The Catcher in the Rye and thoughts on first-person narration

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye. I may have read it in high school, but I can’t remember. I watched the documentary, Salinger, on Netflix and as I watched, and listened to all the interviewees discussing the book, nothing they were saying stirred any memory of a book I might have read. Given the polarized opinions I had heard about the book, and its iconic status as one of the Great American Novels, I decided I needed to (re)read it.

Now, having read the novel, I am quite conflicted. I can say without hesitation that it is far from my favourite novel: I found the voice of the main character, Holden Caulfield, too irritating. I struggled with whether this was just a function of the fact that his vocabulary was of a period to which I didn’t relate – all the talk of things being “crummy," or of “horsing around" with girls – or whether there was genuinely something “off" with how the character was written. Judging by how strongly some people identify with the character as their former alienated selves, I’m guessing that it is more likely the former.

There is also a good possibility that I don’t personally identify with Holden because I didn’t experience alienation in the same way many teenagers did. I don’t think my teenage years were ideal, necessarily, but I don’t know that I ever felt broadly alienated from society in the way Holden is portrayed. If anything, I have become more alienated as I have gotten older, which could explain the disconnect between me and the type of language used by the young Caulfield.

In reflecting on the challenges I had with the narrative voice in The Catcher, it reminded me of another book that I read not that long ago, a more recent novel, narrated by another, very different, young man. When I read The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time – a story of a young autistic boy named Christopher who embarks on a quest to solve the murder of a neighbourhood dog – I was immediately and completely intrigued by what Christopher was thinking, and I could imagine a boy like Christopher existing in real life, something I never quite managed with Holden Caulfield.

The Curious Incident is told in the first person, in the form of a journal-type document Christopher is keeping to record the details of his investigation. I, personally, found the way author Mark Haddon wrote Christopher’s character very engaging and authentic. Of course, I couldn’t directly relate to his perspective, but I still felt close to him; I wanted him to be ok.

And this is interesting, in contrast to The Catcher in the Rye. In The Catcher, while I could certainly empathize with and relate to, the situation Holden felt himself in – feeling alienated from a cruel and “phoney" world – I could never relate to, or empathize with, Holden as an individual, as a person. I “got" where he was coming from. I just didn’t really care what happened to him.

While I was reading The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, however, I felt deeply concerned for Christopher’s well being. I read anxiously as his investigation unfolded and he struggled to make his way through encounters that were perplexing to him. I wanted things to go well for him. So, while Christopher’s situation is further from something I could directly relate to, the way his perspective was conveyed by the author was, for me, more compelling than what Salinger managed in The Catcher in the Rye.

When I decided to read The Catcher in the Rye, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Friends of mine seemed to have fairly divergent opinions, although none claiming it was the best book ever written. In the end I’m glad I read it (or re-read it, as the case may be), but I don’t think I would say I enjoyed it. It was an interesting experience, and it got me thinking more deeply about the effects of narration and narrative voice. And, really, I was reading it as a writer anyway, so mission accomplished.

Now I know I said I thought I was going to read Fahrenheit 451 next out of my stack of “classic" books, but it appears as though I have picked up Slaughterhouse Five instead. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I’m done.