Every Atheist Needs: Franny and Zooey
When you think of J.D. Salinger, you’re most likely thinking of The Catcher In The Rye, with old Holden Caulfield and his colourful resentment of pretty much everything. Holden is a near-perfect character, indeed, and one that has heavy and enduring importance in literary history. But the book was by no means Salinger’s best.
That prize, in my opinion, goes to Franny and Zooey.
Franny and Zooey are actually two separate, although related, stories published in one book. The stories, titled Franny and Zooey, first appeared in the New Yorker but were published in book form in the early 60s. The book proceeded to rise to the top of the bestsellers list and stay there for weeks on end.
The stories are about two siblings in the Glass family, a tribe of showbiz folk who raised their children as wonder kids and paraded them in front of radio quiz show audiences for entertainment. In the wake of their strange childhoods, the Glass children grew into adults with varying degrees of emotional instability.
In the first story, Franny is on a date with her boyfriend. The entire tale is an account of their conversation, which will leave you absolutely breathless if you’ve ever tried to write dialogue. Salinger mastered the art of writing real characters who you can almost smell sitting next to you as you read. Franny rattles off about how a book she’s been reading has made her feel, completely alit with passion, while her boyfriend sits across from her, unimpressed. She talks about a Jesus prayer in the book that insists that the repetition of God’s name in meditation or prayer will somehow result in an inexplicable spiritual experience.
Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart.
Franny’s boyfriend, Lane, clearly the atheist in this scene, dismisses what she’s saying,
I don’t think you leave any margin for the most elementary psychology. I mean I think all those religious experiences have a very obvious psychological background-you know what I mean…. It’s interesting, though. I mean you can’t deny that.
Franny gets up, walks towards the ladies' room, and faints in front of the cocktail bar.
Zooey is a story about Franny’s brother, Zooey. Franny returns to her parents' home after fainting on her date with her boyfriend. She and Zooey engage in a long and insightful conversation which, again, is astoundingly well written. Salinger’s dialogue this time, though, will leave you emotionally drained if it doesn’t bring you to tears.
The two siblings lost their brother, Seymour, to suicide a few years earlier. As both of them clearly still admire him, he comes up often in their conversation. They discuss the Jesus prayer and the things that bother them about the world. Things get heated and an argument ensues. Eventually, Zooey explains to his sister that she can’t pretend to know God and that she’s got to take the world as it comes.
I don’t feel like going into it, but at least I’ve never tried, consciously or otherwise, to turn Jesus into St. Francis of Assisi to make him more ‘lovable’ – which is exactly what ninety-eight per cent of the Christian world has always insisted on doing.
These characters are written in such a way that I don’t think there’s a soul on earth who couldn’t identify with them in some way or another. Lost, struggling to leave their childhood behind them, sorting out who they are and where they’re headed in a world that wants everyone to follow a similar path.
Salinger’s mastery of dialogue has never been better illustrated than in this book. Nothing much happens outside of a bunch of conversations, but by the time you reach the last page, I guarantee you will be deeply moved.
This is one of those books that you’ll read again and again. There’s so much amongst those pages that can have new meaning depending on where you are in life at any given moment. It’s one of those books you never trade in at the book store; the sort that is permanently on your bedside table. It’s one of those books about which Holden Caulfield said,
“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. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
Have you read Franny and Zooey? What did you think?