Saturday, 27 August 2016

Famous Last Words of J.D. Salinger

There are few writers who can hit you with a final sentence quite as hard as J.D. Salinger. I am not just talking about the famous punch in the teeth you get at the end of "A Perfect Day For Bananafish". In fact, I'm not talking about that story at all. If anything, that ending is – although brilliant – much too dramatic, much too larger-than-life, much too O'Henry-esque.

Rather, I'm talking about something like "Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut", the second entry in Nine Stories. And not just the last sentence but the whole final paragraph where Salinger, like a masterful composer, hits just the right note that brings the whole thing into harmony yet leaves you hanging.

(and fucking please, don't get me started on 'spoilers')

"Mary Jane. Listen. Please," Eloise said, sobbing. "You remember our freshman year, and I had that brown-and-yellow dress I bought in Boise, and Miriam Ball told me nobody wore those kind of dresses in New York, and I cried all night?" Eloise shook Mary Jane's arm. "I was a nice girl," she pleaded, "wasn't I?"

The question at the end, the pleading nature of this question (and I'm not even going to delve into its meaning as that is not the point of this piece), leaves you on the very edge of fully understanding an artistic creation and the whole plan of Salinger's intricate mind. But, crucially, you are never quite there, and hence the sense of discomfort. It's not a bad sense, it's essential to great art, and musically I could compare it to what Stravinsky does in those sinister final seconds of Apollon Musagète. This date, J.D. Salinger is telling you, this date ends not with a kiss but with a wink.

Basically, what this writer does at the end of most of his stories is find a nerve, or should I say the nerve, that he has discreetly exposed throughout the story and then jump upon it. Pinch it, squeeze it, albeit not cruelly, with a pair of artistic tweezers.

Another great example would be "A Girl I Knew" from a variation on Complete Uncollected Short Stories Of J.D. Salinger that does not so much leave you hanging as stops you dead. Because you were thinking the story would go on forever (and would you mind?) or at the very least reach some sort of resolution, but in fact Salinger hits you with a seemingly unremarkable question that happens to be the last line of the story. 

And this is where the catch seems to reside. Because the knock-out power of Salinger's final sentences is not just their subtlety and elegance and faux unexpected nature – it's the fact that the ending you see is inescapable. It's the one chord missing, however chilling it is, and the sense that however unfinished a story like "A Girl I Knew" may seem, it could not go on for one more word.