College student Franny Glass is in an existential funk. She says:

I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.

Like a certain Holden Caulfield, Franny sees the people around her as egotistical and “phony". But unlike Holden, Franny—and her brother, Zooey—were raised on world religion by their two eldest brothers.

So when Zooey tries to talk Franny out of her funk, we get not only a case study of familial love but also an intellectual exploration of a spiritual crisis.

Franny and Zooey are the youngest siblings of the Glass Family, characters from J.D. Salinger's book Franny and Zooey. The 1961 book comprises of a short story titled "Franny" and a novella "Zooey”.

I've read the book twice now and I adore it. I love the word choice and turns of phrase and wit. I love the backstreets into religion and philosophy. And I love the Glass family and their oh-so-subtle care for one another.

I even got goosebumps when her brother Zooey finally talks to Franny.

In the short story “Franny”, Franny meets her boyfriend Lane for a football weekend at his college. During their lunch together, she starts to have a bit of a breakdown.

At one point, Franny explains if it weren't so late, she'd drop her major, English. She'd even drop college. “I mean it's all the most incredible farce”, she says.

At another, she explains why she quit her passion, theater:

Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right.

And later:

I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.

I'm sympathetic to Franny here. I've come to a similar conclusion, that life is but status games, in series and in parallel. And I too am a status-seeking monkey, a phony. I think of my interest in doing startups. I think of my interest in blogging. Do those come from a place of ego? Is that my subconscious, trying to signal I am ambitious and have worth?

Because like fish swim in water, we swim in games of status and ego. Fish sometimes forget they're in the water and we sometimes forget we're in the game.

But Franny, is it the right move to just... quit? Quit English and university and theater altogether? The answer's got to be no, right?

Let’s look to “Zooey” for answers.

In the novella “Zooey”, Zooey, who’s 25, helps Franny through her spiritual breakdown. We get the sense that Zooey is just like Franny, but older. As Franny puts it, they’re bothered by “the same kind of things” and “for the same reasons.”

From the novella, I gathered two insights.

The first insight came after Zooey critiques Franny on her spiritual approach. She’s crying and there’s a lull in the conversation. Zooey then looks through the window, and sees an eight-year-old girl hiding behind a tree.

Fifteen feet away from her, her dog, a young dachshund, is “sniffing to find her, scurrying in frantic circles, his leash dragging behind him”. They’re playing hide-and-seek.

“The anguish of separation was scarcely bearable for him, and when at last he picked up his mistress’s scent, it wasn’t a second too soon. The joy of reunion, for both, was immense.”
She said a number of words of praise to him, in the private argot of the game, then put him down and picked up his leash, and the two walked gaily west, toward Fifth Avenue and the Park and out of Zooey’s sight.

It’s a dang wholesome sight.

In response to this, Zooey:

“God damn it,” he said, “there are nice things in the world—and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos.”

Franny and Zooey question the people around them and their motives too much. They get self-absorbed and worked up and think themselves into a knot. And I’m guilty of the same.

To get out of that headspace, I want to remember there are simple, small, happy things in the world, like an eight-year-old and her puppy playing hide-and-seek.

The second insight Zooey saves for the end. It answers the question, should Franny quit theater? If the audience are morons and the other performers are phonies, what other road is there for her?

Zooey shares an anecdote about how as a kid, his brother Seymour told Zooey to shine his shoes before he went out on TV. But the audience and announcer and sponsors were all morons, Zooey protested. And no one could see his shoes from where he sat. But Seymour to shine them anyway: for the Fat Lady. Do it for the Fat Lady. Since then, Zooey mostly shined his shoes.

Franny chimes in too, and says she remembers that Seymour used to tell her to be funny for the Fat Lady.

Zooey finishes with this:

“I don’t care where an actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television… But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady… And don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?… It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Like their brother Seymour says, we should do talk and dress and act for the Fat Lady. The Fat Lady is you and me and Christ. The Fat Lady is all of us.

Earlier in the novella, we read:

Seymour once said to me—in a crosstown bus, of all places—that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.

Franny, Zooey says earlier, should act for God. She should be God’s actress. She shouldn’t care about the fruits of her labor, or the intelligence of her audience. She should just act.

A quote earlier in the book, from the Bhagavad Gita, sums it up:

Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits.