Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Great Short Story: J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" II

The First of Salinger's Nine Stories
 Continued from J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" Part I





THERE IS NO MAGIC IN ART, so said Picasso. Instead the great painter claimed that art is just a pile of tricks, one piled on top of the other. The more tricks, the better the art; the better the art, the more there seems to be some sort of magic in it. Whether you believe in magic or not, one of Salinger's greatest tricks was his blending of the literary with the pulpy.

Jerome David (Jerry to his friends) had always set his sights on the illustrious New Yorker. But early on he couldn't get published there and had to settle for "lesser" publications known as the Pulps, magazines like Story magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Among these pages there was no time or interest in high-brow, pretentious investigations into human blah blah blah. Stories had to be fast, had to have twist endings and had to be real page-turners. The benefit of this early education was that as Salinger's stories matured (ie. as The New Yorker started to accept his work) and he produced master works like "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," so rich in depth of character and insight, they retained the fun, suspenseful edge the pulps had required of him.

In this way "Bananafish" is like a perfect movie. Fun enough to want to watch Saturday night. Deep enough to stay with you well beyond Sunday brunch.


THE STORY THAT AFFECTED ALL THAT CAME AFTER IT
If you've only read The Catcher in the Rye you might not know that all but two of the stories Salinger published subsequent to his only novel (he went on publishing a good fifteen years after Catcher, albeit at a pace that even Stanley Kubrick could lap), are about the Glass family. This obsessive and remarkably unique literary investigation into a small number of related imagined characters that spanned some 18 years of one writer's life all started with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which centres around a character named Seymour Glass, the oldest sibling in the Glass family, older brother to Franny, Zooey and Buddy, the narrator of Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters.

THE STORY
It'll sound droll, if not downright dull to summarize the story, but it seems necessary to mention that "Bananafish" is plot-wise primarily just a pair of conversations. The first is a phone call between a daughter in a hotel room and her mother back home. The second conversation, between a man and a little girl, happens on and near the hotel's beach. Sounds innocent enough when crammed discursively into a pat little summary like this, a pat little summary, I'll add, that's been careful not to give anything away.

To not give anything away but to hint at it, I thought I'd give you a taste of character in a story written by the creator of Holden Caufield, who of the 100 best characters in American fiction, according to Book Magazine, ranked second after Jay Gatsby [sic].


THE PHONE CALL WITH MOTHER
In the opening of "Bananafish," Muriel Glass, on her honeymoon with Seymour in Florida, is alone in her hotel room. Seymour is at the beach. Waiting at the story's beginning to put a call through (1948, remember) to her mother, Muriel "uses" the time. 

She read an article in a women's pocket-size magazine, called "Sex if Fun-or Hell." She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole... She was a girl who for a ringing phon dropped exactly nothing... With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon.

When finally the call does come through, Muriel's mother takes quick control of the conversation. Her first three lines on the phone to her daughter are:
1. "Muriel? Is that you?"
(Muriel says it is and asks how her mother is.)
2. "I've been worried to death about you. Why haven't you phoned? Are you all right?"
(Muriel says, "I tried to get you last night and the night before...")
3. Are you all right, Muriel?"
(Muriel keeps moving the phone away from her ear. She says, "I'm fine. I'm hot. This is the hottest day they've had in Florida...")

AT THE BEACH WITH A MAN AND A LITTLE GIRL
The second half of the story starts off on the hotel's beachfront property. A little girl, Sybil Carpenter is bored, being forced to listen to a boring adult conversation between her mother and her mother's friend.

"See more glass," said Sybil Carpenter, who was staying at the hotel with her mother. "Did you see more glass?"
"Pussycat, stop saying that. It's driving Mommy absolutely crazy. Hold still, please."  

Mrs. Carpenter was putting sun-tan oil on the Sybil's shoulders, spreading it down over the delicate, wing-like blades of her back. Sybil was sitting insecurely on a huge, inflated beach ball, facing the ocean. She was wearing a canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years.

With her mother's permission, Sybil sets off and walks over a quarter of a mile to find Seymour Glass, whose lying on the sand.

"Where's the lady?" Sybil said.  
"The lady?" the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. "That's hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser's. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room ... Ask me something else, Sybil," he said. "That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit."
Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. "This is a
yellow," she said. "This is a yellow."

The possibly mentally unstable young man, recently back from the war, goes on to take Sybil out into the sea for a swim.

What happens after that I dare not say. Just read it.

[Salinger's The Laughing Man: click it for the next of the Nine Stories I love.]

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