A couple of weeks ago I read an interview with Ricky Gervais in which he explained that, despite his partner being a novelist, he had only read one book, The Catcher in the Rye. This got me thinking, if as a bibliophile you meet a bibliophobe, and they ask you for a recommendation, where would you even begin? Of course, the answer is to go with what you know they’re interested in: the fantasy-lover starts with Tolkien, a seasoned traveller with the literature of a land they love, the feminist with Jong (who’s funny as well, I can’t help thinking it’s probably a good idea to go for funny when dipping a toe in the waters of literature, humour so often makes things seem accessible). That’s the thing – you want it to be accessible. Because why haven’t they discovered the joy of reading? (And I really think this is something anyone can experience). Probably they’ve been given the wrong things to read (stuff they’re not interested in), or taught badly, and told there is “good” and “bad” literature. I can’t stand this type of snobbery. If you like it, then it’s worth reading. At the same time, you’d want to give your eager bibliophobe something you felt was well written enough to open their eyes to what books can offer. Somewhere between the two extremes of rending your garments, wailing “I can’t believe you’ve never read Proust!” and half-heartedly tossing the latest celebrity embryo’s autobiography in their direction is probably the ground you want to occupy. So…we’re looking for something well written but accessible, funny but thought provoking, something that you can almost guarantee they’ll like as it speaks to everyone…I’ve got it. The answer’s staring me in the face. It’s The Catcher in the Rye.
OK – Salinger seems to have ensured this is my shortest post ever. But I’ll go on to discuss two more books anyway. I’m not suggesting these are where everyone should start, or that these are the greatest books ever written, because I don’t want to get into that “Oh, you simply must read…” snobbery that this theme dangerously skirts around. I’ve chosen them because they both have something in common with The Catcher in the Rye, and they’re both books that I know people who aren’t big readers have read and enjoyed.
Firstly, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961, my copy Corgi, 1974):
Well written? Accessible?
I think the fact that the concept of a Catch-22 situation is so understood and constantly referred to (to such an extent that I don’t feel the need to define it when writing this) shows how brilliantly Heller has captured something people identify with and find meaningful. The wide range of readers shows its accessibility, the pervasiveness of the concept shows how smart it is.
So funny – you have to read this novel. It’s silly: one of the characters is called Major Major Major Major. It’s dry: “What the hell kind of a name is Yossarian?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf had the facts at his fingertips. “It’s Yossarian’s name, sir.” It’s scathing: “The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”
OK – here’s the definition: “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
It’s hugely thought-provoking about the madness of war, the impartial cruelty of bureaucracy, the struggle of an individual against power structures that try to oppress…about so many things, and sadly it hasn’t dated.
Things in common with The Catcher in the Rye – Written around the same time but published 10 years apart (as Heller spent seven years writing the novel) both consider themes of alienation within and cynicism about contemporary Western society. Both made Time’s list of the 100 best modern English-language novels ; both were rated by Modern Library as amongst the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Apparently it’s sold 10 million copies. Surely Time, Modern Library and 10 million people can’t all be wrong? I can’t help thinking Yossarian would snort with derision in answer to that question…
Secondly, The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992, Abacus, my copy 1996):
Well written? Accessible?
Iain Banks is great at creating highly readable, plot-driven narratives that you can fly through. At the same time, this means it’s easy to overlook how beautifully he writes, without superfluity:
“Pencil-thin and nearly as leaden, the tall and still dramatically black-haired Mr Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took its inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley. A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain. Mr Blawke always reminded me of a heron; I’m not sure why. Something to do with the sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side.”
“The rain fell with that impression of gentle remorselessness west coast rain sometimes appears to possess when it has already been raining for some days and might well go on raining for several days more. It dissolved the sky-line, obliterated the view of the distant trees, and continually roughed the flat surface of the loch with a thousand tiny impacts each moment, every spreading circle intersecting, interfering and disappearing in the noise and clutter of their successors. It sounded most loud as it pattered on the hoods of their jackets.
“Ken, are sure fish are going to bite in this weather?””
Hopefully that’s apparent already. There’s also no better example than the opening line, see below.
Not in the way that The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 are, perhaps. Those are novels that use their outrage to force the reader to confront uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. The Crow Road doesn’t have this driving force, but as the narrator, Prentice, tries to find out what happened to his Uncle Rory who disappeared without a trace, he exposes the fault lines that run through the family. While most families may not have such dramatic occurrences within them as those in The Crow Road, it does have something to say about how those we are nearest to are also those it can be hardest to communicate with, and that the ones we love the most can be the ones we hurt the most.
Things in common with The Catcher in the Rye – Fantastic opening line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Tell me you don’t want to keep reading after that? And brilliantly, it distils into a few words so much about the story that will follow: it will be about family and death, it will be unnerving, absurd and funny.
I hope that whether you are a bibliophile or bibliophobe (probably the former as you’re reading this in the first place), I’ve convinced you to give these novels a try.
Sadly, reading brilliantly inventive fiction is no guarantee that you will become brilliantly inventive yourself. I couldn’t think of a unique way of presenting these books, so here they are, unadorned, nothing phony – I hope Holden Caulfield would approve.