Wednesday, 27 November 2013


Not thinking of Hendrix, but rather JD Salinger, and specifically Janet Malcolm's terrific essay on Salinger's (somewhat maligned) group of works on the truly American-weird Glass family. You'll find the essay in the New York Review of Books, 21 June 2001, available on line at:

Just an extract here, though, to show just one object that plays its material role in Salinger's stories:

The smoking in Salinger is well worth tracking. There is nothing idle or random about the cigarettes and cigars that appear in his stories, or with the characters’ dealings with them. In “Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters,” Salinger achieves a brilliant effect with the lighting of a cigar that has been held unlit by a small old deaf-mute man during the first ninety pages of the story; and in “Zooey” another cigar is instrumental in the dawning of a recognition. The cigarettes that the mother and son smoke in the bathroom play less noticeable but no less noteworthy roles in the progress of the story.
Like the food in “Franny,” the cigarettes in “Zooey” enact a kind of parallel plot. Cigarettes offer the writer (or used to offer) a great range of metaphoric possibilities. They have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention. They create smoke. They make a mess. As we listen to Bessie Glass and Zooey talk, we follow the fortunes of their cigarettes. Some of them go out for lack of attention. Others threaten to burn the smoker’s fingers. Our sense of the mother and son’s aliveness, and of the life-and-death character of their discussion, is heightened by the perpetual presence of these inanimate yet animatable objects.

I like the alternative, 'inanimate yet animatable', as a point at which the material gains some control. But Malcolm leaves open who or what animates the cigarette or cigar: what responsibility must the human take here, and how can it be done without Malcolm falling towards anthropomorphism (which I don't think she means to do here)? (You will find the quote on p.2 of the NYRB essay).

This essay can also be found in a recent edited edition of Malcolm's writing put together by Helen Garner, Forty one false starts, published this year If you ever wanted to get inside the heads of some of the New York School artists, critics and dealers from the 1950s to the present, these essays are a great read.

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