"Zooey" Part 1 Summary:
A first-person narrator announces that he will offer not a short story, but a "prose home movie," even though the "three featured players" wish he would not distribute it. He briefly describes the varying objections of the "leading lady" (Franny), the other female (Bessie), and finally the leading man (Zooey), who believes the story is too mystical. The narrator says he has been producing his prose home movies since he was 15, and thinks that it is not mystical, but a love story. He explains that he learned of the story through discussion with the three characters, all family members. He concludes by revealing that their last name is Glass and that the story will start as the youngest Glass boy reads a letter from his "eldest living brother," Buddy - who is the narrator, and who promises to leave himself "in the third person" for the remainder of the story (though it is still told in first-person narrative form).
Buddy narrates the story, which begins as 25-year-old Zooey Glass rereads a four-year-old letter in the bathtub. He is given a length description. Physically, his body is "slight" and his face is "surpassingly handsome," saved from being too handsome by a slightly protruding ear. Zooey has been a highly successful television actor for three years, but he began publicly performing at age 7 with his six siblings (not all of whom appeared at the same time) on the long-running children's radio quiz show, "It's a Wise Child." (Buddy interrupts with a footnote, in which he runs through what the other siblings [besides Franny] are up to: the eldest, Seymour, committed suicide in 1948 in Florida; the second oldest, Buddy, is a "'writer-in-residence'" at a girls' college in upstate New York, and lives alone in a small, Spartan house; Boo Boo is a mother; Walt, one of the twins, died in WWII; Waker, the other twin, is a Roman Catholic priest.) All the children were stars on the show, and the public either despised or worshipped them. Most consider Seymour the "'best'" performer, while Zooey is second. Zooey had also been the most psychologically examined, presumably to discover the origins of his "precocious wit." Buddy describes the letter to Zooey as hyperbolic in many areas, notably length, and that it is the kind of letter the recipient carries with him long after receiving it. He transcribes the letter.
In the letter, dated Mar. 18, 1951, Buddy tells Zooey he just finished reading a letter from their mother, Bessie, urging him to remove his phone in New York and install one in his house in the country. He likes the phone as it reminds him of Seymour. He tells Zooey to be kinder to Bessie, and admits that her letter really urged him to write Zooey and convince him to get a Ph.D. (in Math) before he dove into acting. Buddy mentions that he never got his B.A. degree because he was a snob in college, and because he knew he could never catch up to Seymour. He doesn't think Zooey needs a higher degree for job security, and even thinks he would have been a "better-adjusted actor" had he and Seymour not thrown in their heavier literary loves into Zooey's "recommend home reading" when he was young. Buddy is anxious over the prospect of Zooey, a natural-born actor, ending up in the hackneyed, superficial world of movies.
Buddy writes that it's three year to the day that Seymour killed himself. He also says that he gives a weekly lecture on Zen Buddhism to the faculty and undergraduates at his college. He says what provoked him to write Zooey more than his mother's entreaties was a haiku-style poem he found in Seymour's suicide hotel room. He says he and Seymour were reluctant to educate Zooey in the ways of knowledge until his mind had reached the Zen state of "no-knowledge" - that is, pure consciousness and communion with God, or "satori." Therefore, they educated Franny and Zooey first in the teachings of religious men before literary men. Buddy says he knows Zooey resented their lectures and the "metaphysical sittings in particular." He says that though he was worried for Franny and Zooey after Seymour's death, he could not come home for more than a year for fear of the questions they would ask him. This afternoon, he writes, he remembered Seymour once telling him that the purpose of religious study was to unlearn the differences between opposites such as boys and girls, day and night, etc. The memory made Buddy want to write a letter to Zooey with something "happy and exciting" in mind, but now it's lost, which is why he lectured him about acting. He urges Zooey to act, but to do so with all his "might." He concludes by asking Zooey for forgiveness for what Seymour called Buddy's "permanent affliction" of cleverness.
"Zooey" Part 1 Analysis:
Buddy's description of his story as a "prose home movie" is mostly accurate. While "Zooey" - after this introductory section - follows "Franny" as being a sort of two-person play, with extended dialogue at the expense of interior description, it is decorated with Buddy's ornate prose. And since Buddy shares Franny's critique of acting as an art which inevitably falls short (remember her lament that one has to be a genius to play the role of "Playboy of the Western World"), his linguistic artistry in describing the nuanced gestures and habits of his siblings shows the deficits of movies which, as he claims, depict only superficial stereotypes.
Buddy's critique is predictable when we realize that Salinger, who despises most movies (though he was known to love the Marx brothers), makes no efforts to hide his real-life similarities with Buddy. Salinger, like Buddy, began writing fiction when he was 15; he, too, sequestered himself in a rustic house, though he never taught at college; Salinger is a likewise devoted student of Zen Buddhism; and Salinger's natural prose style, as evidenced in other work, is much like that of Buddy. By virtually placing himself in his own novel through this alter ego, Salinger makes a supreme irony out of his critique of ego. The introduction bludgeons the reader with ego - Buddy's literal ego (his first-person narrative), and Salinger's own.
But ego in "Zooey" is a muddled affair. Buddy announces he will leave himself in the "third person" for the rest of the story, though he still recounts it in the first person. He also maintains that the story is culled from discussions with all three characters. In this sense, their collective ego transplants his, or is at least fused with his, and no single ego dominates. While Buddy may call the story a "prose home movie," movies generally do favor stand-out stars, as Buddy's repeated references to Franny as a "leading lady" and Zooey as a "leading man" suggest and as Franny's previous complaints about acting as an egotistical endeavor state bluntly. But the combination of different viewpoints, which prose fiction, even in a first-person narrative, can pull off more gracefully than film, places it in a more democratic and ego-less territory. Thus, the story has five authors who share credit: Franny, Bessie, Zooey, Buddy, and Salinger himself.
Still, there is plenty of ego in the "Zooey" section, thanks largely to Buddy's insistent and erudite prose style. Buddy says Boo Boo once called a short story of his "'too clever,'" and the same attack could be levied against Franny and Zooey which, like "It's a Wise Child," also splits its readers into the two camps of those who love and loathe the Glass children. Clearly, Salinger has nothing but affection for them; John Updike once remarked that Salinger loved his characters more than God does. Cleverness is not the true "permanent affliction" of the Glasses, however. What they have a more complicated relationship with is their abundance of knowledge; cleverness is the merely the byproduct of self-aware wit matched and their encyclopedic minds. It is no small irony, then, that several of the Glasses, namely Seymour and Buddy, have studied Zen. As Buddy explains, Zen leads its student on a quest for "no-knowledge."
Buddy's introduction of this "no-knowledge" quest (the description of which is undoubtedly for the benefit of the novel's reader more than for Zooey) foreshadows its eventual significance to Franny. Previously, she had bemoaned the "section men" who only contributed to the destruction of beauty. Zen Buddhism, Salinger implies, cannot possibly do this, as it works from a clean slate - "no-knowledge." From this empty state, it can only create and add beauty to the world. It should appeal to Franny for another reason beyond solving the problem of destruction. Satori's state of "pure consciousness" and communion with God also sounds much like the incessant praying Franny so admires, in which the supplicant achieves a detached state of consciousness and, as Franny has explained, sees God. The concept of "no-knowledge" adds another symbolic layer to the Glass surname - that of glass's transparency, its invisible presence. The glass (meaning receptacle for liquid) which is made of glass, then, holds nothing - but, for Zen, this nothingness is also everything.
Yet glass also reflects, and now that we know the Glass children were and are celebrities (especially Zooey), "glass" can also stand for the way the Glasses reflect the feelings of those who observed them. Some could not stand them; some adored them; and some studied them. Each group, however, somehow tried to see itself better through the Glasses, a function celebrities often fulfill (consider how celebrities are powerful role models especially for younger children who have not yet created their own identities). Now we understand why Franny was previously so enraged over the practice of name-dropping; her name has doubtless been name-dropped throughout the years, and often in sniveling tones (as Buddy mentions Zooey's name was in his college class, in regards to Zooey's meditational habits).
Finally, Buddy continues the novel's humorous critique of the flawed and surface techniques of psychoanalysis. In his recounting of Zooey's psychological testing as a child, it sounds like he toyed with the testers at his will. This set-up recalls Salinger's short story "Teddy," in which the eponymous prodigy operates at a higher mental and spiritual level than his parents and the researchers who test him.