Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Friday, January 29, 2010

On YA Lit, Human Contact, and the Spirit of Holden Caulfield

Following J.D. Salinger’s death, writer and YA editor David Levithan wrote of The Catcher in the Rye:

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Little, Brown and Company, 1951
Cover art by E. Michael Mitchell
Holden Caulfield is the embodiment of what we mean by the phrase “young adult” – too young to be a grown-up, but too wise to the world to be completely innocent. He’s caught in the in-between, and that in-between is what all young adult authors write about. The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books on the shelf of our young adult literature, and for almost sixty years we’ve written plenty more in an attempt to keep it company.

Salinger’s passing is, of course, unfortunate, but the thing about great writing is that it lives on, well past the end of a writer’s life.

And the spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on in contemporary YA.

Not long ago, I read Peter Cameron’s fine novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. The protagonist, James Sveck, is oft compared to Caulfield, and the novel itself has got me thinking about Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, and the collective experience of reading and writing.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You
by Peter Cameron
Frances Foster Books, 2007
In Catcher, Caulfield feels disconnected from the world, his family, everything and everyone. James Sveck feels similarly isolated in Someday, caught between the child and adult worlds (as Levithan writes), confused about who he is, how he fits into the world. And while we don’t know if Salinger felt alone, we do know that he spent a large part of his life (more than fifty years, I think) by himself, physically isolated.

While reading and writing are often solitary acts, they are still a shared experience. The written word taps into our collective conscience. Writing means nothing if it’s not read, understood, shared.

Just like life means little if not shared. Because I think identity and interpersonal communication are inexorable. Meaning comes from what we share with others.

This is what Caulfield has trouble understanding. And James.

And maybe even Salinger.

While I respect Salinger’s want and right of privacy, I think it’s unfortunate that so much of his life (especially his writing) has been kept in private. I understand that his home is now filled with writing that was never (and will likely never be) published. I respect that, but it’s sad.

Because we all need someone. A friend. A family member. A neighbor. A confidante. A reader.

James sure does. But in Someday, he alienates everyone, even the one person he sees as a friend. We alternate, out of chronology, between significant days/events in James life, leading up to his possible departure for Brown (although he’s still on the fence about going to college). His greatest desire, he thinks, is to move away, escape everything and everyone, buy a house somewhere in the Midwest and settle down.

He wants to be alone with his thoughts.

James even articulates that, to him, reality is what and how we think, not how (or with whom) we interact. He says, “Most people think things are not real unless they are spoken, that it’s the uttering of something, not the thinking of it, that legitimizes it […] I think just the opposite—that thoughts are realest when thought, that expressing them distorts or dilutes them, that it is best for them to stay in the dark climate-controlled airport chapel of your mind, that it they’re released into the air and light they will be affected in a way that alters them, like film accidentally exposed.”

I agree with part of that. Our thoughts are real, serious, and meaningful. And sometimes expressing them (the wrong way) can destroy them, and confuse even their thinker.

And I think we sometimes over-communicate. Words dilute our thoughts.

But that doesn’t mean thoughts shouldn’t ever be shared. We simply must chose our words carefully, deliberately. Thoughts and words are valuable. What James doesn’t realize is that he needs to find a way to transform the valuable abstractions of thoughts into meaningful words so he can be acknowledge by others. So he can participate in the world.

And not so isolated.

But James pulls more and more away from others, and further and further into his own mind, until he starts losing his sense of self.

Late in the novel, when James tentatively admits to himself that he’s gay, he’s unsure of it. He’s unsure because he’s only—as he says—“theoretically, potentially” homosexual. He’s never engaged in any homosexual acts. He’s never even spoken the words “I’m gay” out loud (even when his parents have asked).

I’m not suggesting he isn’t gay because the thought isn’t expressed in the shared world. He is gay. But what does it mean for James to be gay in a world that doesn’t know he’s gay?

James is even more isolated.

And, as I mentioned before, he alienates the only person he sees as a friend—the man in charge of his mom’s gallery—by orchestrating an elaborate and hurtful stunt. He doesn’t mean to be hurtful. I think the stunt is James’ misguided way of coming out. He is incapable of communicating more effectively.

Near the end of the novel, during a trip to his grandmother’s (the one person with whom James is comfortable--like Holden is only comfortable with his sister), a boy mowing a lawn smiles at him. The flash, that small bit of human interaction, makes James think, wonder, about what he might be missing. He remembers a woman on the train who sat reading a bible. He wonders what she might be doing now. He knows it would have been wrong to follow her home, but he’s worried he should have. What if she was supposed to be someone important to him?

He says, “I think that’s what scares me: the randomness of everything. That the people who could be important to you might just pass you by. Or you pass them by. How did you know?” He wonders if he should talk to the boy mowing the lawn. Maybe they’d share an interest.

James has spent his whole life walking away, abandoning people. And he acknowledges a sour truth: “I realize it makes no sense to feel that and yet never make any attempt to interact with people, but I am beginning to think life is full of these tragic incongruities.”

His shortcomings are obvious to him. He seems to understand that interactions, relationships, actions, words are important, necessary. But he simply can’t get over who he is.

I wonder if the same was true for Salinger? Is much of the world’s image of Salinger as a recluse accurate? Did he connect with a select few? What did he think of himself? Did he understand himself?

The world is a lonely place for everyone, but especially for teenagers, who, again, feel caught in between and left out, belonging neither to the world of adults or children. When faced with such isolation, we can turn inward on ourselves and our own thoughts, or we can risk communication.

Contact with other people can be scary, especially for boys. We feel vulnerable. But bringing our thoughts into the world through speech, writing, or action, is necessary not only so that others know who we are, but so that we may also better understand ourselves.

Click here for full Levithan article.

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