2014 columns, Books

Searching for Mr Salinger

by Carody Culver , June 23, 2014Leave a comment

My Salinger Year

 

Certain industries – mostly creative ones – have managed to achieve a kind of mythic status in our collective cultural imaginations, and publishing (despite its notoriously dismal pay and scarcity of jobs) is one of them. It’s also an industry that’s been subject to significant change over the past couple of decades, thanks in part to a technological express train that shows no signs of slowing. From replacing clackety typewriters with shiny Macs to negotiating the new territory of ebooks and digital publishing, the book industry has been forced to roll with some pretty knuckle-crunching punches.

For that reason, the irretrievable ways of the not-so-distant past – Martini-soaked lunches, dusty book-lined offices and teetering piles of photocopied manuscripts – have become weighted with an additional layer of romantic nostalgia. And while US author Joanna Rakoff’s charming second book, My Salinger Year, takes absolute advantage of this, from obnoxiously loud Selectric typewriters to literary agents sipping spirits and smoking at their desks, it’s no work of wistful imagination. Rakoff’s book is ‘the truth, told as best [she] could’, of her year as an assistant at one of New York’s oldest literary agencies in 1996, a job for which many an Arts graduate would sell a kidney.

But Rakoff, who quit her PhD at 23 and moved to the city without any real plan for the direction she wanted her life to take, had ‘no idea what a literary agency was’, least of all a burning desire to become one of the lucky ones who goes from ‘years of low pay’ and ‘answering a boss’ beck and call’ to being ‘on the other side of it all, to be the writer knocking confidently on [the] boss’s door’. On Rakoff’s first day, her boss, a woman who has worked at the agency for over 30 years and who lights cigarettes in a way that’s simultaneously reminiscent of Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall, tells Rakoff that she is not, under any circumstances, to give out ‘Jerry’s’ contact details to anyone. Rakoff is confused until she spots the office bookshelf that’s crammed with copies of JD Salinger’s small but revered body of work: Oh, she thinks. That Jerry.

It turns out that Jerry, for all his refusal to engage in any sort of public life, takes up a lot of office time: Rakoff spends much of her year typing endless form letters in response to fan letters (many replete with ‘goddamn’, ‘crumby’ and ‘phony’, in the inimitable style of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield) from adoring Salinger fans.

My Salinger Year is more than a memoir about an iconic profession; it’s also an astute and entertaining coming-of-age tale that reads just like a novel (apt, considering the famous Bildungsroman that Salinger is best known for). But while Catcher tackles the time of life most frequently associated with awkwardness and inner turmoil – the late teens – My Salinger Year explores what is, for many, an equally confusing period: the early 20s.

In between fielding Salinger fan mail and being quietly star-struck when Judy Blume visits the agency to meet with her boss, Rakoff deals with the familiar yet agonising travails of young adulthood. She feels herself slowly growing apart from her best friend, Jenny; she knows that she’s in a doomed relationship with her unreliable lover, Don, but seems unable to patch things up with her well-intentioned college boyfriend, whose softly pleading phone calls only leave Rakoff more uncertain about what she’s doing with her life.

This human drama unfurls against the backdrop of an industry on the cusp of huge change; while Jenny complains about her boss’ intention to have a paperless office, Rakoff’s boss bridles at the idea of having even one computer at the agency. Rakoff’s life is changing, too: as she spends her days endlessly typing the same form letter into her Selectric, wondering if she could ever toss away the template and write back to Salinger’s fans properly, she finally discovers the author’s work for herself. It’s a shame that Rakoff’s discussion of Salinger’s stories reveals a couple of major plot points; she could have articulated her appreciation for his characters and style just as eloquently without dropping any spoilers.

My Salinger Year is a book for book lovers – for anyone who’s ever longed to join a profession that’s as steeped in its own rose-tinted mythology as it is in the history of letters. It’s also a poignant and honest coming-of-age tale that’s sure to resonate with anyone who’s ever turned towards their bookshelf seeking answers as well as enjoyment.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

ACO logo




the-story-of-the-lost-child

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their August picks

Looking for a book recommendation? After a busy month dominated by the Melbourne Writers Festival’s huge range of events, staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading. Read more »

daniel-handler

Kate Harper

‘I think about terrible things happening’: An interview with Daniel Handler

Given the current age of acute media-fuelled panic over childhood trauma and accidentally fucking them up, Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) dastardly depictions of children fighting to survive can be read as tales of wonder. Kate Harper chats to Handler ahead of his upcoming Melbourne appearances. Read more »

o-MAGGIE-NELSON-900

James Tierney

Usefully Uncertain: A review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in nine fragments

I first read Maggie Nelson in the April of last year, during the early feverish stages of an autumn cold. Her slim 2009 volume Bluets is a bare and consonant appraisal of blue – as a colour, as music, as meaning sexual content and the fuzzy indigo of depression. Read more »

One-Direction

Rebecca Shaw

Right Direction: The value of fandom

I have a pop-culture confession to make to you, Internet. It isn’t something I’ve been trying to keep hidden for fear of seeming uncool, because that ship sailed long ago. But it is something I haven’t opened up about until this point. I, Rebecca Shaw, have become a One Direction fan. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1

Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »

wolfpack-1024

Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »

f9a2809e-97eb-400d-b491-b4b6a6f09930-2060x1236

Clem Bastow

Telling Stories: Women screenwriters and the obligation to represent

There is something in the recent call to arms for female writers and directors to ‘tell your story’ that leaves me feeling bereft, not vindicated. The idea that As A Woman I must write about women first and foremost is a special kind of hell. Read more »

golden-age-of-television

Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »

family-hour

Anwen Crawford

By Screen Light

Television and depression have a history together. We’re all familiar with the trope: the person who stays in on a Saturday night watching TV in their pyjamas is the sad schlub with no life. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Edinburgh

Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »

Resized__863

Jane Howard

A Mess of a Brain: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

In some ways it seems like an impossible task to take Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and translate it to any other art form. How to find a life for a book that is so internal, so unrelenting, in anything other than the pure words of its narrator as they appear on the page? Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »