“This is a piece of processed cheese. It’s like Velveeta. It’s like the worst kind of bio you can see.” So sayeth Peter Travers, the movie critic for Rolling Stone, who isn’t alone in the movie community in wanting to forget new Salinger documentary from Shane Salerno as soon as possible. Salerno sought to demystify and humanize the elusive Salinger, and answer the big questions about his traumatic wartime experience, his disappearance from public life, and his subsequent creative output.
In the years since he ceased publishing in the mid 1960s, anyone who approached Salinger directly for these answers (let alone answers to their own life conundrums) were met by a prickly figure who was quick to point out he didn’t know any more than they did. These meetings were always a disappointment, leaving Salinger’s pilgrims disappointed and further dejected. What Salerno has done, his critics would argue, is take that experience and give it to every single person who purchased a ticket.
The accompanying book of the same title has been more or less written off as an accomplice to the crimes of the film, with any criticism leveled in its directions being more or less verbatim the same that has been spit at the movie.
What hasn’t been talked about much, except in passing, has been the form of the book, a form that blatantly bears the stamp of Salerno’s complicitous co-author David Shields, the polarizing writer behind Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and, most recently, How Literature Saved My Life.
The book takes the form of a pseudo-oral biography, applying the format to a collection of new interviews as well as disparate fragments from previously published interviews, articles, and books, along with Shields and Salerno adding their two-cents in every so often to keep the narrative arc on track, much as a narrator would in a documentary. There are also whole chapters that intermittently focus entirely on a piece of, of series of, correspondences to and from Salinger himself, which gives us a more sustained look at the
In my review of How Literature Saved My Life, I wrote:
“What’s interesting is that Shields has managed to turn his pleas for a new form of literature into that very form of literature. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a reader to be exasperated by this, wondering when Shields will step down off the soap box and get to writing this next generation literature he’s spent two books extolling the virtues of.”
What I didn’t see coming was him turning this energy into a biography, and one of the most talked-about in recent memory.
What’s obvious now is that biography, and particularly oral biography, lends itself perfectly to the values that Shields has laid out as integral for literature to have a vital, interesting future. What Shields is interested in is not truth, so much as the narrative that presents itself when disparate fragments are arranged just so. An oral biography, by its very nature, isn’t particularly interested in capital T truth, as it relies less on rigorously researched facts to construct something real, and more on the imperfections of many memories to congeal into something that supersedes objective reality.
What often ends up happening in purely objective biography is that what doesn’t fit with the facts is often excluded, or is editorially marked as questionable, to be taken with a grain of salt, purely as a colorful aside. But the form Salinger takes neither renders narrative obsolete nor reduces Salinger’s life to conjecture. Somewhere between excerpts from questionable biographies, personal letters, and allusions to off-the-record interviews, Shields manages to turn our elusive subject into a pointillist portrait that may ring truer than any of the unearthed photos.
This leaves Shields as more a curator than author, a reality custodian, if you will, a hat he seems more than willing to wear. Quoting Shields quoting Joyce, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”