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November 11, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | November 11, 2008 |

The book is divided into two sections. The first, “Franny,” shows Franny Glass visiting her boyfriend Lane Coutell at college. After a brief meeting at the train station, the rest all takes place at lunch. Lane is somewhat of a pretentious twit; he takes Franny to the right, intellectual spot, proud to have a “right-looking girl” with him, and blathers on about a professor who, in his opinion, doesn’t know shit from shoeshine. Franny’s also pretentious, in an “I’m too artistic for college” way — she’s sick of all the egos and fake poets who don’t “leave something beautiful after you get off the page.” She seems to have lost all interest in Lane, and her guilt over that causes her to swing between overly sweet and overly antagonistic.

Both of them take turns talking at length, but neither really listens to the other. Lane spends 15 minutes talking about a paper he wants to publish, only to have Franny ask for his martini olive. Franny describes The Way of a Pilgrim, a book about a man traveling across Russia while continuously practicing the Jesus Prayer, only to have Lane admonish his frog legs to hold still.

This first chapter shows the beginning of Franny’s nervous breakdown. She’s anxious and sweaty the entire time, she cries in the bathroom, and she finally faints as they’re leaving the restaurant. When she comes to and is left alone for a minute, she begins silently reciting the Jesus Prayer to herself, and this is where “Franny” ends.

“Zooey” picks up a couple days later. Franny has come home, to her parents and her older brother Zooey, and spent her time crying and praying non-stop. While “Franny” was narrated by an anonymous third-person, “Zooey” is narrated by the second-eldest Glass brother, Buddy, and holy cow is he long-winded. Yes, he’s aware of this, but that still doesn’t make me any more interested in spending a full page on the contents of the Glass’s medicine cabinet. I’m sure it’s a fascinating, insightful list, as far as lists of objects in cabinets go, but at the end of the day it’s a long-ass list that I could do no more than skim.

This chapter opens with Zooey reading a letter in the bathtub. The 13-page letter is Buddy’s attempt at apologizing for fucking up Zooey and Franny. Apparently Buddy and the oldest, late Glass brother, Seymour, took over F and Z’s education and made it all about religion and spirituality. Seymour’s ghost, and the Glass kids’ early exposure and domination on “It’s a Wise Child,” a radio quiz show, hangs oppressively over almost everything in this chapter.

Zooey’s mother Bessie barges in on him and proceeds to chain-smoke and fret over Franny while dodging Zooey’s insulting, sarcastic comments to her. This one ostensibly simple scene lasts almost 70 pages, yet didn’t get boring. It sets up Zooey as a hideously insensitive, too smart for his own good jerk quite well. The action, if I can call it that, moves to the living room, where Zooey wakes up Franny and proceeds to spend 50 pages alternately bitching about how nobody in show business is a true artist and hectoring Franny about how she doesn’t really understand the Jesus Prayer, or Jesus himself.

Oh god, I would despise Zooey if I ever had to share a dinner table with him. Blathering on about how nothing on stage or film or, especially, TV, is good, or beautiful, or real art. What a pretentious, sarcastic, artsy-fartsy bastard, I would mutter to myself under my breath. At one point, while talking to Franny, he looks out the window and sees a dog searching for a little girl. He marvels at the “sublime” scene taking place on the street, unhampered by writers or directors, and I couldn’t help thinking of Ricky Fitts in American Beauty, talking about the beauty of a grocery bag floating in the wind.

Anyways, “Zooey” wraps up when he walks into Buddy and Seymour’s old bedroom and calls the living room from its private line, pretending to be Buddy for Franny. Franny spends some time bitching about Zooey to Buddy-Zooey on the phone before realizing who it really is, and then they bond over a shared interpretation of some advice that Seymour gave them as children. Like the previous chapter, this one ends with Franny lying down, staring up at the ceiling, but she’s no longer muttering the Jesus Prayer to herself, simply smiling until she falls asleep.

Now that I’ve spent ages describing my shortest book yet, I’ll admit that I don’t know how to react to it. Is it a character study? Philosophical debate? Religious enlightenment story? Whatever it is, I do know there’s a lot of inaction going on, unless you count lips flapping endlessly. Both siblings talk about how they know better than to act the way they do, yet can’t stop-this is underscored in Zooey’s movements being described as those of a marionette. Zooey, for example, knows that he goes on at length and sucks the fun out of things… you know, he put it best himself, so I’ll quote him:

We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards. We’re the Tattooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tattooed, too. On top of everything else, we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really got off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do.

There really is a lot of uncommunication, a lot of talking to somebody who’s not there in this story. Lane essentially talks to himself during lunch, Franny doesn’t even look at him when she’s talking, Bessie muses out loud in the bathroom, Zooey ignores Franny’s pleas to stop being an asshole. Letters, a form of fractured, distant communication, figure prominently in both sections, Zooey has a habit of calling people “buddy,” as if he’s always talking to his absent brother no matter who’s actually in the room with him, and of course all the children grew up performing for anonymous people listening to them on the radio. Zooey even has to leave the room, call Franny on the phone, and pretend to be somebody else to be able to ask her how she is and actually wait for an answer.

F and Z was engrossing, and pages flew by, but I’m overall I’m not sure if I liked it as much as I respected it. There were certain turns of phrase that I loved, though, and I’ll leave you with some of them:

Bessie closed the door behind her instantly, as someone does who has been waging a long, long war on behalf of her progeny against post-bath drafts.

A minor groundswell sounded behind the shower curtain, as though a rather delinquent porpoise were suddenly at play.

Franny was still stroking [the cat] Bloomberg, still succoring him, forcibly, into the subtle and difficult world outside warm afghans.

‘The cigars are ballast, sweetheart. Sheer ballast. If he didn’t have a cigar to hold on to, his feet would leave the ground. We’d never see our Zooey again.’

There were several experienced verbal stunt pilots in the Glass family, but this last little remark perhaps Zooey alone was coordinated well enough to bring in safely over a telephone.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Sabrina’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / Sabrina

Books | November 11, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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