Youth and its Discontents
by Daniel Clausen
Sometimes, I wonder if we’ve already fallen off the cliff. Holden Caulfield was supposed to catch us long ago; we were never supposed to choose life, washing machines, junk food, and mindless game shows--and yet we did anyway. We were supposed to die glorious deaths and live on forever way before we ever fell off the cliff. Ye there we are: we’re falling, and our falling is so quiet and mundane that by the time we’re about to hit bottom we’ve forgotten that there was a time we used to run around free in rye fields.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?
I suppose I’m talking about Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and what the main character, Holden Caulfield,wanted to do when he grew up.He wanted to work in a rye field and catch kids right before they ran off the cliff into an untimely oblivion. It’s that moment in the novelwhere the book gets its title from.
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of hay and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-- nobody big, I mean-- except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff-- I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
Of course,falling off the cliff symbolizes other things: becoming an adult,becoming a phony, trying to own a Cadillac. It means all the hazards of becoming an adult.It symbolizes the spiritual death of children.Or it could symbolize other things. You’re sophisticated adult readers—you can make up your own mind about what the cliff is about. But I’ve already become convinced that both J.D. Salinger and Irvine Welsh(we’ll get to his book Trainspotting)were writing about the same thing: a middle class society that makes us into things we don’t want to be. We start off as playful kids and we become, well, awful.
This essay is a long conversation I started with myself back in high school. At that time, I had it all figured out because the assignment was to have it all figured out. I was also 17, which explains a lot.
I was mastering the elements of the five-paragraph essay. You know the one: introduction, thesis, supporting points, and conclusion. So, I wrote an essay comparing Catcher in the Rye and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. My thesis was simple: they were the same book in different times and locations. Mark Renton(or “Rents”)was Holden Caulfield, and vice versa.
Simple though it was, I was probably prouder of that essay than anything else I had written up until that point (which included a ton of space operas and vampire stories). I had put thought and passion into that essay. The comparisons were well thought out, and I had read each book twice. And when I went to college, I revised that essay and made it better. My four-page essay swelled to twelve pages. But the structure was the same: introduction, thesis, supporting points, conclusion.
I was passionate about what it was to be young, to be lost, to try to find oneself, and to be suspicious of growing older. At the age of 17, it made sense to read these books and to think through their meanings. The irony is that Holden in fact rebelled against the very kind of structure I was attempting to impose on his work.
Here is Holden in his own words:
"I flunked Oral Expression, though. They had this course you had to take, Oral Expression. That I flunked."
"Oh, I don't know." I didn't feel much like going into it. I was still feeling sort of dizzy or something, and I had a helluva headache all of a sudden. I really did. But you could tell he was interested, so I told him a little bit about it. "It's this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you're supposed to yell 'Digression!' at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it."
"Oh, I don't know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don't know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all."
For Holden, the digressions were everything—they were the point. And here I was putting Holden in the box of the five-paragraph essay structure (along with Mark Renton), when what I should have done is let him live infinite lives in paragraphs that wander like the Ganges. The irony ran deeper: five-paragraph essays and speeches without digressions—these were metaphors for adulthood; they were metaphors for what society could do to kids.
I was just too dumb to see it.
Youth and its Discontents. By the time I wrote the twelve-page version of the essay in college, I didn’t think there could be better models for the type of book I would one day aspire to write than Catcher in the Rye and Trainspotting. What could be a more perfect model of literature than Holden romping around New York pointing out the hypocrisies of adulthood and trying to hook up with a prostitute? What could be better than emulating Renton’s attempts to use drugs to escape a world of “boring middle class cunts.”
Now, as I browse sites like searching for reviews of Catcher in the Rye, I see a lot of one and two-star reviews. I mean a lot of one and two star reviews. Many of them say the same thing. In so many words: Why would I want to read about a whiny, pretentious kid trying to solicit prostitutes in New York? It’s almost as if they are saying, as an aside—and why doesn’t Holden get a job while he’s at it? Then he’ll appreciate his parents sending him to expensive boarding schools. (There are other great two-star reviews, including ones that point to Holden’s possible closet homosexuality, etc. One of the most entertaining on goodreads can be found here:
Fair point! And in some ways, it strikes me that these reviewers are kind of saying what Rents says at the end of Trainspotting. Get off drugs, find a girl, stop sulking: “choose life” (movie, not book, mind you).
Where is this essay leading me? Sometimes I feel like I’m too lost. At 29, close to 30, I can no longer really feel young, but instead only give an account of youth.Like some traumatic event, I have to be hypnotized just to remember what it was like. I can still remember the day when I was 22 and I first landed in Osaka. I was there, but not there. For a moment, all the troubles associated with my life, from my student loans to my troubled relationship with my family,became strange and alien to me. For a moment they were no more part of me than my body. I was alone, alive, and dead at the same time. I was in Osaka watching several youths do hip hop dance moves in a square by themselves.They didn’t care, so neither did I .And there I was in the rye field. I thought to myself that every person should have one experience like this in their lifetime. That this experience would come to haunt them in ways that made digressions forever possible. Just a few Japanese youth doing hip hop, nothing aggressive about it .It was just strange. So strange, I want to stay up all night and write into oblivion.
But now I’m 30. No more hip-hopping Asians to entertain me. As I write this, I find myself becoming a boring “middle class cunt.”These are Mark Renton’s words, not my own. In response to why he dropped out of college, Renton says, “The staff, the students and aw that. Ah thought they were aw boring middle class cunts.”I stayed in school; I worked at a university. I can tell you with authority, we practice boring vigorously. And when we’re not practicing it, we write memos about boring structured like five-paragraph essays.
What do we learn from Mark Renton? We learn that someday we will all be boring middle class cunts. You remember the line. They used it in the movie as well.
Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting on a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yerself in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats you’ve produced. Choose life.
We are getting close. We are almost there. My many digressions are taking us someplace not quite successful. A million lateral moves—but I avoid poverty like the plague. I cling to my boring job so that my teeth get cleaned regularly and so that I have health insurance.I worship this kind of boring.In the end, I want to be comfortably middle class. And so, I must give up my lonely revolution and become a salary man of sorts. There is a Japanese version of Catcher in the Rye.We’re coming to that.If I looked hard enough I’m sure I could find one in every culture (but I could also find a Horatio Alger in every culture too, and shouldn’t that be a pointas well!).
Really? And fucking washing machines and compact cars, and all that shite! Is that where it all leads us?
At the age of 30, I’ve bought into it…a little. I’ve had what is, I guess, my “choose life” moment. I’ve stopped working the rye fields trying to catch stray youth and I’ve started reading business books, “B-books” for short. I know this is kind of where Mark Renton is going (it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from owning a washing machine to going to business school).
Holden I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure how life ends for Holden, or it can end. If he is the ideal type, then he is doomed to relive his story without sequel.
There are others who sort of fit the mold. I’m convinced that Hamlet kind of fits the discontented youth mold. But, there is a finite ending for Hamlet that both Rents and Holden could never find. His story has a nihilistic ending: everyone dies. Fortinbrascomes in, but what proof do we have that Fortinbrasis anything different? Holden never defeats his surroundings, but he does have a reprieve: death. Phoebe saves Holden temporarily, but we never get any assurances that he will grow up to be a well adjusted adult. Spud is Renton’s version of Phoebe. His simple innocence and unbound love give Renton hope, even as he sees how Spud suffers in life. In the end, when he runs off with his mates’money, he decides to leave something for Spud (in the movie we see this; in the book it’s implied).And in the movie version, at least, Rentoncan eventually embrace the very lifestyle he used to hate:“the car, the fucking washing machine”; he chooses life. But there is something sarcastic about that choice. I mean how much could he really enjoy game shows?
So, I start reading B-books! Sure, I read Michael Porter (only the excerpted stuff),Richard Rumlet’s Good Strategy/ Bad Strategy will one day become a classic,but I also read Seth Godin. His stuff is crazy. Surely, Holden wasn’t afraid of Seth Godin? What does that mean? What does it all mean?
The sheer number of two and one-star reviews of Catcher in the Rye makes me think that someone needs to rewrite the book.Horatio Alger’s books are an alternative, but I’m not sure something like Ragged Dick is the perfect counterpoint. I’m not sure how the story would be written differently. Something where his parents send him to the Army, and he eventually becomes an accountant and member of the Chamber of Commerce. I’ll be honest, I’m not the most qualified person to write this book, so I’ll just leave it at that. But if someone can rewrite Pride and Prejudice to include zombies,then surely someone can rewrite Catcher in the Rye with parental figures who order Holden to get his shit together before they take the switch on him.
I’m not recommending this entirely sarcastically either, mind you. Keep in mind that I do read B-books now, and that I have considered going to school for a business degree(somehow though I end up back at this essay). Phoebe saves Holden temporarily from depression,but perhaps only a factory job can save him from his own tendency to over-think things to death. If you can think yourself into depression, you can get a job—this should be every parent’s mantra! Market discipline does wonders for over-analysis. Hamlet needed a job; I’m sure of it. I won’t even get started on welfare in the UK around the time Trainspotting took place(Rents and the other skagboys are on the dole throughout the novel; “dole-moles”as one resentful working Scot calls them.We could go back and forth on this one for ages: after all, Irvine Welsh was also trying to say something about social upheaval in the aftermath of Thatcherism(“Digression!”).
At this point, I should come out and say it: I was a kid’s teacher at one point. For about a year and a half all I did was teach kids in Japan. It was the most fun I’d ever had. And I felt a lot like Holden Caulfield. Sure I wasn’t saving kids from falling off the cliff, but I was helping kids realize their potential. I was showing them that it was okay to goof off and be strange as long as you cared about the kids next to you. I’m not entirely sure why I left my job.
I say that these kids weren’t in danger of running off a cliff, but that isn’t entirely true. Japan has its own cliffs. They are the kind of cliffs that Haruki Murakami writes about in books like Norwegian Wood. The book is about, among other things, the abortive youth rebellions of the 1960s (ones replicated in other places that were simply not to be) in Japan and the kind of cliffs young people in Japan were running off of. In the case of their protagonists they were the cliffs of unfulfilling jobs in big corporations where individuality was snuffed. These are the kind of mundane cliffs we all run off of, sometimes enthusiastically. In other cases there was the other cliff—the kind that Naoko ran off of—suicide. These cliffs were run off of (I suppose) to avoid others. I know why Catcher in the Rye gets two-star reviews: spiritual death is the hardest thing in the world to write about. Only fiction can capture it, but even the best fiction often captures it imperfectly.
It’s not an insignificant point that Haruki Murakami translated Catcher in the Rye into Japanese. No, that’s not insignificant at all.
I don’t like talking about suicide, not even in speculative essays that discuss fictional characters. Even the death of a fictional character like Naoko is hard to accept. In that case why not embrace anything. Even Renton’s “choose life” mantra is applicable—fucking washing machines, game shows, and all. There is something to live for. You can find it. It’s important that you do.
Occasionally, even at the age of 31, I can find ways to be a kid. I sat down and colored with my niece the other day. She’s writing a book called “Dogzilla.” If I had a day job, I would quit it and go write it with her. I’ve read enough “B-books” at this point to know how to pull this off with a tidy share of cash for myself at the end of the rainbow. I’m savvy enough to make rye fields profitable, aren’t I?
When I was 23 and in Nagasaki teaching English, there were these two Japanese youths in front of my school singing Elvis Presley songs for loose change. They were travelling all around Japan doing this. And I thought: you can still do this as an adult, right? You can still learn how to surf, how to love, how to finger paint. If you never did this stuff when you were young, you can make up for lost time, right? You don’t even have to hide these things—you can do them in broad daylight. No one challenges you! I sat with them in front of my school in my suit and tie, where all my students could see me, and in that spot, I dared them to say something to my boss. Most of them didn’t even notice it was me. I was nothing but a hound dog, and when it came my turn I was belting out tunes too. Heck, if I wanted to, I could have been howling them all the time.
I chose life, as Renton did, but I’m still addicted to my own version of smack: the sound of children’s laughter. A specious connection if ever there was one, you say. Owe, grow up! And where do you get off using words like specious anyway? SAT words never advanced civilization one iota.
I find lately that the most hardcore, revolutionary things are the things that no one else would suspect. It's listening to a person you love. It's walking and observing what's around you. It's doing a job well, and taking pride in it(eat your heart out Horatio Alger!).
There are other models besides Holden Caulfield. There is also Ferris Bueller. To quote Mr. Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you might miss it.”Now there was a teenage kid who knew how to embrace life!
Lately too, I love to congregate. The company of others makes me happy. And if all else fails, go to Asia and teach kids.Don’t go into investment banking;don’t try to flip houses—these things can’t save you. Just go to Asia and teach kids. Go to some small place in Asia where they love to surf. Go someplace far away from where you came from. Start over.There are rye fields everywhere!
Become addicted to making a clown out of yourself for the smile of some kid. You can overdose on it so badly you find yourself soaked in urine in some dodgy alleyway (well most likely not, at least not if you want to keep up your kid-teaching habit). It's the strangest of all things. If I were to work as a catcher in the rye, I wouldn't know what to tell the kids. I wouldn't know what to tell them to keep them from falling. Maybe I would say, “Your happiness is a treasure that you can keep.” I would also say this: “Under no circumstance shall you let them tell you what to dream.” I would say, “If you can find one happy adult, just one, then maybe your own cliff will just disappear.”And with that knowledge in hand, well, they might just be able to find two.
We can find the unique and strange in the world. We can find the things that prevent us from falling off the cliff. The unique and strange ground us and make us real. We still put on our suits and go shopping to buy commodities to out-commodity our neighbors, but we remember that there are things in this world that will not fit so neatly in the boxes(five-paragraph essays or others)that are given to us. We will digress, because to digress is human.
To understand and accept the digressions of others will also make us whole in ways that mere participation in consumer culture cannot. But even if we do take the time to feel the pain of others, it doesn’t mean we can’t own a goddamn Cadillac (certainly not my car of choice, and in any event I think the Lexus has replaced the Cadillac in symbolic weight).
I first wrote this essay when I was 17…and I’ve kept working on it ever since. And now I read B-books in my free time. I find my own kind of childish joy in reading them. But I never really gave up on authors like Salinger or Welsh. Murakami will be a friend of mine for a long time to come. I’ll read less, listen more, congregate—but that doesn’t mean I have to grow up.
This spring, I gave away my copy of Catcher in the Rye. I said goodbye to Holden. I don’t need him—for now. I doubt I’ll ever read Trainspotting again—though I haven’t found a worthy recipient for that book (maybe I’ll reread that one soon). Hamlet will stay in my collection for some time to come. Norwegian Wood, the book perhaps most self-consciously like Catcher in the Rye, will also stay in my collection. It reminds me that all good stories reappear in other forms. Youth, suicide, the need to find a savior in a figure like Phoebe—these things don’t really end.
But for the moment, this story of youth and its discontents has to end. I have to be able to write a resume without digressions, without rants about goddamn Cadillacs. I have to stop being whiny and pretentious, and to stop believing that rants like these will get me where I want to go.
I will find new and better ways to digress to where I need to go.
Wikipedia was used on occasionto help with some of the research.
Various editions were used of the books referred to in this essay—after all, this essay was written over the time span of about 14 years. In the case of many of the books, I was able to find key quotes online. Some of the editions used were pdf files that are free to download off the internet.
A special thanks to Lorna Simons for proofreading and commenting on the essay.
Major Works Discussed
Boyle, Danny. (1996). Trainspotting. Miramax Films.
Hughes, John. (1986). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Paramount Pictures. (DVD)
Murakami, Haruki. (2000). Norwegian Wood. (Various EditionsUsed).
Salinger, J.D. (1951). Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, and Company (Various EditionsUsed).
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Various Editions Used)
Welsh, Irvine. (1996). Trainspotting. W.W. Norton.
Bio: Daniel Clausen has wanted to be a writer since elementary school. His work has appeared in Slipstream, Spindrift, Leading Edge and Zygote in My Coffee, and many others. His short fiction piece, "Reejectiion" is free for everyone on Issuu.