Famous last words

When artists like J.D. Salinger play hard-to-find, how much of the blame is ours?

Christopher Borrelli

5:26 PM CDT, September 11, 2013


Early on in "The Salinger Contract," the new book from acclaimed novelist and West Rogers Park native Adam Langer, the protagonist, a character also named "Adam Langer," stumbles across the truth about J.D. Salinger. He discovers why Salinger seemingly stopped writing in 1965, never to follow up on "The Catcher in the Rye," living out his remaining 45 years in reclusive silence and rarely straying from his hilltop home in New Hampshire. Even more incredibly: "Adam Langer" learns why Harper Lee never wrote anything after "To Kill a Mockingbird," why Truman Capote never delivered on the promise of "In Cold Blood," why Thomas Pynchon — though comparatively prolific, having published eight books since 1963 — is almost never seen in public.

Langer's book is a fever dream of speculative literary history, and lots of fun, and I won't spoil it. Though I should say … psst, Salinger and Co. went quiet because of a devious book dealer living on Lake Shore Drive.

Finally! An explanation!

"Which I came up with because there is no one compelling, satisfying reason to explain all of those famous literary mysteries," Langer said last week from his home in New York City. "But wouldn't it be nice if there were? Of course there is no one answer to why someone stops publishing or disappears from public life, why some people get paranoid, others get writer's block. So I have this fictional reason — this pure fantasy."

But as good a reason as any.

Because, when it comes to the mystery of why an important, resonant artist vanishes from the public eye or stops releasing new work — if there's anything to be learned from the mystery of J.D. Salinger (who died in 2010), it's that the mystery tends to metastasize, growing more enthralling than the reality behind it.

Certainly "The Salinger Contract" offers at least as compelling an explanation of the Salinger Myth as the extravagantly researched and generously hyped new documentary "Salinger," which opens Sept. 20 in Chicago. The film, which was directed by Shane Salerno — whose credits include co-writing "Armageddon" with Michael Bay — paints a portrait of a man damaged by World War II (Salinger's first day was D-Day), turned off by his own admirers, in the thrall of Vedanta Hinduism and not above cultivating his image as a hermit: As E.L. Doctorow says in the film, "Reclusivity is a great public relations device." Moreover, the doorstop of a companion biography (also titled "Salinger") that Salerno wrote with critic David Shields takes further pains to point out the lack of a smoking gun, describing Salinger's life as a "slow-motion suicide mission" influenced by everything from the author's ex-wives to his embarrassment at having one testicle.

"We take a particularly strong opinion that World War II is what made Salinger an artist," Salerno said in a phone interview. "So he spent his life seeking a cure for the damage that did to him. The evidence is clear."

And yet, after Salinger for decades represented the literary world's most persistent mystery, those answers are so …


Perhaps because the mystery of Salinger — whose Holden Caulfield telegraphed the author's growing misanthropy when he dreamed of building "a little cabin with the dough I made … near the woods" — had long ago became more compelling than whatever it might reveal about Salinger's work. Which is often true of any celebrated artist who walks away for whatever reason, choosing not to release new material for decades, disappearing from the media eye, refusing to grant interviews, insisting that only the work is what matters.

The mystery, the vanishing, becomes a placeholder for the person or new work we once expected.

If the artist is vital, that sudden silence grows louder still, becoming a cultural vacuum in which an increasingly mythic status takes form: Consider director Terrence Malick, who took 20 years to follow up on 1978's "Days of Heaven." Or Brian Wilson, whose personal issues removed his once ubiquitous presence. But then, they were absent for decades. The speed of cultural life now has meant that a David Bowie need only stop making records for 10 years to transform into a ghost. Dave Chappelle, who walked away from "Chappelle's Show" in 2005 and only recently returned to touring, had a legend attached to him in even less time.

Then there's Pynchon, whose new novel, "Bleeding Edge," comes out Tuesday. He serves as a reminder that an artist can release new work somewhat routinely while still acquiring the aura of a cultural recluse. His new book sits here on my desk, the name across its cover kind of startling, an awkward reminder that Pynchon, who has proved famously media-shy and slippery to photographers, remains out there, somewhere.

Even the "Adam Langer" of "The Salinger Contract" spends hours "puzzling over the last known photograph" of Pynchon. In fact, two of the season's buzziest books, "Night Film" from Marisha Pessl (featuring a horror director so reclusive that "reports persist the director has been stricken by insanity or a disfiguring disease"), and David Gilbert's "& Sons" (about a Salinger-like postwar novelist whose famous work of teenage angst has become a millstone around his aging neck), partly take as a subject the obsession that audiences develop for artists who remove themselves from the audience's line of sight.

So great is the myth of Gilbert's reclusive author that his own sons are alienated from him and young novelists dream of a blurb from this literary ghost, their entire works nothing but "a frame for his signature."

"Salinger was the model for the author in my book in so far as both mean a lot to a generation of young readers," Gilbert said. "What I wanted to do more was fool around a bit with a certain postwar literary type, even playing off stories like Philip Roth, who burned a lot of bridges with his fiction. Basically, I was thinking of writers who came up at a time when, as a son, it was hard to know your father or do things your father liked to do. Women were women and men were mysteries. I'm not even sure we could write a Salinger-like author's story about a modern writer — writers I know are so involved with balancing family life and work."

Said Kenneth Slawenski, who wrote "J.D. Salinger: A Life," a well-received 2011 biography: "We want our artists' lives to be as interesting as their works, and a lot of their lives are more ordinary than we'd like. We want everyone to be a Hemingway, and even Hemingway wasn't Hemingway-like. Salinger just wanted to be left alone in the second half of his life. But he made two mistakes and it jump-started the myth: He told the New York Times that he wanted to be left alone, and he refused to publish — so we knew he was out there."

Indeed, the myth of the vanishing artist often says as much about an audience as it does about an artist: There's a scene in Salerno's documentary in which a man describes driving 450 miles to find Salinger, confronting the writer in woods outside his home, then becoming annoyed when an agitated Salinger pleads that he's "only a fiction writer." Salerno's film is not unlike the fan. Rather than take Salinger's reaction as the understandable frustration of a badgered author, it looks upon Salinger as disingenuous. It reminded me of something journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote this summer on Slate about the executors of Salinger's estate: "Their utter silence in the three and a half years since his death is now verging on a scandal …"


Eula Biss, who teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University and has won the Pushcart Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, told me: "It's never surprised me when I hear someone like Johnny Depp has moved to the south of France or a Salinger figure has willingly walled himself off from the world. I once had a student who sent 100 tweets to a celebrity for a project and on the 100th tweet received back, 'Please stop.' She was flabbergasted and wrote an essay about celebrities owing their celebrity to the fans. No: Celebrity is a byproduct of work — though there are those reclusive artists who feed off their mythology."

Salinger, for instance.

Besides being our uber-example of the walled-off artist, he's also a prime reminder that, as much as a reclusive artist seems to be disengaging from the audience, the audience and its expectations are never out of mind.

"He definitely participated in enhancing his myth," Salerno said. "He participated in its creation and he perpetrated it. Without question. He seemed to come out of hiding every now and then just to remind the public that he was recluse. But a real recluse doesn't call the New York Times, pursue Hollywood actresses and 18-year-old girls or travel the world — all of which he did during the 45 years when nobody knew what he was doing. He was, yes, extremely private, but I doubt Thomas Pynchon could call the New York Times."

Certainly Salinger's silence wasn't about writer's block, either. Salerno's book and film claim (through unnamed sources) that several works written by Salinger during this period will be published between 2015 and 2020.

But frankly, that's worrisome.

The artist who goes away only to return after a prolonged absence doesn't necessarily always deliver that earlier vitality: For every Marilynne Robinson — whose Pulitzer-nominated first novel, 1980's "Housekeeping," was followed up 24 years later with the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece "Gilead" — there's a Stanley Kubrick, whose uncertainty as a filmmaker seemed to grow parallel to the decades he increasingly placed between finished films. Malick returned in 1998 with "The Thin Red Line" and then became so relatively prolific that his 2011 Oscar-nominated "Tree of Life" was followed just last spring with "To the Wonder," which, despite starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, seemed like a massive non-event.

There is something to be said for quitting while you're ahead.

"Some artists, maybe they just don't need to say anything else," Langer said. "Maybe you write a 'Catcher in the Rye' and you rightly decide, 'OK, so now I can die.' I mean, Philip Roth? Good for him, I suppose." Last fall the 80-year-old Roth announced he was retiring from novel writing — which inspired the equally distinguished 82-year-old Canadian short story master Alice Munro to declared herself finished as well.

Which is a much tidier way of exiting the stage than, say, Joseph Mitchell, the venerated New Yorker journalist whose remarkable story is so often repeated among writers that, depending on how you see it, Mitchell is either a cautionary tale or a beautifully melancholic portrait of frustration. Mitchell, who joined the New Yorker in 1938, was one of the magazine's most prolific, inventive writers, a master chronicler of the city's nooks and crannies. Then, in 1964, he stopped. He came to work every day for the next three decades, kept an office at the magazine, could be heard typing — and never filed another story.

Said Thomas Kunkel, president of St. Norbert College outside of Green Bay, Wis., and author of a forthcoming biography, "Joseph Mitchell: Time and Tide": "Mitchell was like Salinger in that both stopped publishing about the same time and both passed a kind of point of no return where they wouldn't publish again. But, remember, you can only try to reconstruct why someone does what they do. You are never in the room with them at the moment that alters the course of the life — if it even is a moment. I don't know if this applies to Salinger, too, but Mitchell, to some extent, he became a prisoner of his own expectations.

"When everyone begins to expect everything you produce to be a masterpiece, when every new work is an event, the pressure is debilitating. And so you have trouble writing, which means you're not producing, which creates this vicarious circular energy. It's a big part of why Joe stayed so silent so long, and it happens to artists in every medium: The biggest demon they tend to carry around are the weight of their expectations."

Biss, when I asked why she has yet to follow up on her 2009 essay collection, "Notes From Man's Land": "I'm about to finish my next book and I'm having anxiety dreams. In my dreams, I do this perfect dive and I have no idea how I did it and so this guy, this Olympic representative, asks me to join the Olympic diving team. I tell him there's no way I can replicate that dive."

That's it?

"No. I join! But then I sit in the locker room the whole Olympics, worried and sweating and never dive again."


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