Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno; 2013
This biography was very compelling in its subject, but it stops there for me. Before reading Salinger I didn’t know much about J.D. Salinger other than the obvious stuff – i.e. hermitage. I didn’t know he fought in WWII, that he was a ladies man, or that devoted a large part of his life to studying Zen Buddhism. I read Catcher and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” only once each in high school, so all of this was new to me. Writer David Shields and director Shane Salerno researched material and conducted over 200 interviews for Salinger for over 10 years. What results is a kind of oral history of the writer’s life from those who knew him, or at least, knew about him.
My main grievance with Salinger is that it felt VERY Hollywood infected, which is ironic on so many levels. It’s the “official book” of the “acclaimed” documentary directed by Salerno. What makes Jake Gyllenhaal a reputable commentator on Salinger, I would like to know? What really killed me about this was that so many of the interviewees kept making the point that Salinger was probably smart for rejecting fame, and that the people who seek fame are actually the crazy ones. I can’t say I disagree, but the point hardly holds when it’s coming from, say, Edward Norton. To me, it seemed like this biography was fame-seeking, which didn’t sit right with me at all. Lining up a couple hundred voices in 700 pages made this biography a whole lot more like a tell-all than a critical look at a writer’s life.
Apart from that, I did find the format to be problematic, and I felt that it led to some pretty serious authority problems within the text. Rather than evaluating the evidence they present, Shields and Salerno simply insert themselves into the text among their witnesses. S&S, as well as many of their interviewees, make assertions about Salinger’s state of mind and his relationship to his art. The format sets the precedent that anything said about Salinger carries authority of truth. BIG PROBLEM. It doesn’t have an index, and its endnotes are incomplete. As I was reading and began to notice these things, I had a mounting distrust towards the entire text. Salerno and Shields also take a lot of liberties with Salinger’s psychological state and then conclude with a strange bullet list of their “argument” at the end. This would’ve been more okay with me if S&S had crafted an actual narrative with analysis.
By the time I got to the end, I just felt sad. There is an unfocused argument throughout the second half of the book that claims that Salinger was calculating about his image as a recluse. Even if this is true, the writer obviously wanted control over his own privacy, and so many people fought him on that. Overall, I didn’t dislike this book as much as the presentation of material and format of the text bothered me. It was compelling and it wasn’t a daunting read, despite its size. In any case, I was interested enough in Salinger’s life after reading this to decide to go back and read Nine Stories, Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey in the hopes that I will have a better understanding and appreciation of these stories.