I could wax unpoetic here about how I used to teach The Catcher in the Rye back when I taught 9th grade English, about the way one of my colleagues taught it as a Buddhist text, the debate between whether that book is a glorious masterpiece or a slice of Americana that has outlived its usefulness in adult life.
But I’d much rather get out of the way, and just present this week’s Women Writers Wednesday, a thoughtful and elegant look at Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, which comes to us from Sukhada Tatke.
Envy Joanna Rakoff for her Salinger Year
For any JD Salinger lover, or for that matter, any literature lover, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is a delectable treat into which one can bury oneself and come out, once done, feeling refreshed and thrilled. Envy is not an accident, but a lingering feeling which accompanies every turned page.
The book opens in New York, which remains the thread that binds the writer’s experiences as she maneuvers through the complex, multifarious labyrinth that is the city and her own life. Rakoff’s is a story of hundreds, even thousands, of young aspiring writers in New York whose “tote bags (are) heavy with manuscripts.” After completing her Master’s degree in English Literature, she ditches her “college boyfriend” and makes her way to New York with dreams of becoming a poet. But like everyone coming to a big city, she is in want of a job that can pay her. Within days, she finds herself being interviewed in an anachronistic and dark office of Harold Ober Associates, which she refers to as “the Agency” in the book. She lands the job only when she assures her interviewer that she can type: on a typewriter.
It is only after she starts working at the Agency that she realizes the enormity of whom it represents. “Never, ever, ever are you to give out (Jerry’s) address or phone number,” her boss tells her on her first day at work. Among the first funny moments in the book is Rakoff’s confession that the only Jerry who comes to her mind then is Seinfeld.
Considering herself an earnest student of literature, Rakoff had never regarded Salinger as a serious story-teller. “I didn’t want to be entertained. I wanted to be provoked,” she says in her defense for having skipped the most influential American writer of the 20th Century.
One is often left feeling that Rakoff happened to be in the right place at the right time. But how many would have done justice to their Salinger year the way she does?
As a perceptive observer and gleaming story-teller, Rakoff’s narration brings to life the charming moments—charming, however, often exclusively to the reader and not to those living them—that take place in this Agency which clutches its old ways. Her recounting is laced not with contempt for the older generation which refuses to move forth with time, but with nonchalant amusement. My Salinger Year is as much a story about the literary and publishing world in Manhattan and the wave of transition that had hit it, forcing it to make the shift from Dictaphones and typewriters to computers in the dot com era, as it is a coming-of-age memoir where Rakoff is forced to gallop into adulthood.
The writer of her story reminds me of my favorite Salinger character, Franny Glass, who is trying to understand the ways of the world, slipping into depression every now and then.
Rakoff is at a crossroads that life brings one to when one is evolving and struggling to find one’s self. She learns that she has to repay a loan her father had taken for her education without her knowledge, ends up with a job she doesn’t necessarily like, gets her life entangled with a reckless boyfriend who is differently wired from her, and comes to terms with the changing arc of friendship with a woman she calls her best friend. Jenny, like Rakoff, had dreams of writing but gave them up for a suburban path which she deems easy. “‘I know,’ I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I thought, had Jenny.”
The protagonist of the story, Salinger himself––for who else could be a protagonist in a book mentioning the man––is behind phone conversations with Rakoff, or hushed discussions surrounding him. His is a continual presence, of course, as his name lurks around in the cupboards of the Agency on hard paperback editions of his books.
What surprised me most pleasantly was the portrayal of the reclusive writer who had, in my imagination, metamorphosed into a grumpy old man begrudging his popularity; someone he barely resembles during his limited interactions with Rakoff over the phone. His tone is genial, almost affable when he refers to Joanna with names other than her own, thanks to his debilitating hearing.
Rakoff’s struggles as an aspiring writer in New York are as real as the struggles of Salinger’s characters, although bereft of the sense of unresolved grief that stings the latter. Salinger’s characters, be they the most popular adolescent hero Holden Caulfield or the war veteran Seymour Glass who commits suicide, are rife with melancholia and gloom. Rakoff meets them at a time when her own life is prickled with angst, much like the fraternity and sorority in Salinger’s work.
Rakoff’s Salinger moment was somehow waiting to happen until she entered her 20s. Perplexed by her own life and curious about the legend, she embarks on her Salinger journey on a weekend her boyfriend goes to a friend’s wedding alone. She pores over his work, reading one book after the other until she is done. That’s when she begins to relate to, even appreciate, the fan mail addressed to Salinger, that she painstakingly answers as part of her job.
Salinger’s work is timeless and age is only an unnecessary constraint. To bracket his work as being for children or teenagers is as good as depriving one’s life of the treasures required to enrich it. After all, what are love, loss, grief, nostalgia, despair, isolation, and desperation, if not lifelong companions? My Salinger Year celebrates these and pays homage to a man who deserves every bit of it.
Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer and journalist based in Houston. She has previously worked in Mumbai at The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Texas Monthly, and The Houston Chronicle. Her pet topics include social inequality, cultural heritage, and everyday life. She tweets at @ASuitableGirl, and you can find more of her work on firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.