaps in my understanding. Holden's experience, then, has become more external. I know better the kind of demons to whom he is succumbing, but knowledge makes my view of his character third person, rather than first. Re-reading Catcher provoked intense introspection, but also a few new insights and questions about Holden. What I wonder about most almost makes me feel guilty. I feel terrific sympathy for Holden, but I can't help but wonder: how honest is Holden's account? He explains several times his compulsive lying. So, even though the narrative has the feel of a long confession, I wonder if Holden is being completely honest and forthcoming. The simultaneous sympathy and distrust for Holden is what I appreciate most this time around. Salinger's telling evokes the very sensation Holden explains in his description of his perfect job as "The Catcher in the Rye". Holden is the child you want to save. Holden is the one oblivious to the cliff. The reader feels the compulsion for, and frustration from, trying to save him.

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