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Are JD Salinger's Glass stories the best novels about family ever written?

JD Salinger in 1952
JD Salinger in 1952 Credit: Hulton Archive 

Benjamin Markovits on what Salinger saw through his Glasses

My own family always struck me as happy, but as soon as you write the words you realise that it’s not totally clear what you’re claiming. Does it mean that the people in your family are usually happy? Or something else, that the family itself, as a kind of entity or organism, is happy, whatever that means? What does it mean? That nobody fights? Surely not that.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the first appearance of the Glasses, J D Salinger’s precocious family of Upper East Siders who featured in several short stories and novellas, most of them published by The New Yorker. The earliest was A Perfect Day for Bananafish (1948), which introduced the character of Seymour Glass, just before he kills himself on holiday in Florida. It’s a classic Salinger story that moves from the totally inconsequential to the super-significant without changing tone or skipping a beat:

"There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolising the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through."

He shifts not just point of view but focus – from the wife who sits in her hotel room (talking to her anxious mother on the phone) to Seymour, sunbathing on the beach and then amusing a semi-random kid who comes to bother him. They go swimming together before he heads back to the hotel. Finding his wife asleep, he takes his chance. Seymour is the oldest brother and, spiritually at least, the head of the clan – his suicide is the big bang that launches their universe, and almost all of the subsequent stories refer back to it.

Salinger died eight years ago, having published nothing since Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1965, the last instalment of the Glass stories, though also, chronologically (in terms of the period described), the first in the series. It was widely panned, a reception that might have persuaded him to stop publishing.

There are rumours that he continued to write, mostly about the Glasses, and left instructions for these stories to be published after his death but, so far, nothing has come out. Another account of why he stopped publishing is that the Glasses defeated him, that he somehow went so deep into their history that the stories stopped being intelligible to anyone else… just as, when you’re a teenager, you start to realise that there’s something about your own family, something that strikes you as perfectly normal, which you take for granted, that is almost impossible to explain to other people.

Families are hard to write for several reasons, including the fact that they involve a lot of similar characters. As Seymour explains to his younger brother, Buddy, in Seymour: an Introduction:

“One of the few things left in the world, aside from the world itself, that sadden me every day is an awareness that you get upset if Boo Boo or Walt tells you you’re saying something that sounds like me. You sort of take it as an accusation of piracy, a little slam at your individuality. Is it so bad that we sometimes sound like each other? The membrane is so thin between us.”

Buddy is the “writer” in the family and the narrator of several of the stories – and it’s true, all of the Glasses tend to have the same preoccupations: Eastern religion and poetry, authenticity, their own childhoods and childishness generally. But this also lets them talk to each other in a way that they can’t talk to anybody else.

Another problem is that family life doesn’t always unfold at a speed or scale that is usable for fiction. Storylines tend to be either large and slow-growth (kids grow up, they leave home) or small and moment by moment – not just the petty fights, but the petty pleasures, too. What families are good at is passing time together, but passing time is almost the opposite of plot. Salinger’s genius was that he managed to suck the reader into wasting whole afternoons with the Glasses – picking at conversational scabs. In Zooey, for example, there’s a long scene in which the mother barges in on her youngest son taking a bath:

“Zooey? Are you still in the tub?”

“Yes, I’m still in the tub. Why?”

“I want to come in for just a teeny minute. I have something for you.”

“I’m in the tub, for God’s sake, mother.”

“I’ll just be a minute, for goodness’ sake. Pull the shower curtain.”

And then 35 brilliant pages go by before she leaves.

One of the interesting things about the Glasses is the way that Salinger evolved in writing about them. The earlier stories – A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, Franny, Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters – tend to have an almost pointillist concentration on moment-by-moment narration. It’s first-draft family history in the making. But this gave way eventually to something more discursive and self-conscious, the almost plotless rambling of Seymour and Hapworth. Happy families (and not just the happy ones, I suspect) create myths about themselves, but that also means they have to deal with the inevitable transition from source to commentary, from primary to secondary material.

Happiness is also hard to write, it writes “white” … and yet the Glasses seem to me basically a happy family, at least according to some of the usual tests. They love each other and are over-involved in one another’s lives; they glorify their childhoods. All of them appeared as children on a fictional radio programme called It’s a Wise Child. Seymour “transformed” it from a kids’ quiz show into something more serious, a round-table discussion held by prelapsarians.

If this sounds precious, they’re aware of that, too. One of the things Seymour loves about Muriel, his bride-to-be, is the way she watches movies at the cinema. “Her mouth was open… I felt awe and happiness. How I love and need her undiscriminating heart.” None of this makes him sound very likeable, but he adds: “Even in the dark, I could sense that she felt the usual estrangement from me when I don’t automatically love what she loves.”

The Glasses themselves are obsessed by happiness. Seymour jilts Muriel at the altar (they end up eloping afterwards) in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters because he’s “too happy to get married”. (“Does that sound like a normal person – a normal man – to you?” asks the maid of honour.) And Buddy, in Seymour, after discussing his brother’s suicide, writes: “How can I record what I’ve just recorded and still be happy? But I am. Unjolly, unmerry, to the marrow, but my afflatus seems to be punctureproof.”

Even Franny, on the edge of a breakdown, or in the middle of it, ends her story lying in the manager’s office at a campus restaurant, where her boyfriend has left her to get a cab – after she collapsed at the bar – mouthing the words of a prayer that she thinks might lead to the continual knowing of God… As Seymour once said to Buddy: “All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.”

None of this intensity sounds easy to live with, which is partly (we presume) why Seymour kills himself. But Franny and Zooey and Buddy survive, as Salinger himself survived – for 45 unpublished years, writing every day in his office, a concrete bunker at the bottom of the garden, or so 
he told his friends and the few reporters who managed to get a conversation out of him. Writing what? Thinking what? It’s not hard to see that the kind of pressure his characters put on themselves and each other to live honestly and beautifully will eventually produce only silence.

(See, for example, Seymour’s paralysing comments on Buddy’s stories: “I can’t get this new one off my mind. I don’t know what to say about it. I know what the dangers of getting into sentimentality must have been. You got through it fine. Maybe too fine. I wonder if I don’t wish you’d slipped up a little…”)

Salinger’s own childhood was only partly reflected by the Glasses. The Upper East Side privilege was his own, but he was far from precocious (he dropped out of one prep school and a couple of small colleges – he never got a BA). His father was not a vaudeville performer but a food importer, and he had just one sister. He seems to have been devoted to his two children by his second wife, but they were raised by their mother after the divorce. In other words, the multi-headed intensity of the Glass family life seems to have been an invention… or a kind of wish-fulfilment. Some critics complained that he had simply created a family of himselves.

Yet the Glasses seem recognisable to me, familiar. I’m one of five, not seven, but my parents, like the Glasses’ and Salinger’s own, are a Jewish father and Christian mother with European roots. My older brother, like Seymour, is a professor (as are two of my sisters). And, as Seymour tells his brother, the membranes between us are thin. The shorthand of references we have available is not just a way of saving time but of deepening meaning.

For most of us, family life is our first and probably only experience of what it means to live inside a novel – that is, a world shaped by a certain kind of style, where the style appears to be something like reality – until you step outside of it and realise it’s just your own weird set of habits and traditions, that families tell stories about themselves, and what you’ve always thought was true was just stories.

Benjamin Markovits’s new novel, A Weekend in New York (Faber), is out now