Dear Jay McInerney,
I have been thinking for weeks about your book review for the New York Times regarding a biography of J.D. Salinger, by Kenneth Slawenski, in part because of a throw-away line in it that bothered me, which led me to a couple other considerations regarding the bias with which we read books.
Your review, as I'm sure you know, (and we might as well acknowledge it's a partial conceit under which I'm addressing this to you anyway) was the prime type, an in-depth review (the kind a VIDA survey states women are infrequently given) of a biography I was interested in reading.
The passage I've been thinking about regards the classic Salinger story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish:
"After passing a day on the beach at a Florida hotel chatting with a bratty young girl and avoiding his wife, Seymour Glass blows his brains out with a pistol. The story opens with a conversation between Seymour's wife, Muriel, and her mother, during which it is suggested that Seymour's behavior has become erratic since he returned from the war. The precision of observation and the ear for dialogue are masterly; the ending is as abrupt as a car crash. Readers who aren't baffled tend to attribute Seymour's suicide to his wartime trauma -- although there's also a school of thought that blames his horrible wife."
There's a little bit of a plot spoiler in there, but that's not what is sticking in my craw.
Book reviews are also journalism and I wondered what school of thought blamed Muriel (Was it the school of thought between you and Bret Easton Ellis, or was this an actual theory?), much as you wondered in your book review, when the biographer mentioned the heady social life Salinger led with Oona O'Neill, who later married Charlie Chaplin: "Which restaurants? Did they really socialize with movie stars, or just share the room with them?"
Yet, it was distrust of the word "horrible" to describe Muriel that kept me returning to
the review. I've always liked Muriel: "She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing." I rather like that kind of girl myself; however, in the story she does answer the phone to reassure her mother that her new husband Seymour did not try any more "funny business with the trees" in the drive down from New York to Florida for their honeymoon. Muriel is, it is true, is a bit snobby, complaining to her mother about some of the people at the hotel: "You should see what sits next to us in the dining room. At the next table. They look like they drove down in a truck."
I'm sure, you Jay McInerney, populist that you seem to be, (see above review concerns) hang out with truck drivers all the time and were offended and perhaps that's why you choose the word "horrible" to describe Muriel. That would be better than simple misogyny.
Muriel is also waiting for her nail lacquer to dry and it is to Salinger's credit that he has detailed the painting of nails so thoroughly that this simple action seems to have solidified her as "shallow" among various readers and reviewers. Even Slawenski, whose book I read and liked and recommend to anyone teaching Salinger, and who seems to have a more sympathetic view of Muriel, finds her attention to her nails, "an obvious symbol of superficiality." Does everyone think this way?
I started googling Muriel Glass and, in a horrible example of how not to teach literature, a test came up about A Perfect Day with a multiple choice question about which room Muriel and Seymour stayed. (Room 507). Multiple sample essays also surfaced, almost all of them referring to Muriel as "shallow." And yet it is a shallow interpretation to believe Muriel is simply shallow -- she has married an extremely complicated man -- against the wishes of her family and probably some of her own. A man who left her at the altar after Muriel had waited for him throughout the war, and with whom she subsequently eloped and drove with from New York City down to Florida, even though he was the same man who crashed her father's car into some trees. And Muriel is now on the phone with her worried mother convincing her she hadn't made a mistake. Who wouldn't want to sit around and do their nails? Can't that be a Zen activity? More to the point, all evidence points to Muriel, possibly mismatched, possibly naïve, but devoted to her husband. In J.D. Salinger A Life, Slawenski refers to the story Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters where Muriel does not make an appearance but is discussed, as a proof that Seymour at least, thought he was making a good marriage choice with Muriel and that her materialism grounded him in the real world.
The Glass family was brilliant, beautiful, tragic -- a sort of literary Kennedy clan -- and the deification of Seymour after his suicide might have been a way of coping with grief, but Muriel, as far as I know, has been doomed to a perpetual nap next to her dead husband, perhaps not an important enough character for Salinger to awaken. Here is what I admire about Salinger: his characters are so vivid I will go to bat for them. Like every writer, I'm curious what and if Salinger was writing when he went to his studio each day. I love all the Glasses, even Seymour, flawed as he is, but the one I really always wonder about, and the one I keep hoping Salinger did also, is Muriel. She may have been, at the time of her nap, a newlywed product of her material culture, and naïve about PTSD as that time period dictates, but if she wakes up, she will never be naïve again.
P.S. I also don't think the adjective "bratty" does Sybil justice.
P. P. S. Sparknotes does have a misreading of that character that might be misguidedly acknowledged in any number of sophomore essays, however after checking with several academics I was unable to unearth "a school of thought" which blamed Muriel for Seymour's death, although I was pointed toward Warren French's 1963 analysis which posits that Seymour, who always remained the "Wise Child", needed unrestrained attention and that his suicide was a demand for that attention from Muriel. Kind of still about Seymour in the end. In addition, Slawenski makes it clear, in the book you were reviewing, that the character of Muriel was added after a first draft was submitted to the New Yorker, and thus not a catalyst for the story.
P.P.S. I loved Bright Lights, Big City