The Art of Digression: J.D. Salinger’s "Seymour: An Introduction"

By Sean HooksSeptember 15, 2013

The Art of Digression: J.D. Salinger’s "Seymour: An Introduction"

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger

AS THE CATCHER IN THE RYE remains widely read at various levels of popular and academic discourse, its status as one of the “great American novels” is often far too foregrounded and debate quickly devolves into a “worthwhile versus overrated” dichotomy where diatribes replace serious literary inquiry. It is a novel all but guaranteed a place in the pantheon, as are Salinger’s early short stories, often regarded as beautifully crafted models of the form. His later works, once contentiously debated, now often go blatantly overlooked, ignored by the majority of the critical apparatus. “Franny,” “Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” and the other Glass family stories enjoy a lukewarm reception, the very last of which, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” remains uncollected and unavailable in book form. Seymour: An Introduction, the penultimate tale in the loosely connected Glass series, is the longest and most formally intricate of these works, and its ostensible inefficiency and disarray reflects much more piquantly on our current shambolic era than the one from which it emanated.

Our contemporary existence, our post-internet technosphere, is so much a realm of speed and instantaneousness that an exhortation to do anything quickly is unnecessary. We want more, faster, sooner. We are burdened and busy. Ours is a consumptive existence: we live to devour. A book as ponderous and contradictory and mixed as Seymour: An Introduction inspires us to slow the rush of daily life. Seymour is a rambling paean, ardently averse to concision, an avant-garde character study worthy of high placement within the oeuvre of American experimentalism but relegated to minor status within Salinger’s own body of work. In the larger dialogue surrounding experimental literature, Salinger is underprivileged for a variety of reasons, many relating simply to his status and fame. It is hard to perceive someone whose best-known book is regularly assigned in high school as a boundary-stretching renegade. Salinger has also been painted as a post-Fitzgeraldian one-novel-wonder, who fails to divorce his narrative investigations from the widely known biographical elements of his author’s self-imposed exile. But the correspondence of this reclusive existence with a growing inaccessibility, insularity, and difficulty in his prose is too easy a dismissal to be apportioned to Salinger’s mastery of experimental technique, of which Seymour is a most sophisticated example.

Re-center the discourse, for a moment, from the The Catcher in the Rye and The New Yorker stories to this singular late period tour de force. Better yet, interrogate the perception that Salinger burst onto the scene as a young phenom with stories like “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” and “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” then achieved his critical and commercial apogee with The Catcher in the Rye, because for all the richness of those texts, the most protean of his works may have come a decade and a half later, just as most critics were writing Salinger off.

Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review, found Seymour self-indulgent, “hopelessly prolix.” Newsweek felt “gypped” and Time was “puzzled”; Salinger was too withholding. In The New York Times proper, even John Updike, an early Salinger advocate, believed that the later work, in its “grim bravado, its humor, its morbidity, its wry but persistent hopefulness, matches the shape and tint of present American life … It pays the price, however, of becoming dangerously convoluted and static.”

The question is: What’s so bad about convolution and stasis if they are rendered in an artful manner? And, what’s so good about easily managed readability and effortless apprehension? Since Salinger’s reputation was established through mainstream literary fiction with a straightforward storytelling style, and an overarching unity of direction and purpose, his more demanding later works are derided for displaying a lack of authorial control, when perhaps it is just a case of the general literary palate being not yet ready for such a potent and unfamiliar mélange. This, in turn, has led to a sort of critical xenophobia. The prescience of Seymour does not negate the love many have for Salinger’s more traditionally composed works, but it is a departure from what is considered reliable in Salinger; in a seemingly deliberate move, Salinger abandons story and linearity in favor of antinomy and acrasia. Salinger’s proxy, the narrator Buddy Glass, admits that he simply cannot be brief or moderate, and that many readers may be irked, even those whose tastes predispose them to something other than the “ripping yarn.”           Salinger fan-site calls Seymour: An Introduction “a sort of prose home movie.” Buddy even apologetically offers the reader a bouquet of parentheses, just one of a variety of devices that Salinger employs in this piece as he abandons textual uniformity to divert and dabble, creating a Pollack canvas of quasi-novella. This is in stark contrast to the leanness of his earlier works, which convey an essence more minimal and voice-driven, the equivalent of an artist painting landscapes with a steady hand on plain white canvas.

But perhaps it is the later works that, if we’d take the time to read them, would feel right to us now. Chris Wilson, in “Salinger’s Best Story,” published by Slate,  on the date of Salinger’s death, reflected on Seymour: An Introduction from our current postmodern state:

It runs about 120 pages and has no appreciable form, reading like an unedited, freewheeling character description. I know several avowed Salinger fanatics who have never made it through the thing, and I don't blame them: The story is dense, tiresome, and irritating. Its charm is difficult to diagnose. But I submit that it's the best story the guy ever wrote … a jumble of anecdotes, musings, and epic descriptions, punctuated by Buddy's still-raw anger and confusion over his brother's suicide.

Salinger, you see, was quite deliberate in his solipsistic flourishes, technical indulgences, and in cultivating the stubborn inability of his later work to be pigeonholed, mainstreamed, niched or genre-fied.

Nor does he lend himself to be ensconced within the established category of experimental American fiction, which ranges from now-classics of the early-to-middle 20th century (Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, much of Gertrude Stein) to the postmodern game players (Coover, Barthes, Barthelme) to the enormous and intimidating word sculptures of Gaddis and Gass, to contemporary envelope-pushers, advocates and practitioners of “difficult fiction” like David Foster Wallace, Ben Marcus or Mark Danielewski. Seymour is neither neo-minimalist nor is it expansive and encyclopedic. It is its own inimitable brand of strange, an enfolded Zen koan, a structuralist apostate, a quirky blend of poetics and Eastern religion (Salinger took an interest in Sri Ramakrishna, Buddhism and Vedantic studies at this point in his life) and Western philosophy (the initially unattributed epigraphs by Kafka and Kierkegaard which prologue Seymour). Just look at Seymour’s proper opening:

At times, frankly, I find it pretty slim pickings, but at the age of forty I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant, and I was rather strenuously requested, long before I was out of my teens, by at once the most exciting and the least fundamentally bumptious public craftsman I’ve ever personally known, to try to keep a steady and sober regard for the amenities of such a relationship, be it ever so peculiar or terrible; in my case he saw it coming on from the first. The question is, how can a writer observe the amenities if he has no idea what his general reader is like? The reverse is common enough, most certainly, but just when is the author of a story ever asked what he thinks the reader is like?

Hardly model storytelling or standard establishing narrative maneuver, and structurally far more akin to recent genre-stretchers like David Shields’ Reality Hunger or Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence. The tail (tale) is already in the snake’s mouth and we’re still two pages away from the bouquet of parentheses, four pages away from the revelation that the opening of the text is epigraphic, and nine pages away from the first page break, at which point Buddy Glass addresses the title as his own work, thus Salinger’s, and off we go down the trippy brick road of author/avatar blurring, and this a good decade plus in advance of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman (an influence alluded to by Janet Malcolm in her 2001 piece from The New York Review of Books entitled “Justice to J.D. Salinger”). Even the title Seymour: An Introduction refers to expectation inversion, pointing out the detail that calling it a novella or a long story is an inaccuracy indicative of a desire to falsely categorize. Seymour is an introduction, for a text that will never come.

Though this is a marginalized book within the Salinger realm, it does have its supporters. Wes Anderson’s films draw liberally from this period and ratchet up the quirk. Critic, theorist, and semiotician Ihab Hassan has venerated Seymour’s verbosity as an attempt to shatter form, an aspiration to a “wordy silence.” Hassan sees Salinger’s prose as thoroughly postmodern, full of digressions, collages, mini-narratives, simulacra, and pastiche. Seymour exhibits a new conception of form, an unmediated vision of reality. How, after all, can authors convey “reality” if they are constantly cramming their works into established molds?

Salinger focuses on character to the extent that plot is merely an afterthought, but not in a memoir-ish or maudlin way. He implements an organic Rorschacht blot style, an amoeba-like flow, a parasitic text reminiscent of the ouroboros. The untapered quality of Seymour, with its flexive and ever evolving structure, is a celebration of divergence which consciously flies in the face of the tailored “model prose” of Salinger’s early landmark fictions. The author knows many readers want a ride. The grumblers who complain that Terence Malick’s films are “too weird,” that “nothing happens” and “they don’t go anywhere,” apparently fail to realize that “going” is exactly what is problematic about so much of what is contemptible in the arts. Michael Bay movies “go.” Most movies go, most music goes, but books do not have to go. Books can be read at the pace the reader prefers.

Seymour can feel very different depending on whether one chooses to absorb it in one sitting, or two, or five. Though Salinger deliberately ignores their traditionalist desires, he is supremely aware of his readers. He knows that literature is not a kinetic or presentative art, it is not a motion picture or a rock concert, a canvas or a bronze sculpture. It does not have to be stimuli. It is composed of words, and thus is metaphorically breathed in by the readers; the text is, in a way, respirated, ingested. Reading is the most intimate and personal art because it takes place within the mind, and Salinger’s self-referentialism is a way of offering himself up and of commenting on the act of creation itself. It is anti-form. His digressions are intentional. Randomness is feted, not condemned. Vagaries and paraphrasis and overlong ultra-specificities wage war for space on the page. The un-form of the story expresses its meaning.

The rambling narrative is formlessness, which is explicit in Salinger’s modal framework throughout this text, and implicit in Seymour Glass’s somewhat well known aphoristic advice about how to succeed at marbles: you aim by not aiming. The blended story style Salinger concocted has a purpose, as does the exhaustive detail. This fiction is not attempting to compel the reader, to move her forward through a linear text with nudges and shoves, plot twists and character development, arcs and climaxes and denouements. Many an accolade or blurb attempts to praise good writing as “compelling” or “engaging.” Salinger’s goal, however, is to be immersive but deliberately confused, to encourage the reader to wade, to marinate, to not be so impatient and active and forward-moving from beginning towards end. Seymour is a principled attempt to present an incredibly complex and interwoven world, a thematic conquest of combinatory aesthetics that portrays life as it really is; infinitely complex, dense, difficult, and contradictory, as exemplified by the very last words of the book: “Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly.”

Quickly and slowly: an appropriately conflicted message for the present moment. Over half a century ago, J.D. Salinger accurately forecast the miasma of words that would eventually make direct expression so difficult, if not downright impossible. And he did so via a story that inverts form to fit its subject’s needs, a text often overlooked, even by those who claim to hunt for outliers, who seem more interested in authors offeringsuperficial subversions and formalist gimmickry rather than actual analysis of that overused but oh so human phrase “the way we live now” — so connected that we become isolated, so intent on speedily scanning pages and screens full of words that we forget to read.


Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Sean Hooks has been an English professor in North Texas since growing up in working-class New Jersey and perambulating west through stints in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. His writings have been published in a variety of venues, and he continues to look for both inspiration and succor in human art.


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