Must Every New Coming-of-Age Novel Be 'the Next Catcher in the Rye?'

For decades, reviewers and readers have eagerly compared works of fiction about young people to J.D. Salinger's 1951 classic—which is more apt in some cases than in others.

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In April, Publishers Weekly endorsed Ben Lytal's latest novel, A Map of Tulsa, by calling it an "updated version" of J.D. Salinger's famous 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. "If The Catcher in the Rye has lost its raw clout for recent generations of Internet-suckled American youth," the PW reviewer wrote, "here is a coming-of-age novel to replace it." Rolling Stone also alluded to the classic portrait of teen angst earlier this year when it declared that the fictional 11-year-old pop star at the heart of the novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine was a "Holden Caulfield Jr. adrift in Access Hollywood hell."

Year after year, generation after generation, every time a good coming-of-age novel is written, someone somewhere compares it to Salinger's tour de force. Why exactly is it that reviewers so often name-check the book about the aimless, ambling adventures of a kid who's just been kicked out of Pencey Prep when discussing stories about growing up?

Often, the analogy is reasonable. Though Jonny Valentine's eponymous main character is a music-industry confection who appears to be about as phony as it gets, he yearns for authenticity and connection in a Caulfieldian key. The Wall Street Journal called 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, the hapless hero of Benjamin Kunkel's 2005 novel Indecision a "21st-century literary descendant of Holden"--and both narrators are hilarious arm-chair philosophers with unusually fervid feelings for their sisters, even if Dwight more actively tries to assuage his angst by flying to Ecuador to seek out an old crush, while Holden merely fantasizes about his beloved Jane Gallagher.

Other times, though, the Catcher comparison seems less appropriate. "For everyone who wished that Holden Caulfield was a girl, your time has come with Prep," U.S. News & World Report gushed in 2005--but Curtis Sittenfeld, the book's author, disagreed. "Both The Catcher in the Rye and Prep featured disaffected teenage protagonists, but that's about it," Sittenfeld opined for NPR. "Even the boarding school setting isn't much of a commonality because very little of The Catcher in the Rye actually takes place [there]." Writing about the 50th anniversary of Catcher in The New Yorker, Louis Menand called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) the MTV edition of Catcher--but Dave Eggers's memoir describes how he becomes the caretaker for his much younger brother after their parents die, whereas those roles come closer to being reversed in Catcher, with Holden's much-younger sister, Phoebe, urging him to advance towards adulthood. USA Today made a comment similar to Menand's when remarking that Less Than Zero (1987) was a "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation"--though MTV, period, seems to have been more of an influence on Bret Easton Ellis.

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A Map of Tulsa author Lytal says the Publishers Weekly review comparing his novel to Catcher was a happy surprise, but a surprise nonetheless. "I was delighted," he told me in an interview, to be put in the same league with "such a big iconic book. That doesn't mean I would make the Catcher in the Rye comparison myself." Understandably so. Lytal's narrator, Jim, seems an orange to Holden's apple; Lytal, more a James Salter than a Salinger. Jim's metaphors are often startling in their visual beauty, his observations so precise that he can evoke a complex mise en scene in a sentence. (Consider: "[T]he pervasive self-consciousness of the smart-kid atmosphere encouraged a freak-out manic dancing, pursued between males, shouting the lyrics in each other's faces.") And measured, insightful Jim is much closer to a third-person narrator than old Holden, who's about as first-person as it gets--talking in that helluva slangy way, if you know what I mean, that's so chatty it would be almost corny if the book weren't so poignantly funny.

As it turns out, however, any evocation of Salinger's classic by a reviewer may not be a suggestion that a new novel will be Catcher-like in voice or plot, but more a prediction that it will "touch this generation the way that The Catcher in the Rye touched its generation." That's how Louisa Ermelino, Publishers Weekly's Reviews Director, explained her publication's take on A Map of Tulsa to me.

Unseating Catcher will be tough, however, given the way that Salinger's book--which took the crown for most memorable colloquial American narrator away from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--has powerfully affected, and still affects, so many generations of readers. "Contemporary readers from all kinds of backgrounds recognize Holden's world-view as comparable to their own--my own students do, every year," Sarah Graham, a lecturer in American literature at the University of Leicester and author of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, told me. And Jay McInerney, the author of Bright Lights, Big City--itself "The Catcher in the Rye for the M.B.A. set," according to Playboy--described the impact Salinger's book has had on writers: "In its modern form the American bildungsroman (the novel of formation) descends from The Catcher in the Rye," he wrote when reviewing Kunkel's debut for The New York Times.

But that raises another question: Why is the original such a big deal?

The answer seems to lie in the way that Holden has become the ur-teenager, as much as Catcher has become the ur-bildungsroman; in the way that the book not only portrays a kind of soul-searching that we have come to associate with almost-adulthood, but may also glorify it--and may thereby have helped popularize it. Holden's cachet grows out of the way that he--a privileged white male, who represented the hegemony in 1951 even more than now--disdains the same world for which he could've been a poster child, judging it so perceptively that readers want to be liked by him, and to be like him. His conspiratorial voice encourages them to talk back to him in such a way that his speech inflects their inner rhythms. Graham believes that the book both legitimizes feelings that readers have, and goes some way towards producing them; as she has said, "The idea of existential angst in some way draws from Catcher in the Rye as much as the novel reflects it. There is a strong dialogue between the book and the teenage experience--they are mutually shaping."

The publication of Catcher also coincided with the moment when Americans first began seeing the years in between adolescence and adulthood as a significant life stage. The post-war economic boom enabled young people on a wide scale to postpone employment--so that they had more time and leisure to spend their youths wondering, instead, what they might do with their lives. (As Ermelino--who came of age in the 1950's--notes: "The whole idea of teenagers didn't start until after the war. Kids were working at twelve.") Nonetheless, as cultural critic Morris Dickstein notes, "The book ... didn't become a cult book until the ensuing decade, when the much larger youth culture kicked in."

Its influence only grew from there. While a Holden-esque ethos may have once been counter-cultural, it's become commonplace. As Dickstein observes in his book Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction; 1945-1970, Salinger's story "is not a growing-up novel but a not-growing-up novel." Now more than ever, neoteny reigns in the U.S.; maintaining an "adolescent" lifestyle well into chronological adulthood is common--and glamorized. Consider some of the most popular sitcoms of the last 25 years: "Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Lena Dunham's Girls, all of them [are] Peter Pannish fantasies of not settling down, hanging loose, hooking up, experimenting with one's identity, playing the field forever," Dickstein notes. (In Joan Didion's prescient 1970 essay "On the Morning After the Sixties," she says of herself and her fellow undergrads in the 1950s, "I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults.")

Looking more closely at Holden, however, it seems he wasn't resisting adulthood's responsibilities as much as its corruptions. While telling his sort-of girlfriend, Sally Hayes, about his dreams of moving to rural Maine or Vermont, for instance, the aspiring Transcendentalist seems genuinely willing to get a job, do chores like chopping wood, and even marry, if that's what it takes to sustain a simple life. Holden was also indubitably responsible to his personal standards.

Today, though, delayed adulthood seems less about holding onto individual ideals in defiance of cultural and consumerist pressures, and more about accepting cultural pressures to remain youthful by extravagantly consuming both goods and experiences. The iPhone, the ultimate tool of our consumption-happy, commitment-free society, seems to discourage the very thing that should be the goal of any prolonged period of adolescence: the development of self-knowledge. By providing distraction from even the smallest moments of psychological discomfort or doubt, hyperconnectivity drowns out our inner voices. The original Catcher asked readers to think about their feelings of alienation from society and thereby get to know themselves better. Any "new" Catcher will have a different challenge: to invite readers to stop being alienated from themselves.