When I mentioned to my wife that my next book was The Catcher in the Rye, the only question she had was “…why?” Given that I have read the book before, it was a fair enough question. My thought process was basically that I’d not read it since I was 15, and I was wondering how it would hold up now that I’m nearly double that age. I’d heard that re-reading it as an adult is something that either ruins its appeal or otherwise comes across as entirely different.
The Catcher in the Rye covers three days in the life of its narrator, Holden Caulfield. Shortly before the Christmas holidays begin and his parents are informed of his expulsion, he decides that instead of waiting it out at Pencey Prep he’ll hang about New York for a few days and go back home at his leisure. Whilst there, he’ll meet with several people that he has counted as friends in the past and consider what he really wants from life.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started this re-read. The last time I’d picked it up was, as mentioned earlier, when I was 15 and would have been for a GCSE class. I seem to remember being the only one in my class that enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, and the only one that engaged with the material on a personal level. I couldn’t really remember all the events of the novel in great detail, but I did remember sharing Holden’s loathing of anything that seemed “phony”, despite the scope of phoniness completely undefined and nebulous. There was a kind of passive “me against the world” kind of sentiment that really spoke to my emotionally repressed teenage self.
Re-reading it as an adult has kind of been a wild ride. It’s sort of been an interesting exercise in introspection in a way, because in many ways I still identify with Holden. Not for the “phony” stuff, though that does still ring true of a wider teenage experience. No, the stuff that I identified with now was the experience of depression. If I’d met Holden Caulfield as a teenager, I would have low-key wanted to be his friend. If I met him now, I’d be on the phone requesting some kind of mental health assessment, because he is clearly on the verge of a crisis and I’m uncomfortable at how much of that rings true at a horrible base level. There’s a passage that really stuck with me, where he’s talking to his younger sister, who asks him to tell her one thing that he really actively likes. And when he answers, it’s an obvious struggle to think of anything, and the only things he makes note of are both of his younger siblings, one of whom is dead. I realised that he had nothing outside of them, no other protective factors, nothing to look forward to day-to-day. It still bothers me just how much I recognised that scene. You see, when I’ve been at my low points, I’ve not necessarily noticed that I’m in a bad spot until the day that I’ve stayed up way too late, and started crying hysterically and considering how feasible it would be to sneak out the house and throw myself into the river. It’s not necessarily something that is constantly a matter of high urgency, but a weird baseline of struggling to care about things that you once loved or things that should flag up as really important, interrupted by deep lows of self-loathing and spiralling panic. And The Catcher in the Rye really gets that. I was talking to my wife about this change in perception and it got me thinking about another depression book that I should probably re-read once I get a new copy of it: The Bell Jar. When I first read that, I loathed it because I couldn’t stand the main character and how whiny she was. I realised that when I was younger, I thought that my low mood was a result of where I was at that moment in time, and that in order to be happy I just needed to work hard and get to the next step on the education/career path. The protagonist from The Bell Jar irritated me because she had the 1950s equivalent of what I wanted my life to be, and she still couldn’t make herself be happy. Whereas Holden was the golden child in my eyes, consciously unhappy because he’s in a world that is trying to shape him into something alien, something false to his basic nature. Now, Holden just makes me sad, because I see a lot of my low mood with no reason or trigger in him, and I can finally define what my own experience is like through what he experiences. It’s not necessarily a comfortable or enjoyable journey, but it is an enlightening one.
The Catcher in the Rye is an odd book to recommend. There are some who maintain that only teenagers can stomach Holden Caulfield, with his vendetta against the phoniness of the adult world. But I think that if you’re looking for an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of someone who is deeply depressed, then this might be the book for you. It’s certainly helped me work out some things about myself through reading it again as an adult. 4.5/5
Next review: Quill by A. C. Cobble