The Book Club

Narcissists vs. Anti-narcissists

Dear Cynthia,

I’m 30 now, which means I was 4 years old when Maynard’s Times piece came out–which means I was thinking about play-dough, not the destiny of my generation. So I guess you’re right that I can’t relate to the boomer aspects of this story. Otherwise, I salute you, sister: This book is better than reviewers would have us believe. It’s a little exploitative, but not all that bad. Maynard’s affair with Salinger may have been brief, but it’s fair to say it changed her life. She gave up college to move in with him! His pull over her kept her isolated in creepy rural New Hampshire for years after they split up. His active encouragement pushed her to think of herself as a writer, when all indications are she’d have been happier doing something else.

She was a fool to give him so much sway, but that’s what the book is about: her foolishness. I think she’s pretty responsible about placing the affair in a larger context. She was prepared to make the mistake by her crazy childhood (vodka-guzzling father, creative but thwarted mother who invited her into bed for inappropriate cuddles). By no means does she place all the blame on Salinger. She just hints at the obvious: that if he’d been less selfish and less into power, he might have seen what a wreck she was, and proceeded with more caution.

The spiteful reviews of this book remind me a little of pundits covering the Lewinsky scandal. They’re depressed about the sad state of politics, so their commentary is filled with poisonous suspicions about strategy and ulterior motives. Maybe book critics are so depressed about literature that they assume any memoir is really a marketing gimmick. Or here’s another explanation: Most of today’s memoirists are narcissists. They fascinate themselves; by definition, they know no shame. Narcissists have attacked Maynard because they like their own schtick better. The anti-narcissists have wrongly assumed Maynard is a narcissist, when in fact she’s a good old-fashioned depressive. Shame is her old friend. She grew up desperate to please others, which makes her an excellent observer. I can’t believe the woman’s memory–she’s like a video camera. How about that great scene of her and “Jerry” (I love it that that’s his name) dancing to Lawrence Welk? So: we basically agree that Maynard is trying hard to, as you put it, “write the truth.” But I do think she goes way, way downhill near the end, when she circles back to New Hampshire to find Salinger and ask him what he wanted from her. This seems forced to me, and false. Is she looking for fake closure to her book, or is she a stalker who hasn’t learned a thing? Either way, it’s gross.

By the way, we haven’t talked about Salinger. I’m curious to know why he was your generation’s equivalent of God. Did you like his stuff then, and do you now? Should we judge him for seducing messed-up young girls, or just stick to the writing?