The Tragic Life of Bananafish
Alex Abramovich · Salinger's Little Joke
Twenty-one years ago in the LRB, Julian Barnes accused J.D. Salinger's erstwhile biographer, Ian Hamilton, of 'reverse reductivism': 'Normally, the biographer establishes the course of a writer’s life and then uses it to "explain" the work,' Barnes wrote.
With Salinger’s life largely unavailable, or where available obscure, Hamilton finds himself doing the opposite: deducing the life from the work . . . ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, one of Salinger’s most elusive stories, is discussed in terms of a. Salinger’s visit to a hotel at Daytona Beach; b. the history and genealogy of the Glass family; and c. the stylistic break it represents from ‘The Inverted Forest’, published a month earlier. ‘Bananafish’, Hamilton records in passing, is ‘spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld’. Sure, but what’s it, well, about? How does it work as a story, what do the bananafish signify, why the suicide? Hamilton merely notes that the ending was to prove ‘a seminar talking point for years to come’, as if the seminarists were wasting their time.
Well, Hamilton died in 2001; Salinger died last week, and the seminarists are still at it: a quick JSTOR search suggests that they haven't yet gotten to 'Bananafish's' bottom. But when I read the story, I can't help thinking of my old thesis adviser, Stanley Sultan, who'd started out writing literary fiction, but ended up teaching, alongside Sylvia Plath, at Smith. (‘Stanley "fired" - one year appointment ending next year,' Plath wrote in her diaries. 'He volatile, enthusiastic, "immature", they secretly jealous of him spending over a year on a "non-academic project" - a novel.' And so it went, among the seminarists.)
Happily, Stanley ended up elsewhere, with tenure and a beige Cadillac convertible. I took a bunch of his classes. One day, midway through a course on The Waste Land, someone (possibly me) asked about the ‘silk handkerchiefs' - 'testimony of summer nights' - floating in Eliot's Thames. Those handkerchiefs had probably been used as prophylactics, Stanley said. And then he told us that in the New York of his youth, floating condoms would have been called 'banana fish'.
The reference is almost impossible to nail down: 'There are a number of "X fish" terms that refer to condoms floating on bodies of water,' the OED's editor-at-large for North America, Jesse Sheidlower, told me when I asked him to help me locate the phrase. ‘“Coney Island whitefish" is probably the best known, and "Hudson River whitefish" is another. But I think I've only heard "banana fish" in this sense once, and I can barely find any evidence for it online.'
But when I flipped through its pages with Stanley's definition in mind, this most elusive story seemed to tilt on its axis and snap into place. What's 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish' about? Among other things, it seems to be about sexual gluttony and/or disgust: bananafish 'lead a very tragic life', Seymour Glass tells his young companion, Sybil Carpenter.
'. . . they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as 78 bananas . . . Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again.'
'What happens to them?' Sybil asks.
'Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can't get out of the banana hole? . . . I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die.'
If Stanley's right, Seymour's just done us, Sybil and Julian Barnes the favour of explaining his own, forthcoming suicide. (His disgust, which is also self-disgust, turns self-prophylactic.) And, in fact, the more I look at it the darker, and more sexualised, 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish' seems to become. 'Sex Is Fun - or Hell' is the headline of the magazine article that Seymour's wife, Muriel, is reading when we first encounter her, 22 words into the story. And if Seymour's conversation with the (unsupervised) young girl strikes you as a bit off, consider the very first mention of bananafish, which comes just after Sybil's declaration of something like sexual jealousy (‘Sharon Lipshutz said you let her sit on the piano seat with you'):
'Ah, Sharon Lipshutz,' said the young man. 'How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire.' He suddenly got up to his feet. He looked at the ocean. 'Sybil,' he said, 'I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll see if we can catch a bananafish.'
'A bananafish,' he said, and undid the belt of his robe. He took off his robe . . .
The surrounding passages read like the treatment for a perfect Coen Brothers' movie; they're coded, moving, but crazed. If Seymour's mixture of 'memory and desire' is an obvious Waste Land reference, what about Sybil's 'canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one of which she would not actually be needing another nine or ten years'?
'It was really just an ordinary silk handkerchief,' another character explains. 'You could see when you got up close.'
The italics are mine: according to the seminarists and SparkNotes editors, Sybil's innocence - and Seymour's too-pure-to-live-ity - are stark rebukes to Muriel's meatiness and materialism. But what if Salinger had something smeary, and more ambiguous in mind? What if his story - which appeared in the New Yorker 62 years ago last week - was also about the thrill of getting a good, dark joke past the magazine's famously prudish editors?