31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 7: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger

May 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nine Stories

Nine_StoriesJ.D. Salinger is fated to be remembered for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, but people often forget that he was also an accomplished writer of short fiction. The pieces in Nine Stories, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, are all strong; arguably the strongest of them is the opener, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which focuses on an ex-Army soldier, Seymour Glass, and his wife, Muriel, who are vacationing in Florida in 1948.

Told mostly in dialogue, the story is structured as a triptych. The first part involves a telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother back home in New York City. The second part features Seymour on the beach, interacting with a young girl named Sybil. The third part follows Seymour back to the hotel, where he first accuses a woman in the elevator of staring at his feet, then returns to his room and shoots himself in the head.

It becomes clear quite quickly that Seymour suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother is characterized by the latter’s anxiety over Seymour’s mental state. Salinger refuses to become specific about Seymour’s condition, preferring rather to present things in an almost impressionistic manner. Muriel’s mother refers to incidents that have transpired since Seymour’s return from Germany: “The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away. What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda …” There is also talk of Seymour’s pale complexion and a tattoo that he received while he was overseas.

Salinger leaves all this vague, but there is at least the suggestion that Seymour might have been incarcerated in a German concentration camp. At one point in their conversation, Muriel mentions encountering a psychiatrist in the hotel bar and talking briefly about Seymour. “I didn’t go into details very much,” Muriel tells her mother; in the context of Salinger’s tale, the reader takes the place of the psychiatrist, receiving the story piecemeal and putting things together on the basis of decontextualized remarks and inference.

The conversation between Muriel and her mother weaves the subject of Seymour’s mental state in among more material concerns: Muriel is worried about a repair to the couple’s car, which the mechanic has told her will cost $400; there is talk about a dress Muriel and her mother saw in the window of the New York department store Bonwit Teller & Co.; and Muriel frets about the inadequate state of her room and the quality of people now patronizing the hotel. “The people are awful this year,” she says. “You should see what sits next to us in the dining room. At the next table. They look as if they drove down in a truck.” The haughty dismissiveness of this comment identifies Muriel and her mother as people who care overly about appearances; when we first meet Muriel, she is tending minutely to the details of her physical countenance by repositioning a button on her Saks blouse (the brand name is significant), tweezing some stray hairs from a mole, and applying lacquer to her fingernails.

Seymour, too, seems to care about his appearance, albeit for entirely different reasons. He will not remove his terry-cloth bathrobe when he goes down to the beach; Muriel attributes this to self-consciousness about his pallor and his desire to cover up the tattoo she denies to her mother Seymour possesses. Seymour does shed the robe to go into the water in the company of Sybil, a young girl with whom he seems much more comfortable than with any of the adults he is linked to in the story. The interaction between Seymour and Sybil is an ironic mirror of the telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother (note, too, that Muriel’s mother treats her in a bluntly childlike manner). Seymour asks Sybil whether she has read Little Black Sambo (the once-popular children’s title, now considered a racist artifact of colonialism, locates the story in a particular historical moment), and suggests they search in the water for bananafish. “This is a perfect day for bananafish,” Seymour tells the little girl.

The tale that Seymour makes up about the fictional breed of fish has resonance with his own story, at least what we know of it:

Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas. … Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again.

The notion of a “very ordinary-looking fish” that swims into an unfamiliar environment and becomes trapped echoes the experience of soldiers in a foreign land. Some soldiers never make it out of the hole they have entered; those that do are often not the same. The impression Salinger gives is that the only way Seymour is able to confront his wartime experience is in the context of a relationship with a child, who clearly represents antebellum innocence, purity, hope, and the antithesis of wartime destruction.

In case the reader were in any doubt about this, Salinger emphasizes the debased manner in which Seymour views his surroundings following the departure of the girl. The rubber float, which the pair had used to play in the water, is now described as “slimy wet” and “cumbersome,” Seymour’s towel is “jammed” into his pocket, and he is pictured “plodd[ing] alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel.” His paranoid, aggressive encounter with the woman in the elevator only serves to accentuate Seymour’s disaffection: “If you want to look at my feet, say so … But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”

The final action in the story is shocking on one level, but on another it is sadly inevitable. Like the mythical bananafish, Seymour has entered a world that has altered him irrevocably. The “very ordinary-looking” man who went off to war has returned pale and thin, broken by what he has seen, and unable to successfully reintegrate himself into a quotidian world of car repairs, nail lacquer, and beach toys.

In memoriam: J.D. Salinger, 1919–2010

January 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Jerome David Salinger, one of the most important postwar American novelists, had died at the age of 91. The author of the novel Franny and Zooey, the novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction, and the classic short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Salinger’s literary legacy rests on a single volume: the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, which has become a kind of standard-bearer for teenage disaffection and rebellion.

He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961, but became increasingly famous for his reclusive nature, refusing to be interviewed by the press or to be photographed. Following the announcement of the author’s demise, humourist John Hodgman Twittered: “I prefer to think JD Salinger has just decided to become extra reclusive.”

Although in later years his mythology may have outweighed his output, it’s difficult to quarrel with the impact The Catcher in the Rye had on American letters. The iconic American publisher Robert Giroux, in a 2000 interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, talks about meeting Salinger and trying to sign The Catcher in the Rye:

The receptionist said, “There’s a Mr. Salinger out here who wants to see you.” I said, “Salinger? Pierre Salinger?” She said, “No, he says it’s Jerome Salinger, Jerry Salinger.” He was six feet two or three, pitch-black hair, very black eyes, looked a little like Hamlet. He was sort of shy. He said, “I can’t publish a book of short stories because I’ve almost finished this novel, and the novel has to come first.” I smiled and said, “You should be sitting here at my desk. You’re a born publisher because it’s true – short stories don’t sell as well as novels.” Then he said, “Bill Shawn has recommended you, and I’d like you to publish my novel.” I said, “What novel?” He said, “Oh, it isn’t finished. It’s about a kid in New York during the Christmas holidays.” I said, “Listen, you’ve made a contract, let’s shake hands.” So we shook hands on it. About a year later, I was in the Oyster Bar eating oyster stew, reading something, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was Jerry Salinger. He said, “I didn’t want to disturb you, Bob, but I have wonderful news. I just finished the draft of my novel. I’ve just come from Bill Shawn’s. The New Yorker is going to devote an entire issue to it.” After he’d left, I thought, Oh, my God, it’s going to be like the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

But it never appeared, and the New Yorker thing apparently fell through. A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss.

Reynal found the character of Holden Caulfield “disturbing,” and the company’s eventual decision not to publish the book led to Giroux resigning from Harcourt, Brace.

In a rare interview in 1974, Salinger said that there was a “marvellous peace in not publishing.” He continued: “Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Finally I sat down on this bench, where it wasn’t so goddam dark. Boy, I was still shivering like a bastard, and the back of my hair, even though I had my hunting hat on, was sort of full of little hunks of ice. That worried me. I thought probably I’d get pneumonia and die. I started picturing millions of jerks coming to my funeral and all. My grandfather from Detroit, that keeps calling out the numbers of the streets when you ride on the goddam bus with him, and my aunts – I have about fifty aunts – and all my lousy cousins. What a mob’d be there. They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them. I have this one stupid aunt with halitosis that kept saying how peaceful he looked lying there, D.B. told me. I wasn’t there. I was still in the hospital. I had to go to the hospital and all after I hurt my hand. Anyway, I kept worrying that I was getting pneumonia, with all those hunks of ice in my hair, and that I was going to die. I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet. I kept picturing her not knowing what to do with all my suits and athletic equipment and all. The only good thing, I knew she wouldn’t let old Phoebe come to my goddam funeral because she was only a little kid. That was the only good part. Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddam cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys. Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger