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Brief Review: The Catcher in the Rye and Sestinas

I finally read The Catcher In The Rye. Now where do I put the bodies?

Lost in myriad slayings, the force behind it being the pop culture phenomenon it is today, was the importance of its poetic refrain. This book is not about changing the world, with or without a sniper rifle, but rather the play between preconceived judgments and how they are affirmed in reality. It wasn’t the first or last novel to approach this theme, but Salinger was unique in approaching it as a sestina of sorts. Though the novel’s diffident repetition evokes Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which would come eighteen years later, it itself is the true heir to the forgotten-then-popularized poetic form of the Modernists.

In particular, the reader re-encounters “if you really want to know the truth”, “phony”, “he/she/it really does”, and “sexy bastard” in very consistent regularity, to employ a tautology.  And with due respect to Holden, this interested me far more than his curiousity about ducks.  The novel is his outlet, his confessional. Why must he strain so much to convince me he’s telling the truth? And what effect does the cyclical nature of his diction (and of the novel itself) say about him?

The short, clear-cut answer is that adolescence is a hamster wheel: you’re stuck in place while the scenery changes around you and you can never keep up. It’s the second stage of infancy, really. Holden bouncing from school to school is subtly mirrored in the way he talks, e.g. taking the phrases en vogue and subverting them. Not entirely uneducated, he speaks with economy out of necessity. It’s frustrating to him that he can’t expand beyond the phonies and the loudmouths, but he does virtually nothing to distance himself from them. Bitching and moaning aside, he goes to the movies and bars. He asks out the pretty women and fails. What resonates about Holden is that he can be so observant and do nothing about it.

The longer answer is that his reality is undefined. Holden would be the sterling example of humanity in 2013. Little to no evidence is provided as to why they are phonies and he is not. Their behavior exhibits tendencies we recognize as phony, but it needs a contrasting backdrop to be so. Caulfield’s constant irony about the whole scene denies the possibility for an opposite, a moral goodness. Rather than put forth an argument, the reader is expected to agree with his revulsion to a stale environment by way of the phrases’ repetition.

How does this relate to us? The Internet is an endless competition for the same content to be seen cyclically. That is the first and last rule and each day does not beget the next. The score – being interest level – goes back to zero and entertainment/news/etc. must be in lockstep with the rhythm of yesterday while still maintaining newness. Holden’s sestina is thus effective because it is tonally correct. His diction has been inculcated to the point where he has no doubt what he’s saying is true, based on the sheer monotonous affirmation of personal history, but he’s really tired of saying it. You may not have noticed, but the plurality of argument is now king. It’s truth through mere existence.

Even the sestina itself is a competition to be seen. Since each end rhyme is required to appear six times, they each must fight to be new and interesting while still abeyant to the form. Holden’s bitterness and underwhelming performance in school says a lot about how he chooses to stand out. He wants to employ these phrases for the opposite effect – that is, not to look good, but to convince you there’s no point to looking good within the rigorous environment. He parrots their occasional terminology, the phonies, only so he can communicate with you. The evident poetry to Holden’s speech is that he hates the form and can’t escape.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: