Friday, October 10, 2008

A Perfect Day for Bananafish - J.D. Salinger

The first title read for my Short Story Reading Challenge and I may have placed the bar a little high! A Perfect Day for Bananafish was first published in the New Yorker, in 1948, in the aftermath of a World War and at the dawn of American consumerism. It was later published as the first in Salinger's Nine Stories. Bananafish follows a young couple, Seymour Glass and his wife Muriel, on a holiday in Florida.

The first half of the story introduces us to Muriel in her hotel room, making a telephone call to her mother, a conversation that intermittently switches between the topics of Seymour’s emotional instability and fashion. Their discussion alludes to a car accident caused by Seymour’s fragility and distraction, and Muriel’s mother’s fears for her daughter’s safety. The story then takes us to a young girl, Sybil, left to play alone on the beach by her mother. Sybil finds a perfectly cheerful Seymour, who takes her for a swim, telling her the story of the bananafish.

On publication, this short story was highly acclaimed, as an important topic for discussion in the years after the war, dealing with the shell-shocked young men, very like Seymour, who survived, but were forever changed by their experiences.

The reader is not invited too close. Seymour and Muriel are referred to as the young man, or the girl, their names only being spoken by other characters, the telephone operator and Muriel’s mother. This combined with it being a short story allows the reader to keep a distance, although this certainly did not dampen my feelings at the dramatic ending. Muriel’s character appears somewhat cold, and it would be easy for the reader to lay some blame on her for Seymour’s current state.

But what Salinger shows here is that depression cannot always be readily visible, one can be cheerful and go about your day regardless of inner turmoil. That is not to say there are no signs, Muriel’s mother alludes to some of the events where Seymour has lost control. But Muriel seems oblivious to her husband’s struggle, and it is difficult to say whether this is intentional or genuine ignorance. Sybil’s mother too is somewhat detached, leaving her daughter to play alone on the beach, while she returns to the hotel bar for a cocktail. Seymour's encounter with Sybil is endearing and playful, as if he were searching for a way to return to to the ease and simplicity of childhood himself, lost in a moment where there are no responsibilities, no consequences. It is entertaining Sybil and the tale of the bananafish that lead to this “Perfect Day” for Seymour.

I found this story beautifully meaningful, most especially because so many soldiers have returned from war as changed men, haunted by what they have seen and experienced. In telling a simple tale of one poignant day in the life of a married couple, Salinger has conveyed all the sadness and post-war confusion apparent in Seymour’s life. The bananafish is a welcome respite, a moment of amusment and childish fantasy, about which I could have read a entire story! Highly recommended, this short story will stay with you.

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