6 Ways of (Not) Overthinking “Franny and Zooey”

1: This is a novel in which J. D. Salinger, certainly an enormous overthinker in his own right, narrates several episodes of the Glass family saga mostly from the perspective of the unbearable overthinker Zooey, his overthinking older brother, Buddy–who has supposedly “written” Zooey’s chapter–and their youngest sister, Franny, who is emerging into an adulthood in which she rails against the overthinking of her elders but even overthinks this, herself, when she realizes that the pursuit of a new kind of knowledge is still inherently a material pursuit. So as I write this I am telling myself: let’s not overthink this. There really isn’t as much here as the magician Salinger would like us to believe.

(Or is there?)

2: Franny Glass is going through a sort of quarter-life crisis and we need to understand why this is happening and how it will end. I would argue that this is the plot of the novel even though it is not her story, really, that Salinger puts on display but that of the entire Glass family, particularly that of the younger generation long after the suicide of Seymour Glass, the eldest brother. But one way we get through the book is to follow the suspense around what will happen to Franny. In the end some readers (myself one of them) might conclude that Franny’s crisis is temporary and it is in fact not a crisis at all but a moment of learning and maturation in which she decides that she is fed up with traditional (male) sources of knowledge, in college and from her own family, and that she is in fact smarter than all these know-it-alls anyway. When the book ends she probably goes on to break up with Lane, her lame-ass boyfriend at Yale who spends most of his page-time lecturing her while he eats snails and frogs’ legs at a fancy restaurant. Franny also apparently has a revelation at the end of the novel, facilitated by Zooey, her closest elder brother, who tells her over the phone that she should keep acting because the quest for perfection in her art is the greatest truth she can know. In the final page Salinger hints that Franny is calmed and validated by Zooey’s words and we might speculate that her spiritual crisis will subside thanks to her rededication to the arts.

3: Zooey spends most of the book reproducing the oppressions the older members of his family likely enacted upon him, and upon each other. We get about 75 pages of a conversation Zooey has with his mother while she intrudes on him bathing, and a second conversation they have when she intrudes on him shaving. While we symphathize with Zooey’s annoyance at his mother’s constant intrusions and her need to control him even though, at 25, he’s an adult now, we also see Zooey consistently being a straight up asshole to his mother. Rather than call him out on it and stand up for herself, she takes it, probably because she’s in denial that he has actually been hurt in the past by members of this family, herself included. And because she’s afraid to overtly antagonize him because she needs his love. In the last 75 pages of the book Zooey pulls the same sort of act with Franny. Franny needs love and empathy at this turbulent moment, however Zooey is only interested in telling her How Things Are, and pointing out various flaws in her ways of thinking, even though he knows that he has the exact same flaws and was evidently not able to overcome them either. The irony of course is that Franny is mostly upset because men like Zooey have been telling her How Things Are for her entire life; it is exactly what she is trying to escape. Always the know-it-all himself (just like every single last one of his siblings, Zooey was a wunderkind star on the show “It’s a Wise Child”!), Zooey understands this completely, yet he can’t help himself and imposes his knowledge on her anyway.

Incidentally, and perhaps most crushingly, Zooey’s intrusion is a betrayal because he and Franny have a stronger rapport than any other two characters in the book. It seems as though in this family, Franny and Zooey have always been allies–after all, they are closest in age, and they probably experienced the trauma of Seymour’s suicide, and whatever else has happened off the page, somewhat similarly. At first Franny’s and Zooey’s relationship is reminiscent of that of Holden Caulfield and his younger sister, Phoebe–two more children trying to reckon with a sibling’s death (suicide…?)–but it quickly morphs into something more painful, marked by a struggle for power that Zooey is waging not in fact with his sister but with his older siblings and his parents.

Whereupon Franny shuts him out and buries her face in the pillows and cries until he leaves. To me, her reaction feels true and powerful–Salinger nails it. But then in the novel’s final scene Zooey again tries to give Franny advice, this time over the phone–the advice being that she should keeping acting. And this time Franny eats it up, apparently. I don’t buy her final revelation and as a result I tend to agree with whoever wrote this in the bottom margin of page 198 in my library copy:

My God,

Salinger is so totally wrong about everything that it’s depressing.

4: I read the overly abundant commentary on religion in F & Z as essentially a distraction. Supposedly Franny, following in the footsteps of Seymour, is moved by a book about a pilgrim who seems to go on a pseudo-Buddhist spiritual journey whereupon he ultimately discovers the supreme power in repeating a Christian prayer. What I think is really happening is that Franny is affected by the fact that the book itself is dead old Seymour’s and that, in the book, the protagonist has found a new paradigm for being wise. It seems easy to get bogged down by all the spirituality; I prefer a simpler interpretation of this novel in which (1) Franny sees through the phoniness (yep, Salinger uses this exact word, again bringing to mind Holden) of her world, (2) Franny begins to rebel, (3) Zooey identifies with her but lets his vanity get the best of him and, instead of just supporting her, overwhelms her with all his shit.

5: The biggest ghost in the novel is not Seymour. It is Les, the Glass family patriarch, who never makes an appearance and is only mentioned offhandedly by the other characters. We see their mother, Bessie, as sort of a miserable woman who talks up a storm that mostly translates into suffering for Franny, Zooey and the reader. But we never see Les, who is still absolutely in the picture. I read this as a deliberate omission by Salinger–indeed, one of the reasons toxic masculinity is so hard to name and challenge is the way in which we make it invisible by normalizing it and focusing on the pain it causes and the other-ed recipients of that pain. But I also suspect that Salinger himself is not really ready to bring Les into this–perhaps Salinger doesn’t entirely understand how, explicitly, Les is involved in the extant characters’ suffering, specifically Bessie’s but also Zooey’s, Buddy’s, and, yes, absolutely, Seymour’s–which is fair enough but it is still necessary to keep in mind as we watch Zooey and Bessie be monsters to one another.

6: This somewhat brutal book contains, every now and then, gems of poignancy. Which is to say that buried beneath all of Salinger’s inner torture (which I suppose we will never know the half of) lies a commitment to beauty and maybe even a keen eye for it:

Franny, talking on the phone to Zooey, whom she believes is Buddy: “I mean [Zooey] says things like that, and yet he thinks he’s perfectly qualified to give me a lot of advice and stuff! […] It’s like being in a lunatic asylum and having another patient all dressed up as a doctor come over to you and start taking your pulse or something…. it’s just awful” (191).

Zooey reading the quotes pinned up on the door in Seymour’s and Buddy’s old bedroom: “God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions.” -De Caussade (177).

Franny and Lane, at lunch: “I feel so funny,” she said. “I think I’m going crazy. Maybe I’m already crazy” (26). 

Lane was looking at her with genuine concern–more concern than curiosity. “You’re pale as hell. You’re really pale–you know that?” he asked.

Franny shook her head. I’m fine. I’ll be fine in a minute.” She looked up as the waiter came forward with their orders. “Oh, your snails look beautiful.”  

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