Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"i prefer stories about squalor"

THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women's pocket-size magazine, called "Sex Is Fun - or Hell." She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left - the wet - hand back and forth through the air. With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood. She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and - it was the fifth or sixth ring - picked up the phone.

~A Perfect Day for Bananafish, JD Salinger

At the risk of being a total cliché hipster doofus*, I hereby proclaim my love and awe and adoration for the short stories of Mr Salinger. He can create atmosphere and character like nobody's business, like in the piece above. He can write dialogue that leaps sprightly from the page, at once being mere banter while also ringing with subtext.

Salinger often wrote about young people, about teenagers and innocence and experience. His story For Esmé - With Love and Squalor breaks my heart every time. Like Sybil in Bananafish Esmé and her small brother Charles** are beautiful foils to the damaged adult to whom they speak and with whom they interact. Perhaps they can't save them, but sometimes they can.
You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac - with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.
I think I prefer his short stories to The Catcher in the Rye (eek! the Catcher cult will be after me!), possibly because there are more of them, and I adore the Glass family. Also because, taken as a whole, they give the reader such a fascinating peek at America in the 50s and the middle and upper classes as they existed post-war. He can make you laugh and break your heart all in the space of twelve or so pages. How's that for inspiration? And emotional squalor.

*See the film (500) Days of Summer - "just because someone likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn't mean you're soulmates." (This line even delivered by the film's own version of Holden Caulfield's kid sister Phoebe)

**The evil sister and I often recite to one another, with great amusement: HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHALES.


  1. Well, kate, you have won me over to looking at the works of mr Salinger again- I have to say I loathe 'catcher' (and now the catcher cult will be after ME). It didn't help that a reviewer of 'Mahalia' when it came out said that I was no JD Salinger (I wanted to reply that I had no ambition in that direction).

    But I was hooked on reading that extract above - and astonished at who it was. I will take off my anti-Salinger goggles.

    And squalor is one of my favourite words, one I have earmarked for my current project - perhaps because I have a natural tendency towards the state.

  2. This makes me happy. I'm sure you'll get lots of enjoyment from his stories. And I'm thinking hard about it, and it still seems very arbitrary to get from Mahalia to Salinger...idiot reviewers...

  3. I love love love his short stories too, but don't worry that doesn't a hipster doofus make. I know this because, a true hipster doofus would carry around a worn out copy of Catcher in the back pocket of their skinny leg jeans. They would not love shorts, bananas, windows, people named Charles or meeting at corners.

    Love Chales


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