|Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews|
My Salinger Year
Bloomsbury. 2014. 249 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5550 8.
Joanna Rakoff begins this memoir by describing "all of us girls," all setting off from apartments for offices in midtown New York, Soho or Union Square and all "clad in variations on a theme—the neat skirt and sweater redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith." This reference to Plath is interesting, because just as Plath described her sojourn as guest editor at the magazine Mademoiselle in her novel, The Bell Jar, Rakoff's memoir is about her own experiences whilst working at the old and venerable literary establishment, the Agency. Her style, too, has a smooth, gossipy, story-telling interest, similar to Plath's in The Bell Jar, although she has a very different story to tell.
After dropping out of her studies in London in order to return to America to pursue her writing career, Rakoff was fortuitously offered a job as personal assistant to the managing editor of the Agency. On her first day, she discovered that the Agency was rather old-fashioned—card-files, fax machine, a very recently acquired photocopier but no computers at all. She needed to learn to use a Dictaphone and revert to typing on a dusty Selectric typewriter, and she had to work out many things for herself. Only with regard to a client called 'Jerry' was her boss forcefully instructive. Many people, she was told, would ask for his address or phone number, or to be put in touch with him. "Never, never, never" was she to tell them anything; never call him, never write to him, and never chat to him on the phone. Only as she left the office that night and noticed some J.D. Salinger books in a bookcase near the door did realisation dawn: "Oh, I thought, that Jerry."
Although she does have some telephone conversations with Salinger, and does eventually meet him, this book is more about her own life at work and at home than it is about him. Curiously, she only read Catcher in the Rye and Salinger's other books for the first time towards the end of her year at the Agency. At one point, however, after reading many of the letters addressed to Salinger, letters which he required the Agency to intercept and answer, she got tired of sending out the standard form-letter and began to adapt and extend it and make it more personal. The results were unexpected.
Rakoffs observations of her eccentric boss and of the other people she worked with are fascinating and, as she notes in the foreword to the book, she tells the truth, as best she can, based on things she wrote at the time and on interviews with the people she knew. She describes her social life, her friends, and, especially, her often strained and strange relationship with Don, the man she lived with. And her continuing attachment to her ex-boyfriend haunts her.
Rakoff's "Salinger year" was very much her own rite-of-passage: a time in which she developed her own skills as a literary agent and a time when she learned lessons about her own needs, loves, and ambitions. She left the Agency in the end to become a writer. And a fine, interesting, and entertaining writer she is.