Sunday, June 21, 2009

Matthew, Book Review, *J.D. Salinger, *Franny and Zooey, *B.S. Johnson, *Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry

Well, I appear to have emerged from a flurry of wedding planning with two more books read. I'm not entirely sure how that happened, but there it is.

Franny and Zooey (1961) by J.D. Salinger is one of those short, compact novels that feels like you need to read it two or three times before its contents really begin to sink in. I should correct myself, though, as this novel isn't really a novel so much as it is a short story ("Franny") and a novella (Zooey) that are thematically and chronologically linked to one another. The two main characters, Francis "Franny" Glass and Zachary "Zooey" Glass, are the two youngest siblings of the Glass family; most, if not all, of Salinger's short stories focus on members of the Glass family.

In summary form, the two plots seem straightforward enough: "Franny" involves Franny dealing with a growing sense of disgust during a date (my apologies for the alliteration there) that leads to her having a breakdown of sorts, and Zooey follows Zooey as he attempts to help Franny get through her existential crisis. Within those two sparse frameworks is an exploration of religion, family, faith, and eastern philosophy that manages to be deep, readable, and briskly paced all at the same time. I can think of more than a few authors who could stand to learn some lessons from Salinger's economy of language.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973) by B.S. Johnson exhibits much of the same linguistic economy as Franny and Zooey, but in the service of a much different sort of story. The titular character, Christie Malry, is a young Englishman who decides to apply his understanding of double-entry bookkeeping to his interactions with society at large (one column for credits, another for debits, and every debit transacted must be balanced by a credit of equal or greater value). His boss yells at him (debit), so he steals some office supplies (credit); an ugly new office building annoys him (debit), so he scratches the finish on its brickwork with a coin (credit). It isn't long before the debits begin to pile up much faster than the credits, and Malry is forced to increase the severity of his attempts to recompense himself, escalating from faking delivery orders for his employer, to calling in fake bomb threats, to setting off actual bombs. From adherence to a simple ideal, a domestic terrorist is born.

Johnson is famous for his structural and narrative inventiveness (the most famous example of which being The Unfortunates, a "book in a box" composed of twenty-seven individually bound chapters meant to be read in any order--incidentally, The Unfortunates was recently republished in its original form) and Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry is no exception. Among other things, the author converses directly with his main character Malry, and characters freely discuss their actions in terms of what best suits the needs of the novel. Take for example this section, written in play format in order to focus solely on dialogue:
SUPERVISOR: Where were you yesterday afternoon?

CHRISTIE: At my mother's funeral.

SUPERVISOR: Why didn't you ask permission?

CHRISTIE: She died at very short notice. In fact, with no notice at all, on the evening before last.

SUPERVISOR: Long enough for you to arrange the funeral for the next day?

CHRISTIE: There wasn't any more time. It's a short novel.
Thankfully, Johnson uses these postmodern devices in a way that complements and enhances the narrative without being overly precious or smugly clever, two problems that run rampant through many postmodern works. In short, B.S. Johnson is good stuff.


Goedi said...

Finally read Christie Malry on your recommendation here. Great stuff. I had almost used the exact same quote in my blurb ("This is a short novel."). Thanks.