MA Week Ten

Last Monday, the tenth week of the course, we looked at The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger.  I say 'we', but I actually looked at By Night In Chile, by Roberto Bolano, getting my weeks all mixed up; everybody else turned up to class with the Salinger, I turned up swearing, and tried to dig out all my teenage impressions of Catcher, while reading over somebody else's shoulder.

Issues that we examined in relation to the book: first, our impressions of Holden - did we find him sympathetic or irritating?  The consensus was that as young teenagers we'd mostly found him sympathetic; as older teenagers, or in our early twenties, we'd found him a pain in the ass; and as older adults, we'd felt sorry for him again.  We looked at his reliability as a narrator, his admission that he's a liar, his hyperbole and embellishments of the truth; his motivations as a narrator, including the way he might be seen to use those embellishments as a psychological tactic  to protect  himself in a world he sees as hostile. We examined his use of role-playing, and escape as a repeated tactic throughout the narrative; Holden's emotional state, his second-guessing of himself, his conflicted reactions to other people and their motivations, the internal contradictions of his feelings about himself and others and the situations in which he finds himself.  We looked at how the easy-going laid-back narrative voice masks moments of real darkness, and how Holden wants to remain a child (and idolizes his young sister, who embodies that easy childhood innocence he feels that he has lost) and yet he is attracted to the adult  world of sexuality, although it scares him.  He seems to be afraid that adulthood will force him to play a role, to not 'be himself', even though he spends his time enacting movie roles, taking on new identities, and he fantasises about living out in the woods and pretending to be a deaf-mute.   His wants and fears are very closely entwined.  The novel debated ideas of existentialism and authenticity - we talked about reactions to Holden's stance against phonies, a catch-all term that seems to encompass most  conventional adult posturing and role-playing; he's been seen as both heroic in his refusal to participate, and ethically admirable, and also as an immature fantasist in his refusal to accept the world, and his own stake in it.  Are his ethical stances flawed because of his privileged background?  It can be easier to protest and rebel when there's a safety net of parents who'll bail you out, send you to the doctor, and enable your self-expression (the telling of the narrative, as the implied reader would appear, at times, to be Holden's psychiatrist).  We spoke about the alternative moralities presented by the novel - the teacher, Mr Antolini; Holden's older brother in Hollywood - and  notions of change and stasis.  Moving towards adulthood is a change that Holden clearly fears, but he also distinguishes himself from small children, and doesn't want everything to freeze around him.  We looked at a couple of key scenes (the one with Antolini, the carousel scene with Pheobe) and we finished up by discussing whether in this case there's much difference/distance between Holden the narrator, and Holden the character.  There's so little distance between the events of the story and the time of the telling, that I think the difference is negligible, though you can probably pick out a sense of Holden having leanred from some of his actions and mistakes.

The workshop in the afternoon was a short session as one of the students got snarled up in horrible traffic for hours and couldn't get to class on time, so we talked about the other girl's novel-in-progress, and wrapped up early.  Next week we'll be looking at the Bolano (I'm sure about it this time) and we'll have Martin Amis talking about Philip Roth.

No comments: