Joanna Rakoff’s memoir ‘My Salinger Year’ is a treat for literature lovers, and certainly for anyone who has read J D Salinger’s works. Not only is Rakoff an extremely engaging writer, as well as a thoughtful observer - she was also able to write an intriguing memoir by being in the right place, at the right time. Her first career job after graduating college was at a literary agency in New York, one she declines to name out of deference, but easily identifiable from its major client, the enigmatic Salinger. Surprisingly, Rakoff had never read ‘Catcher in The Rye’ despite being a literature major: it had just ‘passed her by’ in adolescence. However, she was well aware of Salinger’s reputation as one of the most famous recluses in the literary world, and the ‘Agency’ where Rakoff was now entrenched as the newbie assistant, had the task of collecting his substantial royalties and warding off any potential contact with fans or media. From the outset, Rakoff paints the Agency as a little piece of glamorous antiquity in the burgeoning digital world of the 1990s. On day one her boss breezes in like Meryl Streep in ‘Devil Wears Prada’: ‘As predicted, my boss arrived at ten, swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern. “Hello”, I started to say, rising from my chair, as one might for royalty or clergy. But she swooped past me into her office, as if her glasses prevented peripheral vision.’ According to Rakoff, Salinger’s agent is distracted and aloof, constantly drawing on a cigarette, and determined to keep emails and ebooks at bay. In fact, Rakoff has to use an electric typewriter in the office and it is not until the end of her year at the Agency that one of the young agents persuades the boss to acquire one computer ‘to check emails’. Rakoff shows bemusement rather than contempt for the Agency’s ‘ye olde ways’, and I read it as a lovely homage to the way things used to roll in publishing. The exchanges regarding Salinger do not dominate what is essentially a coming of age tale for Rakoff, determining her path at those cross roads often met after college or university: the exchanges nonetheless reveal much about the recluse and are handled with a deftly humorous touch, ‘”Never, ever, ever are you to give out his address or phone number”. “I understand,” I told her, though I wasn’t sure I did, as I didn’t know who Jerry was. This was 1996 and the first Jerry that came to mind was Seinfeld, who presumably wasn’t a client of the Agency, though one never knew, I supposed’.
Rakoff touches upon so many relatable events in one’s twenties, well certainly mine anyway. Her nervous first day is reminiscent of most first days on the job: ‘The letters piled up on my desk and the hours clicked by. At 1:30, my boss put her coat back on and went out, returning with a small brown bag. When, I wondered, would she tell me to go to lunch? And was I meant to do the same? To buy my lunch and bring it back, eat at my desk? The outside world had come to seem like a dream.’
And her relationships have the arc of universality as well. Firstly, there is her changing relationship with her best friend Jenny, who has chosen the suburban path, to live out of expensive New York and forgo her dreams of writing to instead edit school textbooks. Rakoff replies to Jenny’s suggestion that to take the suburban path was easier: “’I know, “ I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I thought, had Jenny’. Her relationship with her aspiring writer boyfriend Don moves the story along, and while we can see where it is all going, gives Rakoff scope to analyse her life in the memoir.
New York is the other character in this memoir and like any good piece, ‘My Salinger Year’ makes you want to experience the moments described in that exciting city: ‘One night in early July, at a rooftop party, I spent hours talking to two young New Yorker editors. They were a few years my senior – and a few Don’s junior – and dressed like characters from a Whit Stillman movie. They were, in other words, exactly as I’d pictured New Yorker editors, if I’d had the wherewithal to even imagine the people behind a magazine that had so profoundly shaped my life’
‘My Salinger Year’ is constructed exactly how I’ve come to like a memoir: a brief snapshot in time, dwelling on a life changing event or time period rather than a whole lifetime. It is a testimony to Rakoff’s writing that I cared at the close of the book what happened to her as she flashed forward to the present date. One hint - she has now read all of Salinger.