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Pickle Me This

December 19, 2006


I’m now reading the much-hyped, well-loved and well-hated Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Almost two hundred pages in, I’m enjoying how it goes, but more about that later. For the moment, I wish to discuss Holden Caulfield, however. And how most modern characters described as “a modern day Holden Caulfield” are so blatantly not.

In particular, I’m thinking about Pessl’s main character, and also about Lee from Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. And I am trying to figure out why I find these characters so childish, why these books read like YA Fiction when Holden Caulfield never really did. I’ve determined it’s about perspective. These modern protagonists are all-knowing, and even when they screw up, the screw-up is always in retrospect. At some point, their narratives reveal that they get over adolescence. Holden Caulfield’s never did. Catcher in the Rye is so planted in his head in a way that is absolutely alarming, and that’s what interesting about the book, not necessarily his engagement with the world. Holden never tells us anything that Holden wouldn’t have told us. He exists as himself, and as not as a quirky, clever set of eyes through which to see the world. Herein lies the difference, I think.

When I first read Catcher in the Rye, I was thirteen years old and thought that Holden was cool. Encountering him again ten years later, my heart hurt for this deeply broken boy I’d once had a crush on. The change in his character made this a completely different book each time, and I don’t know that I’d think the same about the modern Holdens. I consider YA fiction fine in itself, but it’s not compelling to me as literature if it’s just the same book twice.

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