Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A page-ninety test

The page-ninety test, applied to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year (New York: Knopf, 2014). The book is about Rakoff’s year working as an assistant at the dowdy literary agency that represented J. D. Salinger, identified only as “the Agency” (in truth, Harold Ober Associates):

And yet my boss — and all the older agents — still regarded me as something akin to a piece of furniture, perhaps even more so than when I’d first started. Parked in front of my desk, Carolyn and my boss could while away an hour discussing the quotidian details of their lives: the roasted chicken at such and such restaurant; Carolyn’s attempts to quit smoking by putting her cigarettes in the freezer so they wouldn’t taste as good; the rerouting of the bus that ran through their neighborhood; the perennial troubles of Daniel, who was still adjusting to some new medication. One day in the middle of May — I turned twenty-four the week before with little fanfare — as I typed and typed, Carolyn began talking about friends of hers named Joan and John, and their daughter, who had an odd name, an odd name that sounded oddly familiar to me. I’d heard her discuss Joan and John before, but now I realized, with a jolt, that she was talking about Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. These were Carolyn’s intimates, the people whose pedestrian travails — bathroom renovations and missed flights — she chattered about. “Who is she?” I asked James the next day. “What’s her story?”
This first paragraph of page ninety at least has the virtue of being about life at the Agency. (The first paragraphs of ninety-one, ninety-two, and ninety-three are about bills, student loans, and credit-card debt, respectively.) But I find nothing here that would make me want to read this book. The writing is sometimes wobbly: I don’t know what it would mean to regard someone “even more so” as a piece of furniture. “First started” should be ”started,” and “quotidian details of their lives” could just be “quotidian details” or “details of their lives,” no? What I find more offputting is a tone of self-regard (turning twenty-four “with little fanfare”) and faux-naïve surprise: “an odd name that sounded oddly familiar to me.” (That name would be Quintana, and it is difficult to imagine the name not being instantly recognizable to Rakoff, who tells us early on of her interest in Didion’s work.) And why the jolt anyway? When you’re working at a literary agency, it should be no surprise that people there might be close to a writer or two. This contrived scene smacks of something written for the movies (and yes, the rights have been sold). And speaking of the faux-naïve and contrived: it strains credibility to think that Rakoff had never ever read a word of Salinger before taking a job at the Agency and answering his fan mail.

Someone who comes to this book for its Salinger content will be disappointed: a few telephone conversations, one brief meeting. The Salinger who appears here is courteous, genial, fairly deaf. Someone who comes to this book for a picture of a dowdy work-world — IBM Selectrics and carbon paper — will likely be disappointed as well. A third of the way in, I ended up skimming for the scant Salinger details, pretty sure that I wouldn’t be missing much. Whoever this book’s intended reader might be, it wasn’t me.

And yes, it is page-ninety, not ninety-nine. The first paragraph on page ninety-nine of My Salinger Year is an inventory of credit-card debt.

[Thanks, interlibrary loan.]

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