The Book Club

Cautionary Tale or Nostalgia?

Dear Cynthia,

I’m sorry to have to do this, sorry for the people at Slate, who are counting on us to sit on different sides of the aisle, and sorry because you seem to be looking hard for conflict. But again, I agree with much of what you’re saying. Maynard got messed up early on, and her attempt to get over it was doomed.

My complaint about the ending wasn’t exactly that it was “inauthentic.” It ‘s just that it made me sad, and gave me the creeps. She’d been trying so hard to be honest and responsible. I was rooting for her, but she tripped at the final hurdle. Sure, it makes for a cautionary tale. But most memoirs about unresolved emotional damage are cautionary tales. Cautionary tale value isn’t enough. I could name a few books from the past few years that claimed to be putting to rest some pathology, when all the writer did was enact it. All of these books were frightening; none of them was good. I think that Maynard almost pulled off something better, but not quite.

Moving on to Salinger, it looks like we do have–not quite conflict, but a little confusion. You recall the way young people your age idolized him, and you say “it was all about authenticity.” I can’t tell from what you’re saying whether you think this authenticity was real at all, or whether you and your peers made a mistake. Doesn’t it bother you that while you were getting high and invoking Salinger, he was shut away in his house listening to Glen Miller, feeling nothing but contempt for your worship? Clearly he saw it as a kind of conformism, every bit as insidious as the lily-white conformism of the 50s.

I guess I bristle at the number of times you mention that old bugaboo, “my generation.” I understand that women your age faced a unique confluence of stresses and demands that I’ll never know firsthand. But I don’t think the desire to be chosen is unique to girls who turned 18 in 1972. I went to a public high school where the smart kids were segregated in an advanced track and thrust into a crazy race to get into good schools. (We were working too hard to have a literary god, at least as far as I knew. People read Catcher in the Rye, but it was pretty well absorbed into the standard young-person’s syllabus–after Judy Blume and before Huckleberry Finn.)

I’m not saying this kind of pressure was unique to the mid-80s–from what I read in the newspapers, it’s even more toxic today. But I know from experience that it can be painful, and it can get in the way of figuring out what you really want to do. I think there are things in Maynard’s story that people of many ages might relate to; I also think there are insane and fascinating circumstances in her early life that are utterly unique to her. If you claim this as your generation’s property, then doesn’t it stop being a cautionary tale and become an exercise in nostalgia? And doesn’t Maynard become the opportunist people say she is, rehashing her tired voice-of-an-era act?