JD Salinger was like Che Guevara, except that he did not smoke and he lived much longer. Some would say that his ideology was pure. Others, that he cultivated his own legend, like a gardener with longterm vision. Perhaps he was a little bit of both. That he was a great writer is beyond dispute.
This book is not about JD Salinger.
It’s about a year in the life of a girl who loves books. She joins a literary agency as a secretary. It’s the mid-nineties, but her agency is yet to discover computers. Everything is typed, and they remember telex machines fondly. Her boss is mysterious and imperious. One of the reasons they remain stuck in a time warp is because they represent JD Salinger, who likes things that way. One of her key jobs is to answer all of Salinger’s fan letters with a form letter, something she is reluctant to do, because she feels a certain sympathy for the fans. Over time, she learns why answering them is a terrible idea. For most of the book, Salinger himself is an occasional voice on the phone, and once, right at the end, a handshake.
Like many plucky young heroines before her, she is torn between two lovers — her college sweetheart, who remains off stage, and her current boyfriend, a boxer-cum-novelist who waters office plants for a living. Soon after we meet them, Salinger expresses a desire to publish a new book, with an obscure and extremely nervous publisher who uses his father-in-law’s basement to keep his stock. How this saga unfolds forms the backbone of the book, sprinkled through the rest of it in short, sharp episodes.
This book is not very plot-driven. It consists of a series of events, like Lemony Snicket’s. There are romance bits, and New York bits, and Salinger bits. The romance bits seem the weakest. I may be prejudiced. I’m not much of a romantic. The college sweetheart is virtuous and worthy. Her boyfriend is tone-deaf and obnoxious, and why she stays with him as long as she does is a mystery.
But the real hero of the book is New York. From Saks Fifth Avenue to the Waldorf Hotel, to the ducks in Central Park, we see it all through her eyes. We’ve been there before. Woody Allen’s whole career is a, long love letter to the city. But it is harder with words. Joanna Rakoff has a poet’s precision, and sense of beauty, and she communicates her wide-eyed wonder quite beautifully. It’s worth the ride.
Most of us English types in India know New York better than we know Nagpur. Part of it could be because of some essential flaw in our characters, but it’s also because New York may well have inspired more great art than any other city in the world. This is a timeless New York, unencumbered by current events or history. Was the Gulf War happening at the time? Who was the President? Was this when Fox News first built its constituency of angry, white people? It doesn’t matter. This girl is dreamy, and slightly self-absorbed. She describes what she wears to work every day meticulously. Her world is full of books, and the search for romance. In this respect, she’s just like any twenty-three year-old, anywhere in the world.
The Salinger bits are the heart of the novel, which is why his name is in the title. Salinger was obsessively private, and she was in the unique position of dealing with him directly. She serves us fascinating nuggets, like the fact that a first edition of The Catcher In The Rye is worth twenty five thousand dollars, and that the Japanese are crazy about Holden Caulfield. Through brief glimpses, we get to know who he is. I’d read about his idiosyncrasies before, and I was fully prepared to dislike him, but in the end, all I could feel was gratitude and affection.
This is a book for people who love books. It is about the joy of reading, and the desire to write, and the pleasure of holding a freshly printed new edition in your hands. At first I thought its concerns were too small, but what could be more universal than this? I still don’t understand exactly what literature is, and perhaps I never will, but I think I may have just caught a glimpse of it.
Shovon Chowdhury is the author of The Competent Authority