If John Cheever and Paul Coelho had set out to collaborate on The Royal Tenenbaums, the result would have been Franny and Zooey.
J.D. Salinger’s short, two-part novel is the story of sister and brother, Franny and Zooey Glass, the youngest of seven precocious whiz kids who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Ostensibly, Zooey is trying to help Franny, who is in the midst of a breakdown. It soon becomes clear, however, that both have been unmoored by the suicide of their oldest brother Seymour and the related, self-imposed academic exile of their next-oldest brother Buddy.
The problem lies in the supplemental religious education Seymour and Buddy sought fit to bestow on their youngest siblings. Frightened “at the statistics on child pedants and academic weisenheimers who grow up into faculty-recreation-room savants,” Seymour and Buddy decide to set the youngest two on a Zen-like quest for “no-knowledge” – a quest to be with God in a state of pure consciousness, or satori. As Buddy later explains in a letter to Zooey:
We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least . . . tell you as much as we knew about the men – the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmuktas – who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted both of you to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Hui-neng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea.All this mystic education, or “religious mystification” as Salinger describes it, estranges Franny and Zooey from their childhood and college compatriots, leaving them lonely and angry. Zooey insists that they are both “freaks” incapable of being around other people as they both cling to their intellectual superiority.
When Seymour’s suicide demonstrates that the supposed wisdom that comes from the quest for pure consciousness is not enough to make life worth living, the metaphysical rug gets yanked from under Franny and Zooey’s feet, precipitating their mutual breakdown.
Salinger’s book is clever, heartfelt, and sad. The value of its final lesson lies, not in understanding the details of Franny and Zooey’s existential arguments, but in appreciating the emotional crisis the siblings face. The idea that we should strive to be our best for God’s sake – and not our own satisfaction in acquiring wealth, knowledge, prestige, or even wisdom – may not be original, but it is an idea worth contemplating.
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Franny and Zooey appears on Radcliffe's Top 100 and Boxall's 1001 Books.