A short story can never be too rich or too thin. J.D. Salinger's A Perfect Day for Bananafish - its three tight-fitted scenes packed with sentiment and suggestion - is the Babe Paley of short stories.
It's effortlessly, agelessly elegant. You pay a visit to Bananafish after being away from it for twenty years, and the way it puts its sweetness, hilarity, and horror together still feels like the latest thing.
Bananafish has a profoundly estranged narrator, the sort of narrator able to get events across but unable to care.
Salinger learned this sort of thing from Ernest Hemingway. He and Hemingway were friends, mutual admirers. He learned that if you move your narrator far enough away emotionally from the story he's telling, but keep his eyes fixed hard and close on character and event, a certain contempt creeps in, a 'twas ever so and so what and so it goes kind of thing. Flaubert did this before these guys did it.
Clarity of description wedded to indifference turns out to be supremely well-suited to the communication of a new sort of sensibility, the sensibility of the doomed main character of Bananafish, Seymour Glass. Seymour, a traumatized soldier recently returned from Europe (the story appeared in 1948) sees more. Like his narrator, he sees and has seen too much. The world - not so much the world at war he just left, but the ordinary domesticated world he's just rejoined - now appears to Seymour Glass as clear as glass. It's painful to see things that clearly.
Here are the story's opening lines:
There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women's pocket-size magazine, called """' Sex Is Fun - or Hell." She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.
The numbers the narrator's scientifically precise eye marks down suggest a world so hyper-rational as to be irrational, so real as to be surreal. Who counted the 97 advertising men? As for the woman whose phone conversation with her mother takes up the first few pages of the story, there's the grotesquely stupid magazine article she reads with care, and the irony of "used the time" when she wastes the time with pointless grooming. Her stupidity expresses itself not merely in the dullard narcissism of her movements, but in the dumb redundancy of the series of sentences devoted to her: She... She... She... The narrator, Jonathan Swift-like, records her behavior with microscopic exactitude, which is all he needs to do for her unpleasantness to emerge.
Her mother's anxious. The woman's husband is having a nervous breakdown and acting oddly -- even, the mother worries, dangerously.
"Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?"
"I said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now, please. I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees-you could tell."
He's behaving self-destructively, and he doesn't seem to care that his wife's in the car when he tries to self-destruct.
"Did he keep calling you that awful--"
"No. He has something new now."
"Oh, what's the difference, Mother?"
"Muriel, I want to know. Your father--"
"All right, all right. He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948," the girl said, and giggled.
Some sort of acquaintance with depth and purity has occurred, some complex maturation has happened, to this man, compared to which the ordinariness of his wife now looks to him like degeneracy. He's given his wife a book of German poems by let's say Rilke - the narrator doesn't name the poet - but let's say some demanding, sensitive, mystical poet like Rilke. She ignores the book. She has no intention of trying to understand his transformation.
She also ignores his symptoms. Her mother pleads with her to come home and put him back in the hospital, but she says "This is the first vacation I've had in years." She and her husband are in Florida, at a beach resort.
Now the scene shifts to the beach, where Sybil Carpenter, a six-year-old enamored of Seymour, approaches him.
"Are you going in the water, see more glass?" she said.The young man started, his right hand going to the lapels of his terry-cloth robe. He turned over on his stomach, letting a sausaged towel fall away from his eyes, and squinted up at Sybil.
"Hey. Hello, Sybil."
"Are you going in the water?"
"I was waiting for you," said the young man. "What's new?"
"What?" said Sybil.
“What's new? What's on the program?"
Here the narrator's brilliant precision of observation generates sweetness -- the slangy young man and the uncomprehending little girl in charming banter... Yet the banter will edge into an oblique confessional as he allows the extremity of his situation to insinuate itself:
"Where's the lady?" Sybil said.
"The lady?" the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. "That's hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser's. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room." Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one. "Ask me something else, Sybil," he said.
The surreality we saw in the first sentence of the story returns - having her hair dyed mink - along with his convoluted, impossibly intense rage at his wife, at the world. Maybe we begin to worry at this point that he could hurt Sybil.
That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit."
Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. "This is a yellow," she said. "This is a yellow."
"It is? Come a little closer." Sybil took a step forward. "You're absolutely right. What a fool I am."
Now Sybil is pure. Seymour loves her because she's too young to have become corrupted. Tell her a patent falsehood and she doesn't laugh at you and call you a liar. She checks the color and patiently corrects you.
With our background information about Seymour, all of his exchanges with Sybil become fraught:
Sybil prodded the rubber float that the young man sometimes used as a head-rest. "It needs air," she said.
"You're right. It needs more air than I'm willing to admit."
Seymour needs more air - more space, more freedom, more sanity - than he's willing to admit. When Sybil jealously mentions another little girl at the resort to whom Seymour has paid some attention, he says
"Ah, Sharon Lipschutz... How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire."
This is funny in the way of The Waste Land itself, juxtaposing a dully ordinary girl named Lipschutz to the sweeping profundity of memory and desire.
Now they go to the water.
He folded the robe, first lengthwise, then in thirds. He unrolled the towel he had used over his eyes, spread it out on the sand, and then laid the folded robe on top of it. He bent over, picked up the float, and secured it under his right arm. Then, with his left hand, he took Sybil's hand.
Notice again the mad, wary precision, the effort of someone losing his rationality to impose order on the small things at least -- towels, robes. Seymour asks her where she lives. Whirly Wood, Connecticut, she says.
"Whirly Wood, Connecticut," said the young man. "Is that anywhere near Whirly Wood, Connecticut, by any chance?"
Sybil looked at him. "That's where I live," she said impatiently. "I live in Whirly Wood, Connecticut."
Note first the insane name of the town which captures the mental world where Seymour lives -- a whirly wood. And note again - as with the color yellow or blue - Seymour's heavy-handed absurdity, its provocation of Sybil's immovable, reassuring (to Seymour) level-headedness.
Things get more hilarious as the little girl and the young man enter into a serious, disjointed exchange.
"Do you like wax?" Sybil asked.
"Do I like what?" asked the young man. "Wax."
"Very much. Don't you?"
Sybil nodded. "Do you like olives?" she asked.
"Olives--yes. Olives and wax. I never go anyplace without 'em."
"Do you like Sharon Lipschutz?" Sybil asked.
"Yes. Yes, I do," said the young man. "What I like particularly about her is that she never does anything mean to little dogs in the lobby of the hotel. That little toy bull that belongs to that lady from Canada, for instance. You probably won't believe this, but some little girls like to poke that little dog with balloon sticks. Sharon doesn't. She's never mean or unkind. That's why I like her so much."
Sybil was silent.
"I like to chew candles," she said finally.
"Who doesn't?" said the young man, getting his feet wet.
The rapport between these two, it becomes clear, is based on their occupying a similar mental terrain -- the innocent absurdity of a six-year-old meets the cynical and desperate absurdity of an adult in a terrible existential crisis.
Seymour asks Sybil to look for bananafish in the water:
"Their habits are very peculiar." He kept pushing the float. The water was not quite up to his chest. "They lead a very tragic life," he said. "You know what they do, Sybil?"
She shook her head.
"Well, they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas." He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon.
"Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door."
"Not too far out," Sybil said. "What happens to them?"
"What happens to who?"
"Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can't get out of the banana hole?"
"Yes," said Sybil.
"Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die."
Seymour needs more air than he's willing to admit. Stuck in a hole of his own making, he can only play out his peculiar and tragic story. When, a moment later, Sybil announces she's just seen a bananafish, Seymour suddenly kisses her.
The young man suddenly picked up one of Sybil's wet feet, which were drooping over the end of the float, and kissed the arch.
Throughout the story he's seen things that aren't there and Sybil has been patient and kind and correcting. Now she enters his imaginative world; she accepts, with her kind and generous child's imagination, his bananafish world. Unlike his wife, who won't even read a poem in an attempt to understand him, Sybil, with her free, trusting disposition, accepts Seymour's vision. He loves her for it; he's deeply grateful. She is his last and best connection to a world he might have wanted to live in. It's a kiss of gratitude, and a kiss goodbye.
Seymour Glass returns to his hotel room.
He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.
He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.