Sunday, January 31, 2010

Will there be a silver lining?

And if there is, will it really be silver?

A lot of questions present themselves. The most obvious one, and the one that largely determines the answers to all others, or at least the direction the answers will take, is: what exactly had J D Salinger been doing since he turned his back on the world in the 1950s, and in particular since the publication in the New Yorker, in 1965, of his last known story?

Rumours have been circulating, of every possible stripe, and mostly contradictory, for a long, long time. (Drinking his own urine? I don't think so. Although Brian Eno writes, in "A Year With Swollen Appendices", of doing just that: what is it with these creative types?) He seems to have confirmed at one point that he had indeed been "writing". The fact that he struggled to describe exactly what it was that he was writing is, of course, entirely consistent with him having done what we all (don't we?) hope that he has been doing: working on the continuing adventures of the Glass family. Of course, it is also entirely consistent with whatever might turn out to have been the case: even if it is that he hadn't been writing anything at all.

And if he had been writing: what are his instructions to his executors? Is it all to be destroyed? And, if so, will they honour that? Should they? Now, there's a good one, isn't it? If he had been writing away, year after year, for much of the last 40 years, say, that amounts to a volume of work. It could, of course, be the ravings of a madman. (And who would decide that?) And if it isn't the ravings of a madman, what right would the executors have to follow Salinger's wishes (to destroy it) in the face, or more particularly to the detriment, of, let's call it, the broader heritage of American letters?

I think I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

(Here is an interesting tangential question: how do, or should, the wishes of the public intersect with a person's last will and testament? Imagine if Frank Lloyd Wright had owned Fallingwater, and that he had stated that on his death it was to be destroyed? Would that be okay? Imagine if only one person in the whole world knew the secret formula for making Coca Cola, and he stated that on his death the secret formula was to be destroyed? Imagine if a famous but reclusive scientist had developed a cure for an incurable disease, and stated that on his death the secret formula was to be destroyed? Would that be okay? I'm not saying yes. I'm not saying no. I'm just puttin' it out there. (Isn't this fun?))

The fact that Salinger's literary representative, agent, spokesperson or whatever has apparently declined to comment about future publications suggests, well, what does it suggest? That there aren't any? That there are? That nobody knows? Oh, this is so exciting.

Another question. The recent Raymond Carver brouhaha has brought into sharp focus the relationship between writer and editor. Assuming there are stories. Assuming Salinger has kept them entirely to himself, and under lock and key, unread by any living soul. Are they to be published (if at all) verbatim, as it were? I would suggest (and here I put on my editor's hat) that that would not necessarily be a good thing. I am not aware of the level of editing that his Glass stories underwent before publishing in the New Yorker. Assuming (as is almost certainly the case) that it was considerably less than Carver's stories seem to have been subjected to, they are nevertheless highly unlikely to have gotten through unscathed. Nothing ever does, not really. (Which is why blogging and talk radio are such problematic media.) So some lucky person may well be given the job of taking the Red Pen of Death to unpublished J D Salinger stories, without the vital luxury of a two-way dialogue with the author. It has been done before, of course. But it is hard to imagine it having been done with such a singular literary stylist, in the face of such expectation, and in what will surely be a pressure-cooker environment, with the eyes of the whole wide Internet upon them.

I don't think I envy the person who gets that job, either.

I have only recently embarked upon the Glass stories. (From the pages of the New Yorker, where they originally appeared, of course, with surrounding advertisements and all that, because that's the kind of pathetic geek I am.) They are extraordinary, they haven't dated a bit, Salinger is a great writer of dialogue (he knows exactly which syllable to emphasise), yes, but not only that, the entire concept, of a series of independent stories involving the same fascinating and complex cast of characters, clearly lends itself to more, and more, and more stories. The Glass family is like a canvas (not a blank canvas, more a kind of multicoloured, geometrically complex canvas) upon which almost anything a fertile mind could think of (and Salinger clearly had one of those) could be written.

The world is full of "if only's". We are about to find out if the mystery of the reclusive writer is another one. If only.