Book Review: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (in which I continue to obsess over something I don’t entirely understand)

I recently finished J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories for the first time, and believe me, this will not be the only time I read it! It contains the stories A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, Just Before the War with the Eskimos, The Laughing Man, Down at the Dinghy, For Esmé-With Love and Squalor, Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period, and Teddy. For reviewing purposes, I wish that I had gone ahead and written a review of each story as I read it; now that I am looking back on the whole book there is so much meaning that could be investigated in each story individually.

Many of the stories do not make complete sense. They show seemingly ordinary people going about mundane activities. However, the amount of detail in each story hints at something more. One of the things I love about Salinger is his ability to thread important concepts into the background of his stories, showing just enough that the conscientious reader knows they ought to go back and figure out what is really being said as opposed to the plain action.

Only a couple of these stories mention the illustrious Glass family who had previously been the centerpiece to every Salinger work I read. In A Perfect Day for Bananafish we finally get to hear Seymour Glass speak for himself. This short story left me longing for the ability to hear what Seymour thinks firsthand; the little that he actually speaks is inherently moderated, probably unintentionally on occasion, and yet does not allow the reader the insight I crave. This is not necessarily a negative aspect, however; Seymour’s character is created in such a way that the reader always wants to know more about him, and will never be entirely satisfied with what they know. Seymour represents the epitome of knowledge: full and perfect knowledge can never be reached, but it is a worthy goal to continually pursue. Similarly, Seymour is presented as a nearly perfect person who ought to be looked up to (as his siblings clearly demonstrate), but for multiple reasons it is impossible to reach complete knowledge of Seymour. Even if I read everything that Salinger ever wrote about Seymour, it would not give a complete picture. The stories that he is in aside, this is an incredible character and I continue to be impressed by Salinger’s portrayal.

The only other stories which surround or even mention members of the Glass family are Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut and Down at the Dinghy. I will definitely be returning to these at a later date as I continue to look at Salinger’s use of existential (‘what is the meaning/nature of life?’) and epistemological (‘how do we really know what we know?’) themes in his works on the Glass family. These stories are ripe for a deeper reading that I have not yet been able to properly give them, but hope to conduct within the year.

The story which has most caught my attention is the last one, called Teddy. This story revolves around a young boy (our title character) who is on a cruise with his parents and little sister. While the family talks of such frivolous yet mundane things as cameras and swimming lessons, and the narrator describes the ornate stairways and many decks, the point of the story lays more in the conversations the boy has with another seemingly random passenger. Like many of Salinger’s most brilliant characters, Teddy is an extremely smart boy and well-versed in more than the basics of a version of Eastern metaphysics and mysticism. He has practiced meditation so effectively that he claims to be able to “go unconscious” at nearly any time. The two talk of the nature of reality, the future, and the (supposed) knowledge locked deep inside each person’s subconscious that allows them to survive. Furthermore, throughout the story Teddy obsesses on the nature of existence, and whether something that exists purely in a person’s mind has the same level of existence as something that exists in the “real” or physical world.

Depending on your level of interest in metaphysics and such things, Teddy either borders on the absurd or casts a net of fascination. For me, it is the latter, though I easily understand the alternative viewpoint as well. Like many (if not all) of Salinger’s prose, Teddy ends abruptly and ambiguously. Certainly, there is a single (ghastly) interpretation of the ending lines which is probably supposed to be assumed, but there remains room for theorizing other possibilities. To draw from Teddy’s own philosophy, the ending which is most real is the one that the reader chooses to hold in their own head.

It is not the ending, or the philosophies expressed and implied, or the characters of this story which most intrigue me, however; it is the fact that a line in this story is quoted in Salinger’s novella Seymour: An Introduction which I just read a few weeks ago. Seymour: An Introduction is told by Buddy Glass, of the Glass family I have mentioned so often. Buddy is a writer, and Seymour’s closest brother. He claims in Seymour: An Introduction to have written a story once and described a character’s eyes in a specific way which was physically unlike Seymour’s eyes and yet his family all understand that he is in fact describing Seymour’s eyes, and the exact line that he quotes as being from his fictional story shows up in Teddy as the description of Teddy’s eyes. A dozen more doors and questions appear with this realization. For example, did Salinger just like that description so much he wanted to use it twice, or is he subtly implying that this story was written by Buddy? How many layers of personalities lie behind the narrator’s voice? Does Teddy represent Seymour, and if so, to what extent, and why? I will be searching through interviews to try to find answers to these and other questions which have popped up while considering this connection. (Side note: if anyone knows of especially insightful interviews/analyses/biographies, feel free to let me know! I’m always thankful for leads in research.)

This overview barely scratches the very surface of any of the stories within Nine Stories. Perhaps when I inevitably reread this book, I will come back and give a review or analysis of each story individually. Each certainly deserves individual attention which simply cannot be given in a review of this sort. Several times as I finished a story, I would sit for a minute and realize that I did not understand much of what went on beneath the surface of the text, but that I recognized something was there, and I hoped that it would become clearer as I read the rest of the stories. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Yet I continue to be deeply intrigued by the Glass family, Salinger’s interpretation of existentialism in all of his works, and the curious stories themselves, despite acknowledging that I do not know or understand everything they are saying or even merely examining. These works are like a puzzle that I am dying to solve, and might never be able to. I find it interesting and enjoyable simply to take part in the attempt though, and will continue to do so. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys short stories with a lot going on beneath the surface and who wants to spend time figuring out what the author is doing with his combination of well-crafted prose and significant depth of underlying meaning.


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