This was the first story I ever taught, in a class on Zen Buddhism I took as an undergrad (everybody in the class taught some topic for half an hour). It’s been twenty-six years, at least, so I don’t really remember the details although I think I only assigned the middle section, the interaction between Seymour and Sybil. Coming back at the story, I find myself drawn into some of the masterful elements of craft in the story, particularly the first section which I’m pretty sure I did not teach all those years ago. The remarkable specificity of the opening paragraph with its “Ninety-seven New York advertising men” and the complete record of everything Muriel did while waiting for a long distance line to open so she could call her parents. The remarkable sentence, “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.” The oblique references to an earlier suicide attempt by Seymour which might have taken place with Muriel in the car with him, given her parents’ concern about “that funny business with the trees.” The whole thing is a beautiful piece of art.
I wonder about my idea back then that the story was to be read as a sort of Zen koan. The fact that Nine Stories itself employs the koan about one hand clapping as its epigram might seem like support to this idea, but I had my doubts even when I was teaching the story to my classmates and they continue now. It feels, in some ways, as if Seymour is almost a slightly more sophisticated version of Kevin Kline’s character in A Fish Called Wanda who employs Eastern mysticism as a sort of justification and explanation for his own depression, but who most likely has not reached the level of satori that he believes he has.
This is Salinger’s second story to appear in The New Yorker, following by a bit over a year, the uncollected “A Slight Rebellion Off Madison” which was incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye.