What if, like Nabokov, he decides that it's not finished? What if Salinger—perhaps prompted by Dmitri's decision to contravene his father's wishes posthumously—decides to take action before he dies? And by "action" I mean consigning years of work to the flames so no opportunistic estate can decide to enrich itself at his expense by publishing it. It comes down to the question of how much control a writer should have over the fate of his work, particularly his unfinished work, after he dies.
While I've come to disagree with Dmitri Nabokov's decision about Laura—I think a writer's greatness should not, paradoxically, deprive him of a right we accord to ordinary humans, the right to have their deathbed wishes observed—Salinger is still alive and, who knows, might be open to persuasion, which is what I'd like to try.
Before getting into my proposal about the Salingermanuscript mystery, a few more words about Holden and the so-called "copy-cat" book Salinger opposes. I can see arguments on both sides. Some might say Holden Caulfield has escaped the novel to become an independent cultural entity like Huck Finn, available for other novelists to use as they see fit. But I'm sympathetic to Mark Helprin's recent argument in Digital Barbarism that our default position should be in favor of writers, which means being in favor of copyright enforcement.
Writing is hard; memorable writing like Salinger's, even harder. His writing made him sweat blood. You can feel it in the later work, not always to its advantage, admittedly, but it's there, the blood, sweat, and tears.
It's pretty remarkable—amazing, isn't it, when you think about it—that he stopped publishing when he was only 46, half a lifetime ago. He stopped publishing but may not have stopped writing. For all we know, he may be withholding what will turn out to be the eighth wonder of American letters. Or not.
And why would someone as publicity-intolerant as Salinger go to the trouble (ultimately, if the case goes far enough, he might even have to testify in public) of suingthe author of the Holden sequel? Perhaps because he still cares about the character and the way it's been read and he doesn't want any more naive misreadings—by pro- or anti-Salingerites—to distort the nature of his work.
Indeed, these misreadings may be the problem that caused Salinger to retreat from the world in the first place. The cult that reads The Catcher in the Rye as an endorsement of Holden Caulfield's callow, purist point of view and obsessively badgered Salinger as a kind of guru could have driven him into hiding. In fact, I once wrote a piece in which I essentially blamed the assassination of John Lennon on the misreading of Catcher by assassin Mark David Chapman, who carried around a copy of the book and proclaimed that he had killed Lennon because he'd become a "phony," just like the ones Holden hated. Of course, anyone who brings to Catcher a somewhat more sophisticated sensibility than Mark David Chapman, an awareness that novelists often use unreliable narrators and, you know, ironic distancing, can see that it's a novel about the conflict between Holden's naive and narcissistic juvenile romanticism (the world is full of "phonies"—duh!) and the kind of accommodations he needs to make to its corruption to survive.
Is Salinger a recluse because of his misguided cult? Or because of his own oversensitivity? That was a question I addressed back when it was first announced, about a dozen years ago, that he was going to allow "Hapworth" to be published in hardcover. (Copies of the New Yorker version circulated like sacred relics; I called it "the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Salinger cult.") It would have been a small step, since it had already been published in a magazine and wasn't a new work, but I hoped maybe he was testing the waters for new material.
But then a heavyweight critic published a pre-emptive attack on "Hapworth." An attack that seemed to be as much an attack on the Salinger mystique as it was an attack on the work. (Late Salinger is like late James: Sure, it's mannered, but it is what it is. Should he have started writing like Cormac McCarthy?) And after that, plans for publication of "Hapworth"—or anything else—evaporated. The sad episode ended with nothing old or new forthcoming in the succeeding dozen years and nothing likely to come out while he's alive.
Shortly after the Hapworth incident, I wrote a story about Salinger's silence, about driving up to New Hampshire to seek out Salinger's house, a kind of iconic American literary pilgrimage. It was a story about finding the house on the hill, and then just standing outside the verge of his driveway unable to cross and transgress his privacy. And, finally, being unable to resist writing a letter to Salinger in a nearby Denny's, calling attention to my explication of "the sound of one hand clapping" as adumbrated in the opening paragraph of his short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (You might recall the story opens with the soon-to-be-suicide Seymour Glass' wife waving her hand back and forth to dry her nails. One hand clapping! That's allegedly the answer to the Zen koan: Make that one-hand-waving gesture and you get … silence.)
I know: This is the kind of obsessiveness that probably scares him. But I did offer one amusing factoid about Salinger in the story that I still think holds up in a way. A woman I know stood in line behind him at a grocery store and discovered he was buying … doughnut holes! Those round balls of sugary fried dough. Doughnut holes: the junk-food equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.
Anyway, I wrote the story as a tribute to the power of Salinger's emblematic resistance to the publicity-industrial complex (my coinage!). I called his silence, this repudiation of celebrity culture, "his most powerful, his most eloquent, perhaps his most lasting work of art." But a few dolts misread it in a simple-minded Mark David Chapman way because it did not fit their preconceived image of a celebrity profile. It was an anti-celebrity profile! The misreading made me understand Salinger's anger: Why put up with idiots when he could write as he pleased and let the misguided hacks hack away at him when he was dead? He had a vision and he had a right to pursue it his way.