Franny and Zooey (1961); The Shack (2007)

During our inaugural meeting  in August 2008 we discussed two books  selected by Ron Boothe:

J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey, Little Brown and Co, 1961

William P Young, The Shack, Windblown Media, 2007


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2008 Selections, Franney and Zooey, The Shack. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Franny and Zooey (1961); The Shack (2007)

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    For our inaugural meeting I picked these two short works of fiction because I thought they might stimulate a good “compare and contrast” discussion, the pedantic Holy Grail of every professor.

    Some things both books have in common include:

    They are both short and can be read in an evening or two.

    They both deal with the theme of a family trying to deal with extreme grief; suicide of a brother in the case of Franny and Zooey, kidnapping and murder of a child in the case of The Shack.

    They are both likely to be “offensive” to large, but probably nonoverlapping, audiences of potential readers. Many/most devout Christians will be so offended by the profane and obscene language of Franny and Zooey that they will be unlikely to read it to the end, or to appreciate the serious theological issues explored within the book that are of potential interest to Christians. Most secular readers, along with many non-fundamentalist Christians, will be so offended and turned off by the “fundamentalist/evangelical Christian” tone to some of the passages in The Shack, along with the way the book has been promoted and marketed, that they will similarly be unlikely to read it to the end, or to appreciate the serious philosophical and theological ideas in the book that are compatible with secular humanism as well as with
    universalism approaches to religion.

    Both books were written by authors who are eccentric. JD Salinger has spent much of his adult life in seclusion, refusing to grant interviews or to release his copyrighted works for adaptation to films, even though be could undoubtedly have become much more “rich and famous” if he were to have done so. William Young is not really an author at all, and did not set out to write a novel. He wrote the manuscript as a personal document to give to his children, and the xeroxed copies spread via word of mouth until eventually it was prepared for publication with the assistance of some ghost writers.

    Both works employ a similar, and unusual, literary device for their point of view. In the case of Zooey, we are introduced to the brother, Buddy, who informs us that he is the one telling the story, but then Buddy disappears into the background as the remainder of the story is presented (seemingly) from Zooey’s point of view. In The Shack, similarly, we are introduced at the beginning to Willie, a friend of the father, who informs us that he is the one telling the story, but then he disappears into the background as we experience the rest of the story (seemingly) from the father’s point of view.

    In both books the family crises are resolved, or at least brought to a conclusion, with a religious insight. Also, in both cases this religious insight is based on the religion of Christianity. Finally, in both books the religious insight is not “mainstream Christianity”, but a reaction against what is perceived as a misguided mainstream Christianity interpretation of the meaning of Jesus. In Franny and Zooey, the mainstream idea rejected is that what it means to be a Christian involves piety. This is rejected and replaced with an assertion that what it means to be a Christian is to take (absolutely and profoundly) seriously the words of Jesus that “Whatever we do to the least among us, that we do to Jesus”. In the case of The Shack, the mainstream idea(s) rejected are that 1) God is a dominant male figure, 2) God is identified exclusively with Christianity (as opposed to any other form of religious expression), and 3) The primary message of Christianity revolves around “God’s judgement”. This is replaced with an argument that what it means to be a Christian is to be willing to (profoundly, deeply, and with no exceptions) forgive others, even in extreme cases such as a person who kidnaps and kills your own child.

    Here some of the ways in which the two books differ:

    Salinger is a writer’s writer. This is apparent from simply opening the book to a random page and reading a few paragraphs of his prose. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and he is a prototypical member of the intelligentsia and the New York literary elite. Young is a hack writer at best, and would probably fail an introductory college course on Writing Fiction. In the case of Salinger, the power and depth of his ideas is perhaps overshadowed by the brilliance of his prose. In the case of Young, the (in my opinion) profundity of his ideas lies mostly hidden by the awkwardness and clumsiness of his written narrative.

    The genre of Franny and Zooey is mid-twentieth Century realism. The lengthy descriptive passages give one a feeling of having been present in the scenes being described. The conflicts affecting the characters are first described and then resolved in the form of extensive dialogue between the characters. The genre of The Shack is that of a religious allegory, with characters and events representing ideas and positions rather than realistic individuals or situations. The conflict confronting the main character, the grieving father, is resolved through the experience of a mystical dream state rather than through real-life events or conversations.

    I actually enjoyed reading both of these books, although I suspect it is unlikely that there will be many other readers among those who like one or the other of these two books who will be able to appreciate both.

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