Monday, June 22, 2015

Something big from something small

"Franny," the J.D. Salinger short story first published in The New Yorker in 1955, begins with a stereotypical college romance and ends with a spiritual crisis. In between, as a transition between the two, Salinger gives us an unusual literary discussion between the story's two characters, Franny, a student at one college, and Lane, a student at another. They meet at the train station in apparent rapture at the prospect of spending the weekend together. I love this line early in the story: "Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into air was the whole truth."

Little things often develop into big things in Salinger stories. The prime example has to be "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in which Seymour Glass, Franny's older brother, talks with a four-year-old girl on a Florida beach, then goes back to his hotel room and kills himself. What happens to Franny in this later story proves almost as dramatic. And the change begins with that literary discussion so common among college students.

Franny makes two observations. First she accuses Lane of "talking like a section man." This is a graduate student who temporarily takes over a professor's literature class and begins spouting his narrow views about a particular author, thereby ruining that author for the students, or at least one as sensitive as Franny Glass. Lane, naturally, does not take this criticism well.

Then Franny complains about those who write poetry but in her mind are not true poets. "If you're a poet, you do something beautiful," she says. "I mean you're supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you're talking about don't leave a single, solitary thing beautiful."

From there Franny goes on to tell Lane about a book she's reading called The Way of the Pilgrim and about the value of meditating on the phrase, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Within minutes she has fainted and is last seen lying still, her lips "forming soundless words."

Any good story opens itself to a multitude of interpretations, and "Franny" is no exception. Is Franny having a mental breakdown, an emotional breakdown or a spiritual breakdown? Is Lane a part of the crisis or just an interested observer? What is really going on in her life? I like the way Salinger uses his story to make connections between artistic things and spiritual things, between idealism and reality, between literature and life,  between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

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