Time for English Teachers To Replace Catcher in the Rye

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 2 2012 11:22 PM

So Long, Holden

High schoolers need a new Catcher in the Rye. Luckily David Mitchell wrote one.

Black Swan Green Illustration

Illustration by Noah Van Sciver

I imagined it so differently. I would hand The Catcher in the Rye to my students and watch it transform their lives. They would see themselves in Holden Caulfield, and J.D. Salinger's words would elucidate their own frustrations and struggles. They would write righteous screeds against phoniness, start keeping journals, and forever treasure their pored-over paperback. The book would blow the minds of teenagers seeking a pilgrim soul—a friend’s voice in the wild of adolescence.

What I did not expect was shrugging boredom, the most feared of student reactions. I might as well have assigned Jude the Obscure.

The problem is that Catcher in the Rye is no longer a book for cool high school students. Catcher in the Rye is a book for cool high school teachers. Holden’s painful, alienating realization—that in life, phonies abound and beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose—is a fundamental teenage anguish. Adults who remember this feeling share the book to say: I understand that this world hurts. Here is someone else who understands. Assigning Catcher in the Rye has long been an acknowledgement that the moody sensitivity of teenagers is actually— despite its insufferability to older people—the correct reaction to the world.

Unfortunately, the book’s reputation as the Great American High School Novel precedes it, and its popularity has been its undoing. According to Stephen J. Whitfield, author of a social history of Catcher, Salinger's once-shocking novel "may lag behind only Of Mice and Men on public-school required reading lists." Young readers need a new coming-of-age classic, a book that has yet to be discovered and co-opted by the culture, a book that shares Salinger’s sense for adolescent heartbreak and anger while refreshing its midcentury references and voice, a jewel of a book that could feel like new. Happily, such a book has already been written: David Mitchell’s 2006 coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green.

The perfect teenage book should feel like it’s being passed around secretly, its message too raw and powerful for adults to understand. It should inspire highlighting and ponderous margin notes that embarrass you 20 years later. Most of all, it should feel like it’s speaking directly to you, and only you, even if everyone else in your class is working on the same essay question.

But when a novel is implicitly endorsed by the culture, as Catcher in the Rye is, how radical could it be? In 2012, a teenager’s parents are likely to have read—and loved—Catcher in the Rye as young people. For most teenagers, an authority figure’s approval is the kiss of death. Salinger’s classic might still speak to a high schooler—and it still does to some teens—but it certainly won’t be a private conversation.

And Holden now has more in common with those parents (and their parents) than he does with teens. There was a time when Salinger seemed far more modern than Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but to young readers circa 2012, there is no fundamental difference between Holden’s New York and Gatsby’s West Egg—both are places of antiquated privilege and clarinet-heavy music. Salinger's Manhattan is pre-TV, pre-pop-culture, pre-rebel trope: a pre-Holden world.

1211_SBR_BlackSwan_Cover

This doesn’t mean the story can’t connect, but the cultural context is so radically different that it becomes necessary to teach the era as much as the story. Holden takes a girl to see a play starring the famous Lunts. There are references to Peter Lorre and the jitterbug on the same page. Though much has been made of Holden’s swearing, “damnit” is about as strong as it gets, and seeing “fuck” written on a wall pretty much undoes him. While unearthing the grief that lies beneath Holden’s posturing is one of the best aspects of the book, the fact that Holden never directly addresses his loss over Allie is bizarre to young people used to a culture of oversharing.

Enter Black Swan Green. To readers familiar with the epic scope and ambition of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s most famous novel (and the basis for the movie), Black Swan Green is radical in its simplicity. While Cloud Atlas is all wild acrobatic feats of genre and voice and puzzles and mysticism, Black Swan Green is earthbound. Jason Taylor, its narrator, is a sensitive young stutterer and secret poet in Thatcherite England who recounts the personal revolutions of his 13th year.

There are clear nods to Catcher in the Rye in Black Swan Green. The sensitive boy at odds with his surroundings, personal and cultural shifts that both seduce and repulse the narrator, an idiosyncratic first-person perspective—Salinger’s stamp is clear in Mitchell’s novel, as it is in most coming-of-age novels written in the post-Holden era. But Mitchell pulls off the neat trick of providing the same emotional connection readers remember about Catcher in the Rye in a way that feels fresh and undiscovered. Through a shift in context, voice, and protagonist, Mitchell is able to elevate a very simple, classic coming-of-age story to the realm of greatness.

But it isn’t as simple as updating the references. After all, like Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green is dated, and the slang and particularities of England in the ’80s (“aces,” the Falklands War, Adam Ant) take a bit of time to explain to young Americans. And it’s still set in the privileged world of white boys (there are many great choices that broaden this perspective, among them Drown by Junot Diaz). But while it’s set 30 years ago in a pre-Internet world, BSG, with its TV, pop music, movies, and suburban boredom, feels far more current.

More importantly, Jason is not just a contemporary kind of protagonist— he’s most decidedly not a Holden. As young David Mitchell was, Jason is a budding writer embarrassed by his sensitive literary proclivities and deeply ashamed of his stutter, an observer who wants to understand and belong to the world around him. Holden’s cynicism and alienation from the world he inhabits have become a cliché; the sincerity and openness of young Jason feels fresh. He reads as real and naive, as immature as Holden is jaded. Instead of finding almost everything “sad as hell,” Jason remains childlike in his enthusiasm for all the “epic” things around him, even as the events of his life become harder for him to process.

Both Holden and Jason are sharp observers of the cruel hierarchies and divisions in their worlds. “You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime,” Holden tells his shallow girlfriend Sally. “Everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together.” The critique here is certainly a timeless one, but the references make it seem antiquated. Kids played bridge?

Author David Mitchell
Author David Mitchell

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Jason spends most of Black Swan Green observing and untangling the same kinds of adolescent caste systems that Holden pillories. But Jason’s voice feels timeless, specific, and poetic at once:

Picked-on kids act invisible to reduce the chances of being noticed and picked on. Stammerers act invisible to reduce the chances of being made to say something we can’t. Kids whose parents argue act invisible in case we trigger another skirmish. The Triple Invisible Boy, that’s Jason Taylor. Even I don’t see the real Jason Taylor much these days, ’cept when we’re writing a poem, or occasionally in a mirror, or just before sleep. But he comes out in the woods. Ankley branches, knuckly roots, paths that only might be, earthworks by badgers or Romans, a pond that’ll ice over come January, a wooden cigar box nailed behind the ear of a secret sycamore where we once planned a treehouse, birdstuffedtwigsnapped silence, toothy bracken, and places you can’t find if you’re not alone.

Jason has breathtaking little turns of phrase throughout the novel, and he considers larger questions of art, justice, love, and death in profound ways. Mitchell stays true to the youth of his protagonist, though, and always grounds us when the narrative seems to be floating toward Cloud Atlas territory. Jason may be an extremely smart, thoughtful boy, but he is also a boy, and Mitchell’s humor and pitch-perfect evocation of school dynamics keep the story from feeling false.

While both narrators are sensitive, Holden seeks to break with the constraints of his family, school, and small, phony world; Jason, on the other hand, spends most of BSG trying desperately to make his world fit together. He is full of unguarded, unabashed love for those around him, and Mitchell lets him show the vulnerability that Salinger buries under Holden’s posturing. And as an added bonus, girls—long turned off by the complete lack of female characters with dimension, motivation, or depth in Catcher—get to be the most heroic characters of the book: a brilliant older sister, a mother awakening to her strength, an eccentric émigré countess (a character from Cloud Atlas), and girls powerful and terrifying in equal measure.

In the end, Catcher in the Rye is still a classic, and its enduring power should not be diminished because it’s been over-assigned and co-opted by the culture. But while Catcher in the Rye is, in many ways, the story of a breakdown, Black Swan Green is truly a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young writer’s ascendance. Jason discovers the power and the comfort of words, and is saved through his ability to make sense of his world through writing.

When I taught Black Swan Green, I got everything I’d missed with Catcher in the Rye and more: The students found it funny, painfully true, deeply entertaining, and strangely beautiful, and they discovered in Jason a kindred literary soul to love. And when the year was over, and the staff cleaned out old, abandoned texts from students’ lockers, it was the one book no one had left behind.

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Jessica Roake, a frequent Slate contributor, lives in Washington, D.C.