Sunday, February 14, 2010

Antisocial teenaged narrators

Reading the galleys of a forthcoming novel about a seventeen-year-old high-school student who has problems with grownups, I was reminded just how deeply the late J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has influenced the American novel. Salinger could not have written his book without Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but every antisocial teenaged narrator since 1951 has sounded like Holden Caulfield, not Huck. At first I was surprised at how long the influence has lasted. Then it struck me. We are still closer to The Catcher in the Rye than Salinger was to Huckleberry Finn, although the time is fast approaching at which the publication dates will be equidistant from the present. For my own children, The Catcher in the Rye will be a more antique masterpiece than Huckleberry Finn was to me.

Does that mean that a third talkative adolescent, more articulate than he realizes, will soon take Holden’s place? Will Holden’s influence, like Huck’s, be reduced to the literary background of the preferred model? Will something other than a synonym for Holden’s “phoniness” be held against the adult social world?

I don’t think so. Here’s why. Just as in Holden’s time, the central experience of American adolescence is school, a milieu to which Huck was a stranger. Whatever else it was, The Catcher in the Rye was also a successful adaptation of the English school novel. Even if Pencey is a tony prep school rather than a crumbling bureaucrat-infested public school, it contains the same recognizable types of teachers and students—the bore, the pretentious windbag, the unexpected fount of wisdom, the grade grind, the tragic victim, the bore. The desks of young novelists may groan under the strain, but there are only so many variations of the school novel that can be done.


R. T. said...

To my mind, Kazuo Ishiguro turns the template for the "school novel" inside out and upside down in NEVER LET ME GO. Ishiguro's revision of the time-worn template results in a superbly ironic and haunting novel in which readers must reconsider adolescents and schools (and society's expectations for and demands upon both).

Stephen said...

you do realize that the bulk of the book takes place in New York, not at school.