Monday, March 2

Why is this a classic?

I just finished reading Catcher in the Rye, for perhaps the third time. I'm in two different book groups that are discussing it this month. Convenient for me. In one book group, we read children's and YA literature. We read a lot of newer work, but occasionally go back to a classic or two. The other book group is more erudite --- It has a theme. This year's theme is The American Character. In neither case did I have any say in choosing this book.

I really disliked the book the last times I read it, but couldn't have told you why. I found the ending so depressing, so hopeless. This time, I enjoyed reading the book. I liked the voice. I was surprised. But then, at the end, I realized why I disliked the book in the past, why I thought the ending was so depressing when other people seemed to think it was hopeful.

Here's the thing. The book is not what most people seem to think -- a teenage rite of passage, a teen facing the normal angst of growing up. The book is a first person account of a psychotic break. Manic break, I would say, but I am no expert. The signs point to mania though. Many hours without sleeping or getting tired, staying awake even after consuming a lot of alcohol. Grandiose thoughts, poor judgment with money. The hallucinations near the end when he is afraid of falling every time he steps off a curb.

Because the person having the psychotic break is a teen, because that teen is intelligent and aware and empathetic and all that, it looks like a teen event, and because he is so articulate, it looks like something readers can identify with. But it is not a teen event. It is a psychotic break from reality. You don't treat them the same way. And it's not really his first break. When his brother died, he slept in the garage and used his fist to break all the windows. And he tried to break the windshield of the car, but by then his hand was broken. So, he got hospitalized to fix the hand, but no one seems to have considered that the fractured bones were not the problem.

That's the reason I find the ending depressing. He's not being treated as someone mentally ill, he is being treated as someone who needs to grow up, to "Apply himself." That's different. He's not going to get better that way. I don't know the state of medical diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder or even serious depression in the late 40's early 50's when the book was written. Electroshock? Worse? We don't even have an avuncular Judd Hirsh to give us a Hollywood moment and make it all better. Holden, hater of Hollywood that he is, would have declared that phony anyway. He'd been right.

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