Salinger Fan Mail & Other Struggles

Anchored in an excellent plot fleshed out by good writing, Rakoff’s book starts off with a bang but loses steam midway

Published: 10th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th August 2014 07:52 PM   |  A+A-

salinger.jpgI enjoyed hugely the first half of Joanna Rakoff’s retelling of her year at a literary agency, working as an assistant to an agent who had once been a legend and is now pretty much reduced to handling the non-output of J D Salinger, legendary author of Franny & Zooey, Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. Then something happened and I read on dutifully, noting that I was reading dutifully, worrying about it, trying to find why I was only going through the motions with none of the emotions that come from reading.

I still can’t tell why I suddenly lost interest. Joanna Rakoff does an extremely competent job of turning that year into the material of a good tale. She has man trouble—practically de rigueur if you’re a woman narrator in her twenties. She has money worries—practically de rigueur if you are in your twenties and live in New York. She has work worries—and these include a sense of being completely irrelevant, a sense of not doing the right thing, a sense of not doing anything, of not being part of the grand sweep of a city and its publishing scene. All this is set down at the right pace and at the right temperature (several degrees above zero) and the right tone: self-ironising without being self-hating. It has a cast of nicely odd-shaped supporting characters: women in the process of reinvention, women who refuse to reinvent themselves, men in the process of turning into shits, men in stasis, and all those young women in their publishing wear. It has some Salingeriana, not much, but enough to keep the fans turning pages. I would recommend it to anyone who likes books about books. I don’t think any of them would question my judgment.

Rakoff’s year with Salinger began when she was told to type out a form letter and send it to each of the people who wrote to the great and reclusive author. He wanted none of them, these fans with their stories and their sallies, their pleas and their demands. He didn’t care if they were war veterans who found themselves irrelevant or bereaved parents who wanted to name a literary magazine Bananafish. This seems at complete odds with our universe where authors tweet and their fans reply and take offence if they are not individually replied to or liked or retweeted. The author is now public property: one of her duties is to be available, to read other works, to make public appearances, to turn up, to show up, to tune in. Mr Salinger’s way seems very tempting. One of Rakoff’s duties was to type each person a form letter and send it off. This she did and slowly began to personalize some answers.  This sounds like an excellent novel plot. What comes next? Danger? Romance? Lawsuits? But this is a memoir. Memoirs end in resignation, it might seem. 

And at the end of each book, if you live in a small Mumbai flat you must ask yourself: Am I going to keep this book? I have kept Diana Athill’s Stet. I have 84 Charing Cross. I have Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. I have Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I hope to read these again. I will, I know, peck at them from time to time. Or I will reread for the warmth of an old friendship renewed. So the associated question is: Will I read this book again? I don’t think I am going to read My Salinger Year again and so I will not keep it. I will move it on to some other friend or to a library where I hope it will find its true readers.

My Salinger Year

By: Joanna Rakoff

Pages: 272  Price: Rs 399

Publisher: Bloomsbury


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