So I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for the umpteenth time because my goal is to write in my copy as much as my favorite Creative Writing professor has written in hers (that’s not really why, but I’m a little short on inspiration lately and Bird by Bird always has good advice). Anyway, I’m on the chapter about characters. It never fails to spark my writing thoughts, mostly because I have trouble creating flawed characters. I protect mine too much, and Anne Lamott talks about why it is you can’t do that, what happens in your stories when you shelter them. This all got me thinking about Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye…
I hated that book when we read it in school, which was weird because I enjoyed just about everything else (even 1984 and Brave New World). So many people I know love the character of Holden Caulfield, but he just grates on my nerves more than almost any actual person I know. So I started thinking about why that is, why I yell at Holden in my head whenever I read Catcher…he’s such an idiot sometimes, you know, so self-absorbed and pessimistic. I think the self-absorption is what drew all the other angsty teenagers in my tenth grade class to Holden; it’s nice to find someone in literature who mirrors the feelings you don’t admit to, much. But then why didn’t I accept him? I’m not high-and-mighty enough to brag that I wasn’t particularly self-absorbed at fifteen; I’m sure that I was, to some extent, but I’ve never been as irritated with a character in my life. He just…grated on me. With every whiny sentence in that book, it took a sheer act of will not to throw the darn thing against a wall.
I wonder if I went back and tried to read it now, what I would think of Holden. On the outside, at least, I was a rather ‘perfect’ little teenager in the conventional sense of what adults want out of teenagers: good grades, cheerful attitude, disdain for foul words (which has completely gone out the window) and illegal substances. So maybe I didn’t identify with Holden because I felt like I fit?
I think what got me the most was his pessimism and apathy. It seemed like Holden had no drive, no desire for anything but attention. Even though Jay Gatsby did some questionable things, he did them in pursuit of love (which is kind of noble, in a way). Sandra Cisneros’ female narrator in Never Marry a Mexican does despicable things and speaks with a vitriol I’ve not seen in a short story before or since, but I LOVE her. She wants something, she’s passionate and fiery, and even though she isn’t a great person, I would love to talk to that character over coffee (though knowing her, she’s want something far stronger). I can’t stand apathy in my characters, and I’ll forgive all sorts of other flaws, but Holden’s pessimism combined with an apathetic lack of desire just…ugh! Couldn’t stand him.
What do y’all think? Did you like Holden? Is there another literary character you absolutely couldn’t stand?