The first thing I noticed about The Catcher in the Rye was the cover; the back flap is identical to the front, title and all. There are no reviews from critics. No description to lure you into picking the book off the shelf. I found this refreshing, considering the usual nonsense publishers insist on—getting critics to gush over the brilliance of this or that author. You’d think geniuses are a dime a dozen these days. The only visual you have as to the book’s content is an abstract of a horse on a carousel, a perfect metaphor for its story, which I cannot go into without spoiling it.
I can remember feeling much like Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, at sixteen. I used to argue why I should tell every customer at work to “have a nice day”. It may sound selfish, but how much do we really concern ourselves with a stranger’s day? And yet, society demands this kind of conformity. You either give in to it or become a social recluse. Of course, this makes us all—every adult on the planet—phonies. It’s in the nuances of social interaction that we come to understand the necessity of small talk, that a level of “phoniness” is necessary. If the Internet proves anything, it’s that we can’t all go around speaking our hearts and minds. But passing from childhood into adulthood, from innocence to cynicism, can be a painful transition. It’s the angst of this middle stage of life—of being a teenager—that The Catcher in the Rye brilliantly captures.
As much as Holden Caulfield rails against phoniness, the exact opposite quality, sincerity, is the novel’s greatest strength. Reading it makes you realize how artificial other books can be. Caulfield is a protagonist only by the strictest definition; you identify with him because he isn’t larger than life: he’s you and me. Reading this book is like talking to a close friend. There is little plot, and hardly any conflict to drive the story forward, yet you get the sense that if there had been, it would only seem contrived. It is, rather, a coming of age story, a journey through the varying stages of life, from the disillusionment of youth to the eventuality of pragmatism and conformity.
The Catcher in the Rye touches a nerve in you. It speaks to that which so many feel but can rarely voice—a sense that the society we live in is, as Holden Caulfield would likely call it today, bullshit. What are contracts, and lease agreements, and signatures, and credit scores, if not bullshit? Even the people telling you to sign the damn things don’t expect you to read them.
If J.D. Salinger read this review, he’d probably call me a phony too. However I am loathe to admit it, I write these reviews to show off my knowledge of literature—which I hope will translate to people thinking I’d make a good writer. Sadly, we are all vying for attention. We are all trying to prove our worthiness to be loved, and in doing so, are just as phony as we’ve ever been.