Waste not, want more

No variations on a theme.

Reading Catcher and Generation X in Quick Succession

I was lucky enough to read these two book one after the other in the last few weeks. They’re oft compared. Now I’m silly enough to report back on the two books and what I got from reading them together – because I think there are just too few high school essays out there on the subject.

The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger, 1951

Lest I should completely offend all of this novel’s greatest literary defenders, I’m going to try not to butcher this book while I talk about what I find most interesting. Task: impossible. For anyone whose knowledge or memory is on par with mine, “Catcher” is a story about a disaffected teenage boy, Holden Caufield, struggling with school, people, life, and the world around him. (General enough?) I like to pretend everything is about me so I’ll say that I can relate. I probably identified a little too strongly with this book given that it took me until the last few pages to seriously consider the state of the protagonist’s mental health.

I had read the book before, but didn’t remember much aside from feeling that this was a story about a privileged boy with general teenage malaise taken to a greater extreme. This time, I found the story much more appealing, particularly Holden’s deep concern for people being assholes and “phonies”. I’m probably not supposed to find it more enticing given that I’m older ‘n stuff. While some find his language overused or inane, I found it quite hillarious. Often, “he’s not feeling too gorgeous.” When someone’s amused, they’re getting a bang out of things, or being knocked out or killed. Perverts and depressing conversations are everywhere. One of Holden’s most positive moments was a conversation about books that he struck up with a nun carrying an empty donation basket. I found Holden’s love for his sister heartbreaking and his hatred of his creativity-squelching schools unrelenting. In true boring and typical fashion, my absolute favourite moment was when his sister asked Holden to name something he’d like to be. He described a scene that made me love him in a way that only someone’s vision for doing good in the world can. It also provides the book’s title. I shan’t say more on that.

For me, the book was subtle in its reminder of all of the small and not so small traumas of teenagehood. Holden gave dignity to people who had experienced bullying or isolation in a tender but not overly sentimental way that I really believed, but maybe that’s just my teenage wannaluvim self coming out to play.

I stand corrected, Mr. Salinger. I loved this book.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture – Douglas Coupland, 1991

It blows my mind that a book like this, by a Canadian no less, even attempts to capture that for which  “Generation X” has become famous. Some have referred to Generation X as the “Catcher of the 90s”, though I find the comparison a little dubious.

I frequently avoid books, and other things for that matter, that I feel I’ve heard about too much. I get annoyed by hype and am bound not to give the novel a fair shake or get a little overly annoyed by those who get just a little too much out of the book for my liking (Hey, Malcolm Gladwell, give me another 10 years and I may get over your anti-Sesame Street ‘no shit, Sherlock’ books. Harry Potter, your time will come). But I quite love Douglas Coupland’s writing and decided it was time to give the generation a whirl.

Gen X is the story of 3 disaffected 20 somethings, their friendship, and quest for meaning and inspiration in a depressing world. I can’t say a great deal happens in this book either, though some stuff happens. 🙂 The three kids pass time telling each other stories on the fly, with a rule that one can never comment on the stories which range from heart wrenching to sarcasm inducing.

The book makes up for any plot defects in interesting insights about that sense of drabness and shame for our culture that Tom Waits conjures so well: “Dag’s roadside diner smells, no doubt, like a stale bar carpet. Ugly people with eleven fingers are playing computer slots built into the counter and eating greasy meat by-products slathered in cheerfully tinted condiments. There’s a cold, humid mist, smelling of cheap floor cleaner, mongrel dog, cigarettes, mashed potato, and failure.” It also includes quite a pile of funny dictionary definitions in the margins like “bleeding ponytail – an elderly sold-out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days” or “clique maintenance: the need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: ‘Kids today do nothing. They’re so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.'”

I do NOT see Gen X the book as an exclusive product of its generation; otherwise, I don’t think I could have identified with it so strongly.  But maybe I’m too young to know better.

Wrap it up, Rose!

Both protagonists ooze insight, though Holden hides his in adolescent expression in phrases like, “[y]ou don’t always have to get too sexy to get to know a girl,” while Andy and his friends slap you with their sophistication at every turn. Neither of these books is a plot lover’s dream (have I mentioned that I’m in a long hiatus in the writing of a plotless novella about a newly minted widow’s sorrow? I tend to forgive lack of plot) but the expression and insights of the characters made it more than worthwhile for me.

What I was reminded most from reading both of these in quick succession:

  • it’s a very lonely world when you feel like people around you are vapid try-hards or plain old mean;
  • it’s very easy not to do anything about people’s junkiness and to want to separate yourself from all peoples’ misplaced energy; and
  • time and culture changes, but the human condition is a bit of a broken record.
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November 8, 2011 - Posted by | Books | , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. Okay, this embarrassing to admit, but I have never read “The Catcher in the Rye.” Actually, I’ve never read either book. But now I may have to. It’s sad how these reading lapses can come back to haunt you. Thanks for turning me on to both books!
    Kathy

    Comment by Kathryn McCullough | November 8, 2011 | Reply

    • Oh, Kathy, we just can’t do it all, can we? No book gap guilt! Though I must say, I would be VERY interested in your perspective, particularly on Catcher. I can’t decide if it was ridiculous or masterful, though I genuinely loved it.

      Comment by Rose | November 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. I think that Catcher is such a significant text because the reader does identify with Holden and, like Holden, loses perspective on his rapidly failing mental health. Then, with the knowledge the he is broken, we too lose all faith in humanity.

    I don’t think that Catcher is a novel about adolescence, I think it’s simply about modern times. I’ve read some stuff about Salinger and he appears to be as freely dysfunctional and disconnected as a teenage whilst in his middle age.

    Finally, I love the part when Holden speaks of rather pushing someone out a window (I think?) than punching them in the face (I know). In terms of violence, I think this is extremely perceptive. It seems like kind of a critique on out-sourcing.

    I kind of hated Phoebe for not saving Holden. I feel like that revealed a lot about my own mental health. Oooops.

    I haven’t read any Coupland. Should I? And why?

    Awesome compare and contrast! High school essays topics are kind of the best!

    Comment by CheyenneVyvyan | November 8, 2011 | Reply

  3. Sorry – one more thing! If you’re looking for a third in your set, I’d suggest Super Sad Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Talk about adolescent angst (except the protagonist is in his 40s)! Also, amazing critique on technology, social media, relationships, and consumerism. It really freaked me out about the future. Probably best dystopian novel I’ve read since Handmaid’s Tale.

    Comment by CheyenneVyvyan | November 8, 2011 | Reply

    • Wow – so much to respond to. I think that’s exactly it, by the time I realized just how bad off he was, I had no hope that one could be healthy and have those thoughts and preoccupations.

      I’m now comforted that I’m not stuck in adolescence myself but I don’t remember the part about preferring to push someone out the window, but that is really perceptive and I love “out-sourcing” in that context.

      Always blame the child!

      Coupland – I find him very hillarious and completely ridiculous in a quasi-intellectual sort of way. He has really strongly defined and complex, though sometimes charactured characters, and the plots in All Families Are Psychotic and Microserfs are pretty page-turn worthy. That said, you’re more discerning than I am so I make no guarantees.

      I will have to check out Super Sad Love Story.

      Comment by Rose | November 9, 2011 | Reply

  4. I’m like Kathy in this case– haven’t read either book! (Where was I in high school? Why didn’t my Catholic school have “Catcher” on the roster?)

    I’ll have to add these books to my “Things To Read Some Day In The Future” list. 🙂

    Comment by Dana | November 11, 2011 | Reply

    • High schools must be lagging – I didn’t read it there either. Maybe it’s the sex, swearing, and dispondency. But in university I decided there were too many references to it for me not to give it a whirl. If that list is anything like mine, it seems to grow exponentially 🙂

      Comment by Rose | November 12, 2011 | Reply

      • Oh, there’s sex in it? That explains its absence from my Catholic school curriculum. 🙂

        Comment by Dana | November 12, 2011

  5. […] statements I’ve made against James Bond and Malcolm Gladwell could be seen as controversial if anyone had cared/commented I hazard a guess that my most […]

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