JUNE 3, 2014
“HAVE YOU read Salinger? Very likely you have,” Joanna Rakoff writes toward the end of her memoir My Salinger Year. Everyone has read Salinger — except for Rakoff, who picked up his books for the first time at age 24, while working as a “Bright Young Assistant” to J. D. Salinger’s agent.
“Let me remind you,” Rakoff writes a page later, as she launches into a summary of “Franny,” the Salinger story that best reveals herself to herself. That reminder is the greatest achievement of My Salinger Year — a memoir that serves as a powerful aide-mémoire for readers, bound to conjure their own first encounters with Salinger’s fiction. And though the circumstances were likely different — ninth-grade English class for many of us, a few weeks before or after Lord of the Flies — the intoxicated feeling of discovery was the same, motivating innumerable fans to try to contact Salinger, with the hope of reaching the writerly genius that sparked their readerly awe.
Rakoff’s memoir originated as a 2010 Slate article, in which she mourned the author’s death by recalling her brief contact with him. Indeed, many Salinger reminiscences are starting to come out of the woodwork; friends, lovers, and literary acquaintances can now speak freely without fear of the great man’s fury aerogrammed from New Hampshire. After Shane Salerno and David Shields double-dosed us with Salinger gossip last year, via the documentary Salinger and its doorstopper of a companion volume, at least one question remains: is it time to reread Salinger, or are we in a moment of Salinger fatigue, dormant until his rumored new volumes emerge? The answer might depend on which Salinger you’re interested in: the man, the myth, the monster, or the material. In My Salinger Year, the reader gains access to the famously reclusive writer through a benevolent insider who isn’t a daughter, a rival, or an ex-lover, and is therefore able to quickly win the cautious fan’s trust. But readers of earlier accounts — by his daughter, Margaret Salinger, or his ex-lover, Joyce Maynard — will hardly recognize Rakoff’s version: a kindly, long-eared, Brylcreemed senior who dodders into the agency one weekday afternoon.
At 23, Rakoff decided to drop out of graduate school and move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She landed her first job at Harold Ober Associates, hired by its president, Phyllis Westberg. (Though neither is named in the book, which sent this reader down a 10-minute rabbit hole of googling relevant personages.) At this point we learn, a little belatedly, that the year is 1996, and the setting, the agency’s headquarters, is a technological throwback even for that transitional era: a “warren” of hallways and offices, dark, lamp-lit, and computer-free.
Much like that maze of offices, My Salinger Year is a bit labyrinthine in its opening. Here’s a brief tour: it begins with a sort of prologue, “All of Us Girls,” in which Rakoff employs a generalized “we” to capture the soon-to-be-dashed hopes of literary assistants in publishing, hoping to become (not editors, mind you, but) writers. Then, another introductory page alludes to the dim, dusty glamour of the agency itself. These preliminaries made me long for something cleaner: fluorescent-lit cubicles and coffee from a pod, rather than Rakoff’s entrance via cluttered passages alongside generalized “girls” in gamine office wear.
As it turns out, though, Rakoff doesn’t work at the agency for long — it’s an exceptional time in Salinger’s career, during which the editor of a small publishing company in North Carolina manages to sneak a letter to the author and to strike up a friendly correspondence. For some reason, Salinger agrees to the publisher’s offer to repackage “Hapworth 16, 1924” (Salinger’s last New Yorker story, from 1965, and often considered his weakest) as a standalone volume. Rakoff witnesses the flurry of optimism and activity that follows — someone has gotten through to Salinger, and he’s willing to (re)publish! When the deal falls apart (the publisher commits the cardinal sin of talking to the press), Rakoff is there to console Salinger on the phone, just before he slips back into his hermitage, although not without a parting shot. “Don’t get stuck answering phones,” Salinger tells her. “You’ll never get out. You’re a poet.” This brief moment of recognition helps Rakoff summon the nerve to submit a poem for publication. Her career in publishing is over, but her career as a writer is about to begin.
If My Salinger Year feels much like a roman à clef in its first few pages, with its winkingly unnamed sets and anonymous characters, it also flirts with the female coming-of-age genre. Rakoff lives with a Marxist dolt of a boyfriend, Don, whose ethics of writing and wooing could rival those of Salinger himself. (Don is writing a voyeuristic novel about beautiful, victimized women, with a clearly autobiographical macho protagonist. No wonder he can’t find a publisher.) She reminisces about the post-college buzz of Williamsburg in 1996, when fresh graduates from Oberlin and Brown and Wesleyan storm the neighborhood. Supporting actors flit in and out of the narrative — an heiress on heroin, a yuppified high school friend, a New Yorker assistant or two — but they fail to differentiate themselves, melding into a haze of secondary players who may or may not resurface. This is a lost opportunity, especially since the plot features several party scenes. In literature and in life, the best parties are replete with either characters so original that you must get to know them, or characters so slyly familiar that you feel you already know them.
In this case, instead of relationships, it is letters that move the plot: an olive branch from Rakoff’s ex-boyfriend (My Salinger Year, in effect, is a love letter to him; he is now her fiancé); a note on Don’s desk alluding to an affair; the bundles of Salinger fan mail from all over the world, to which Rakoff is assigned to respond with a form letter curtly explaining that Salinger doesn’t read any of it. One letter in particular strikes her: a boy from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, tries to coax Salinger into responding by perfectly imitating Holden Caulfield. He writes: “I’ve learned that, as phony as it may be, you can’t go around revealing your goddam emotions to the world.” Rakoff puzzles over these words in several scenes, wringing them for relevance to her own emotional struggles. (To her credit, however, she avoids the pitfall of writing Salinger-style — her narration is rarely precious.) Eventually she starts answering the fan mail, in her own voice, often with a piece of advice, as if she were a literary Dear Abby. Her letters infuriate the fans, to comic effect. “Dear Miss Rakoff,” one fan writes back, “Your name is so ridiculous that I am pretty certain it’s fake.” In fact, if Salinger’s benediction helps her become a poet, these epistolary exchanges are what made her a memoirist. As a correspondent, Rakoff practices the give-and-take between writer and reader, and the unexpected empathies and furies that writing back can unleash.
Why do we read memoir? To identify and to disidentify; to measure our similarities and distances from other lives. And why do we read memoirs of reading? For many the same reasons. Recent books about books by Rebecca Mead (on George Eliot), William Deresiewicz (on Jane Austen), and Sarah Bakewell (on Montaigne) make us feel a notch smarter, perhaps; they allow us to celebrate the love of the written word; best of all, they let us align ourselves with like-minded readers. We may be too cool for book clubs, but we’re happy to find community. Although the first two-thirds of My Salinger Year is not a memoir of reading, book browsers will likely mistake it for one. The memoir’s strongest section, after Rakoff finally gets around to the Salinger volumes she’s avoided for no particular reason, will best satisfy them.
But Rakoff puts off the inevitable too long: in the first two-thirds of the book there are too many moments that jolt the reader out of the pleasures of clear identification and disidentification. Her attempts to universalize the “first-job” experience are a stretch. Her experience opening bills for the college education she assumed her parents paid for might feel tragic to Hannah Horvath of Girls (the character was cut off from parental aid in the first episode), but it will strike others as offputtingly privileged. When readers begin to judge the narrator like this, the relationship slips from disidentification to alienation. In the last third, however, when the narrative starts to crackle with connections between literature and life, the memoir suggests its potential: it could have been a brilliant book about books all along. Filtered through the insights that Salinger’s fiction provides, Rakoff’s job, her romance, her ambitions, and her 20-something mistakes start to feel universal. “Maybe you, like me,” Rakoff writes, “identified so strongly with Franny Glass, upon first reading, that you wondered if Salinger had somehow — through some sort of bizarre, science-fiction-style maneuver — tunneled into your brain.”
As Salinger fans know, great literature can make us feel like we’re complicit in the construction of the story, helping it unfold through our own cache of emotions. My Salinger Year is a memoir of firsts: first job, first heartbreak, first publication, and first time reading a writer we’ve all read. If reading it brings back any of these firsts from the reader’s past, then Rakoff has succeeded.