Last week’s publication of “Salinger,” an oral biography of J.D. Salinger compiled by David Shields and Shane Salerno, was treated less like a book release and more like a tabloid media event. This was no surprise, because the book is full of revelations ranging from the tawdry (Salinger’s undescended second testicle) to the long-hoped-for (a cache of unpublished Salinger books, including new tales of the Caulfield and Glass families, to be released between 2015 and 2020).
The early “Salinger” reviews have been long on criticism of the accompanying film, on moral considerations of Salinger’s mostly epistolary serial relationships with teenage girls, on speculation about the relationship between Salinger’s embrace of the Vedanta religion and his withdrawal from public life, and on the book’s newsworthy hypothesis that “The Catcher in the Rye” is a veiled expression of the post-traumatic stress disorder Salinger brought back with him from World War II.
But very little has been said about “Salinger” as a book, a strange omission, because “Salinger” is a strange book. It pushes the form of the oral biography past the ordinary assemblage of interview transcripts. Shields and Salerno preserve the convention of offering a speaker’s name in boldface, followed by whatever the speaker said.
But the speech that follows the boldfacing, in “Salinger,” is drawn not only from interview transcripts, but also from magazine articles, letters, television shows, scholarly monographs, biographies, dust jacket copy, depositions, short stories, novels and novellas.
Even more fascinatingly, many of the high-impact passages are attributed not to an original source, but rather to either Shields or Salerno. These passages often represent synthesized information offered novelistically or analysis of information we’ve just seen or heard. They smooth the rough edges of the narrative, and they are often quite thrilling.
One imagines, as well, that they might cause the oral biography purist to cringe, more than a little, because as interventions, they are significant, and they signal a strong urge by the authors to do more than simply shape the narrative by curating its speakers. Instead, they plunge neck-deep into the business of making argument, connecting dots the reader might not have otherwise connected, and pronouncing rather firmly upon Salinger and his legacy.
In many ways, this approach seems a culminating moment not in the work of Salerno, the filmmaker, but of Shields, author of “Reality Hunger,” a book about, as Shields described it, “appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean,” containing “hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text,” a strategy that “Salinger” continues.
“Reality Hunger” ends with a “coda,” appropriated from Anne Carson’s “Decreation,” but which, like everything else in the book, is offered, in context, as a piece of Shields’ own argument:
Part of what I enjoy in documentary is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called ‘objective’ because one can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger.
It is not difficult to read this passage from “Reality Hunger” as an ars poetica for that for which “Salinger” is one kind of fulfillment.
There is a delicious irony in this subterranean push-and-pull between the living assemblers of the “Salinger” oral biography and the now-gone assembler-mostly-by-omission of the Salinger myth.
J.D. Salinger lived most of his adult life engaged in a struggle for control of his work. He withheld himself and his later work from public view, while at the same time, as Shields and Salerno make clear, he made sure to surface briefly, occasionally, to tease or tempt the audience he had ostensibly rejected. He gave interviews to obscure reporters, offered then withheld his late story “Hapworth 16, 1924” from publication, sued would-be biographers, and dictated in his will the strict terms by which his work, published and not-yet-published, would be made available to the public.
But by withholding so much for so long, he created the space in which Shields and Salerno might be the final arbiters of who he might have been and what he might have wanted. By grasping so tightly the reins of control of everything and everyone in his life, he abdicated his opportunity to tell his own story in his own way.
It should be said that whether or not Shields and Salerno are right in their theories about the relationship between Salinger and his work (which I’ll leave to the reader to discover in their particulars, but which are offered in a manner reminiscent of the Moral Calculus volume of William T. Vollman’s “Rising Up and Rising Down”), their methods have produced a book whose pages turn quickly, an oral biography that is often novelistic in affect and in scope, and, thrillingly, a book as well suited to audiobook narration as any I’ve ever read or heard.