Review: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Margot McGovern reviews My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff.

In her early twenties, having completed a masters in English, Joanna Rakoff headed to New York with the idea of becoming a poet and landed herself a so-called ‘glamour’ job as a literary agent’s assistant to make ends meet.

It’s a familiar story and one many aspiring writers have lived, or at the very least watched play out in Girls or The Devil Wears Prada. However, while Rakoff derives humour from the eccentricities of The Agency and her own naiveté, what ultimately emerges is a sensitive and nuanced reflection on coming-of-age in that most romantic of settings: 1990s literary New York.

Rakoff’s employer remains unnamed throughout but, as the title suggests, The Agency she works for represents none other than J. D. Salinger. Little has changed at the office since his heyday, providing Rakoff with a beautifully antiquated and stagnant centre to her otherwise grungy New York. The office has no computers, the photocopier and fax machine are recent additions (viewed with much suspicion) and the ambiance is hushed and dark and dusty—a once great empire seemingly on the verge of collapse:

…I found missives from the late 1980s imprinted on long, columnar sheets of telex paper, in that device’s charmingly chunky lettering, a font I associated with a different era, with Thin Man movies and steamship travel. The Agency, it seemed, had held on to that era, fox stoles and all, as long as it could. 

At The Agency Rakoff spends much of her time typing dictation and composing return-to-sender letters for Salinger’s fan mail on a dated Selectric, to the point where her daily routine hinges on the absurd:

For weeks I typed and typed and typed. I typed so much I dreamed of typing. In my dreams, my fingers ran over the keys and noting happened, though my ribbon was intact and my machine appeared to be functioning. Instead of letters imprinting on paper, birds flew out of the innards of my typewriter, chirping and flapping, or swarms of white dusty moths, some huge, some tiny, and took up roost around the office. The hum of the machine filled my days, a backdrop to every conversation, every word I read, so that when I shut the Selectric off at the end of the day, and sheathed it in its plastic cover, the enduing silence filled me with immeasurable joy. 

My Salinger Year coverThe office holds its breath waiting for word from the reclusive ‘Jerry’ to the exclusion of working clients. (80s kids will delight in a rather hilarious cameo by Judy Blume who arrives to find her oeuvre relegated to a neglected corner.) Rakoff spends hours each week reading heartfelt letters from Salinger’s fans, staring at the prominent display of his works across from her desk, listening to her colleagues refer to him in reverent tones and even, occasionally, speaking with him by phone. But here’s the clincher: she’s never read his books. To her the Salinger circus is an absurdity. Like many young English graduates, she takes herself and her reading far too seriously and, to quote T. S. Eliot, ‘smiles at situations which [she] cannot see’:

I had no interest in Salinger’s fairy tales of old New York, in precocious children expounding on Zen koans or fainting on sofas, exhausted by the tyranny of the material world. I was not interested in characters with names like Boo Boo and Zooey. I was not interested in hyper-articulate seven-year-olds who quoted from the Bhagavad Gita. Even the names of his stories seemed juvenile and too clever-clever: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”

I didn’t want to be entertained. I wanted to be provoked. 

Outside office hours she is equally judgemental in the way that only someone who hasn’t got her shit together can be. She’s bitchy and haughty towards friends who have given up bohemian dreams in favour of more suburban pursuits, while bemoaning the fact that she can’t afford dinner. Comparisons to Leana Dunham’s Hannah Horvath are inevitable; however, Rakoff is firmly Gen X—no less entitled or middle class, but with a more easy-going confidence. She’s young, she’s smart—things will eventually work out despite all evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, her life is a far cry from that of a sophisticated woman of letters. Despite all the glamorous book parties, she mentions few real friends. Her apartment is barely habitable. Her boyfriend is a communist, out-of-work writer who masks a deep fear of commitment under the guise of Big Ideas. She yearns for connections she can’t make and feels overwhelmingly alone.

The joy of My Salinger Year lies not in Rakoff’s ‘down the rabbit hole’ foray into the eccentric workings of The Agency, but in seeing her, through reading and experience, begin to look beyond herself and develop a broader worldview. There is beautiful irony that in putting off further postgraduate study in favour of becoming a writer in New York, in mocking the conservative choices of her friends and defiantly sticking with a lifestyle she sees as more authentic and real, Rakoff’s narrative shares parallels with those Salinger stories she is initially so quick to dismiss.

Writing with distance, Rakoff puts her experiences into perspective and reflects on her youth with a refreshingly mature voice. This gives her story resonance, sensitivity towards her subjects and a sense of objectivity with which to interrogate the decisions—good and bad—she made as a young woman. But more than straight memoir, My Salinger Year considers how we are shaped by our reading and the way great books teach us compassion and offer us new ways of seeing the world. Man, that sounds phony, but believe me it’s not.

If you enjoyed My Salinger Year, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

Prozac Nation Catcher in the Rye
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
04_wolitzer The hottest state home_at_the_end of the world
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer The Hottest State by Ethan Hawke A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham

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