The unnamed narrator travels from Germany to New York where he’s enrolled as a visiting scholar at the City University. His subject is philosophy, his specialism consciousness, or the eternal question of what constitutes the ‘I’. Shortly before leaving, he’s hit a rough patch with his girlfriend, possibly precipitated by the termination of an unplanned pregnancy, but not so rough that she doesn’t want to come out to visit him in New York. While she’s there, she enjoys doing the touristy things, but becomes increasingly frustrated with our narrator’s failure to connect. He, pondering such impenetrables as what constitutes a thought, struggles to distinguish between his own relevant and irrelevant cognitions and to filter out the superfluous.
I enjoyed this novel, although it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the blurb. There was more plot, more humour and less stream of consciousness than I expected, and probably in a good way. Although I’d generally argue that gender differences in perspective aren’t as great as we often think, it felt to me a particularly male form of alienation, with the narrator’s preoccupation with drink, football and his attraction to other women despite believing himself to be in love with his girlfriend. I also wasn’t sure – which may of course be intentional – how much of the character’s difficulties were down to his being in the wrong relationship and in a foreign country, and whether they were triggered by his studies of philosophy or an already neurodiverse brain. But when the climax hits, and he’s unable to function as expected, it’s very satisfying. Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my advance proof copy.
I thought I was going to love this quirky novel from a Danish television writer and novelist who really did correspond with Salinger himself. I loved the zaniness of the premise. I loved the effortlessly humorous voice (p8-9):
I tried to collect my thoughts. Unfortunately they tend to run off in all directions, which is how I earn my living. That’s how all writers earn their living so I wouldn’t want to change it.
I loved that, in 1987 when the novel begins, everyone gets around the city by bike. But unfortunately I stopped loving this novel when the narrator took me back in time to explain the circumstances leading to his becoming Salinger’s penpal.
Originally training as a dentist, Moller has suffered from depression since childhood. Ever alert to information that might lead to a cure, he makes friends with one of his tutors, his future father-in-law, fellow sufferer and, most importantly, acquaintance of Salinger’s, Ibn Schroder. Schroder’s correspondence with Salinger stems from a shared obsession with Kierkegaard; when Schroder commits suicide, Moller picks up on the Danish side of the correspondence.
During an experiment with LSD, Moller’s depression becomes embodied in Amanda, meaning “she who shall be loved”. Amanda wins him a place in a small writers’ colony where, when they’re stuck for ideas, she proves to be the catalyst for creativity. Partly, the novel seems to be about the narrator’s journey to find his love for Amanda.
I don’t know whether my frustration with this aspect (actually, the core) of the novel stems from my being the “wrong” kind of reader for this book or because I’m the “right” kind of reader for a novel that aims to provoke more than entertain. Sure, I’m sometimes suspicious of fiction about writers, but the trigger warning was there in the title. I was irritated by the narrator’s repeated references to “my depression” as a thing, slightly removed from his self, almost as an excuse not to take responsibility for his life, but, if I understood Kierkegaard’s perspective as portrayed in the novel correctly – which, I concede, I might not have done – that’s partly the point. “Guilt is an optimistic, edifying term in Kierkegaard … [Because it’s only] when you are guilty, the opposite of innocent, that is, can you act” (p107); depression as a form of helplessness is a psychological theory with which I’m very familiar.
I don’t know if I was embracing the message of the novel, or distancing myself from it, when I mapped other aspects of the philosophy onto my own framework for making sense of mental distress, such as Moller’s malfunctioning “how-to-please mechanism” as insecure attachment. Regarding Amanda, I also agree on the necessity of owning both the lightness and darkness of our personalities, and I’m probably closer to Moller then I like to think in that my creativity is rooted in despair. Perhaps this novel was too close to home!
Since I can’t even agree with myself as to what I think of it, Salinger’s Letters would make an ideal read for book groups. Thanks to Sandstone Press for my review copy (and incidentally the third from them I’ve reviewed this month – see also Truestory and Where the River Parts).