26 June 2021

Salinger's Catcher in the Rye cannot save Shuggie Bain!

I find myself in a Salinger loop. I didn't mean for it to happen but it started easily when I picked out Nine Stories from my bookshelf a few weeks ago. It's a small book of short stories which I have cherished since I first read them in English class as a young man. I have continued to read them frequently over the years since then. But I had not, however, read The Catcher in the Rye in maybe twenty years and it has been a great surprise because I was immediately swept away out into the first paragraph of a long story.

The truth is that I have been wrestling with a few short stories over the past months (six to be honest). I find it hard to admit somehow, but a compulsion to write took me over this year. The problem is that I am not an author, a writer possibly, at best, but certainly not an author. There are lots of writers in every sort of medium these days but there is only one author, and he/she is the creator of fiction and non fiction. In a word: BOOKS. 

I love short stories, I always have, everything from Joyce to Tolstoy, Jack London to Bernard Malamud, I have read them over and over again throughout my life. I love novels too, but the brevity of a short story suits my anxious nature. 

Being in the world of Painting, where emotional content is conveyed so differently, I feel out of my depth by attempting to write stories. And yet, when I sit down to write, ideas spurt out of me in a free and chaotic fashion which is extremely pleasurable. But thus far, I have only written fragmented bits of memory with fanciful invention. And as they say in Britain (and Australia), I have written a few things which one could say is akin to being "mutton dressed up as lamb". But I really do have several short stories going which I only need to resolve, to bring to a close, to wrap up like it's a gift from a bookshop in Tokyo. A good ending is like when a conversation between two old friends comes to a close. There is nothing more to add but "Bye Bye, and take care". 

So naturally, in a last ditch effort I have jumped into my favourite authors to desperately search out ‘how the great ones finish their stories.’ Like paintings, it's often easier to begin them than to end them.
So I read for pleasure, but also to glean the magic imbued in these stories in order to sort out my own endings. I feel like a student in the week before final exams desperate to find the answers (and secretly hoping that Tolstoy's fairy dust will come off onto these pages and into my writing fingers). But speaking of muttons: Revenons à nos moutons! as the French say. The Catcher in the Rye is a gem of a story. 

But don't I really love it because I identify with Holden Caulfield's social and cultural background? After all, we shared the same kind of privilege which has been so taken for granted by whole generations of  white Americans. I also had the same kind of pimpled and smelly roommates in Boarding school (for Chrissakes! as Holden Caulfield would say).

But, I really love his narrative which is crafted with such clarity. Salinger was so eccentric and so terribly gifted. Would an inner-city child from Glasgow relate to any of it? 

And this brings me to the fact that I rarely start a book, then stop after fifty pages. But I did so last week with a book entitled Shuggie Bain by Booker Prize Winner Douglas Stuart. A friend in New York had loved it and told me about it. She is a big reader, no slouch, and quite critical. She described it briefly (the alcoholic mother!) and, I immediately went out to buy it. So it is not without a dollop of shame that I quietly put Shuggie Bain to rest in the mortuary section of my bookshelf and grabbed The Cather in the Rye instead. 

There are a few reasons no doubt, but mainly I just didn't relate to anything after fifty pages, nor was I compelled to empathise with any of the characters. I found it confusing, convoluted, and the phonetic accents too difficult to grasp, while pushing me away at the same time from what was going on between the characters. I lost my bearings, and I wimped out! I admit it! It's an awful thing to bail out of a new book which was a winner of such a prestigious literary prize! Though looking through the past winners of the Booker prize I saw that Arundhati Roy also won it for The God of Small Things about twenty-five years ago. I bailed on that book as well but with maybe just 50 pages to the finish line! Ha Ha! She write beautifully, it's a story intelligently told, and it was certainly interesting but it was just too sweet and sentimental for my own taste, I thought I would die of suffocation if I had arrived at the end of it. 

I know, I know, it was very popular! And still is. And it was very much loved by everyone, everywhere. I just found it too sugary, (trop sucré, as they say in France) Too, too sweet and precious. 
Now, Shuggie Bain is obviously a good book, and quite auto-biographical (which was my prime interest) but I didn't get far enough in to it to see anything on the horizon, though I am sure there was something,  somewhere. Maybe some day I will try again later, before I die. 

It has occurred to me that I must have been seeking to shelter in a place of my own, back into a comfort zone of my own dysfunctional childhood. Apparently, I was not patient enough to spend time in a foreign one belonging to someone else. I am still too obsessed with my own childhood which is why I want to continue writing, obviously. (but hey! We only live twice, right?)

In any event, I like that J D Salinger loves children, and he understands them. One feels this in everything he wrote. He wrote almost everything when he was still such a young man himself, and with such wisdom. 


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