Dispatches | September 01, 2010

With Jonathan Franzen’s new novel out this week, there have been reviews and articles considering if it tops The Corrections, which I first read as an undergraduate at Ohio State.  It is a brilliant book, and I was a little jealous and a little dismayed that someone else had written the sort of book I hoped to someday write.  But I’ve never felt a strong urge to reread it; whatever place the book has in my mental library, I’m comfortable with it staying there, collecting dust.  The Franzen novel that I have reread several times is not The Corrections, but Strong Motion.

Strong Motion, Franzen’s second novel, is set in Boston, a city I used to live in, and the overwhelming emotion in the book is barely channeled rage.  It’s anger from an author’s whose first book wasn’t a big hit, anger that is poured into the characters and the narrative into a multilayered howl against injustice across a wide-range of people, places, and events.  This raw anger is delicious, an invigorating read for a writer struggling with his/her work at any given time.  Strong Motion certainly has flaws, but the pugnacious emotion is captivating.  Which is why I keep coming back to it.

(Digression: not lately, though.  Why, exactly, I’m not sure.)

Recently I began what I am still calling a “new project” and compiled a list of books to read and re-read.  When beginning something new, I like to absorb as many novels as I possibly can that might have similar thematic elements, then pushing them all aside and forgetting them, at least consciously, as I tackle my narrative.  And at the top of this current list were The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, both of which I’ve just finished within the last two weeks.

No one, it seems, reads The Catcher in the Rye as an adult.  It’s a book taught in junior high or high school, and what I remembered of the book was that Holden was tossed out of school, cursed frequently, and wandered around New York for a few days.  Being told it is a “great” or “important” book didn’t make any difference to me when I was a teenager.  I had a vague recollection of it being good but not feeling any strong affinity for it the way other books struck me in high school (My standout?  A bit of an odd one: Kindred by Octavia Butler).

My reading experience as an adult is of course different now.  What I read for nowadays—engaging language, complex characters, moving imagery, a sense of place—were concepts that I couldn’t even contextualize in high school.  Nowadays, there is no rush for me to get through the book either: there isn’t a paper to be written or another class’s homework to finish.  And, when rereading, I always know what happens in the end.

An adult reader should be struck by the youthfulness of Holden, and how true and accurate Salinger’s vision is of Holden’s existential dread.  I’m not sure how much a teenager reader could appreciate it; recognize and relate, sure, but the sense of it being a period that can be survived, the memory of that time in our lives, creates a strong connection with Holden, a hope that if he can just get through the next few days, he’ll be all right.  Being an adult reader makes Holden all that more sympathetic as a character.  Then there is the incredible and overwhelming loneliness in the book.  Early in the novel, when Holden is speaking with Ackley, Holden moves away:

“I didn’t answer him.  All I did was, I got up and went over and looked out the window.  I felt all lonesome, all of the sudden.  I almost wished I was dead.”

After a few chapters of Holden’s sarcasm and petulance, this simple and direct awareness is devastating; I choked a little over that passage and reread it, twice, and wondered if I remembered the ending of the book correctly.

I sorta did (hey, that sounds like Holden!).  There’s this beautiful, wrenching moment at the end of the novel when Holden is in the park with his sister Phoebe:

“Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking w, especially my neck and my pants.  My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot protection, in a way, but I go soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around.  I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Kinda feels like we are.

Still, the sense is that the reason this book is so well known and widely read is notoriety and celebrity: it was frequently banned and Salinger was reclusive, and the American public just loves that stuff, and maybe the novel has been elevated into something greater than perhaps it is.  Holden’s isolation is entirely the point, but that point does become a little tiresome in the book, where every person either rejects Holden or is rejected by Holden.  This point begins to feel like The Point, which is why, perhaps, I think of the novel as worth reading but not necessarily one of my favorite books.

A Separate Peace is a novel that I believe I read at an even younger age than Salinger; for some reason, I’m thinking seventh or eighth grade.  Again, the appeal, the why it was taught to me in school, seems obvious: friendship among young man, the prep school, World War II.  And so forth.  So it was really amazing to discover what an incredible novel Knowles wrote: a brilliantly framed story of betrayal and duality where every chapter grabbed my attention like a hand around my neck.

Gene and Phineas—has there been kids named Gene and Phineas since 1950?—are best friends at the Devon School in New England in 1942.  The opening chapter provides indicators of Phineas’s death and the two places he fell—the tree by the river, and the marble steps of the First Academy Building—are revisited by Gene, fifteen years removed from these events, seemingly much older than his actually thirty years (he moves and thinks like a man twice that age).

As with The Catcher in the Rye, I only remembered the book’s basics.  The quote on the cover of the Scribner paperback edition is from critic Aubrey Menen, who wrote that “it ends by being as deep and as big as evil itself.”  Really?  And I read this in eighth grade?  I had no memory of experiencing the book that way at all.

Like the Salinger, knowing the outcome makes me read slower, and Knowles’s prose is pitch perfect.  He’s efficient, wasting no words to describe the Devon School, quick and loving descriptions of New England elms and tall, narrow windows in the red-brick buildings of campus.  Every passage is filled with dread.  Chapter four opens with this:

“The next morning I saw dawn for the first time. It began not as the gorgeous fanfare over the ocean I had expected, but as a strange gray thing … (Phineas) was still asleep, although in this drained light he looked more dead than asleep. The ocean looked dead too, dead gray waves hissing mordantly along the beach, which was gray and dead-looking itself.”

A good writer doesn’t use the same word four times without meaning.  Later in this chapter, Gene “said nothing, my mind exploring the new dimensions of isolation around me… It wasn’t my neck, but my understanding which was menaced … I was not of the same quality as he.”  Which is curious on its own, but even more bizarre when, shortly after Phineas’s fall, Gene tries on Phineas’s clothes:

“I spent as much time as I could alone in our room, trying to empty my mind of every though, to forget where I was, even who I was … when I looked in the mirror it was no remoter aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life.  I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness.  I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief”

The war within Gene drives the novel, even with Phineas returning to Devon in 1943, crippled and turning into a denier of World War II’s existence.  This part I didn’t remember at all: Phineas denied the war?  The war that forced all the Devon boys to go work in a railyard for a day (a terrific scene), the same day Phineas returns?  When I recognized the way Gene recognizes, rejects, and duplicates Phineas, all at the same time, this denial is terrific: Phineas denies the war in the same way that Gene denies he intentionally jostled his best friend from the tree.

This sense of “two-ness” in both plot and character is what makes this book so captivating.  The boys are in the war, and not in the war.  Gene and Phineas are the best of friends; they are complete enemies.  Gene is dully aware of this throughout the novel, but Phineas (or, some other part of Gene, in a way) continues to deny these conflicts and contradictions, leading to the growing unease between the boy’s and the bizarre trail-like stunt that their classmate Brinker manufactures in order to discover the truth of what happened.

Holden and Phineas suffer from internal turmoil, these questions of identity that seem to be at the heart of all great American novels.  But for me, it’s the way the world encroaches on Gene and Phineas that makes A Separate Peace so much more engaging.  There is a growing threat that they attempt to refuse—the boys aren’t yet old enough to be drafted—but can’t be ignored.  The passage where Leper explains to Gene what happened to him in basic training—a rambling, terrifying monologue of a young man whose mind has cracked—is one of the best things I’ve read all year.

Why reread books we’ve read before?  I often reread Andre Dubus’s stories for no other reason than I enjoy them: his stories are wonderful, patient, and insightful about people who are holding onto their small place in society as they struggle through their marriages, jobs, and their adult children.  His stories are always in a place and time that I don’t recognize as the present but recognize as the world we once lived in that somehow mirrors the world today.  And I believe where we’re from is a large element of who we are.

Stories and novels can become didactic about social and political issues; these narratives always work better as essays rather than fiction.  On the flip side, fiction that ignores the world and places characters in a vacuum of suburbia or the university feels confined, even a little narcissistic in its obsession with whatever angst drives the characters, ignoring their surroundings to the point where the book could be set in Alaska, Arkansas, or Argentina and it wouldn’t make any difference.  The boys in A Separate Peace try to live in this vacuum but a world at war continues to blanket and then suffocate them, an encroaching reminder that there cherished time at Devon will soon come to an end.  Knowles novel does all these things I had been seeking: the simmering anger of Franzen, the isolation and identity crisis of Salinger, and the humane understanding of Dubus.  It would perhaps be disingenuous to say A Separate Peace hasn’t been read and appreciated it enough … but then again, maybe I just did.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.