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15 Mar 19:45

Phoniness Is Universal

by Andrew Sullivan

Helen Gao isn’t surprised that The Catcher In The Rye continues to captivate Chinese readers:

In the 1980s, the novel’s attack on conservative social mores resonated with the liberal and iconoclastic zeitgeist of a newly opened China; in the early 1990s, its cynic and frustrated tone gave expression to the despondency of Chinese youth, who had just seen their democratic ideals crushed by the massacre of student protesters in central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The 21st century, which has brought China unprecedented material wealth and social inequality, has granted the book new relevance.

Huo Er Deng, or the Chinese incarnation of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist, speaks a language uncannily similar to that of a stressed student in a competitive Shanghai high school, or a disgruntled migrant worker serving a difficult boss, or a bored scion – in Chinese slang “rich second generation” – struggling to lead a meaningful life. Indeed, who would understand “phony” better than a generation weighed down by spiritual discontentment and the pressures of modern life, one whose grievances are still muffled by party control?

In September, Reed Johnson noted that Russians feel a similar affection for the book they call Over the Abyss in Rye:

First introduced to readers during Khrushchev’s thaw, Salinger’s novel became an instant sensation among Soviet readers in the 1960s, and it has remained a classic. The Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism, but Soviet readers were more likely to see the novel in broader terms, as a psychologically nuanced and universally appealing portrait of a misfit who rebels against the pieties of a conformist society. For a postwar intelligentsia chafing under repressive Communist rule, Holden Caulfield’s voice was electrifying – who knew phony better than these daily consumers of official Soviet language? Teenagers adopted their hero’s speech patterns—or their Russian equivalents – even though the world of The Catcher in the Rye, with its private schools, hotel trysts, and jazz clubs, existed across a great abyss.