June 22, 2009
One of the long-running bits on Seinfeld was the parody of the J. Peterman catalogue. Elaine Benes, Jerry Seinfeld’s friend, works for the company and writes the copy for the clothing and accessories that are intended for adventurers and travelers to exoitc places. Since the original copy in the actual catalogues was a bit self-conscious in its appeal to wealthy people who perhaps wanted to look like adventurers without really risking anything, it was sometimes hard to tell where exactly the parody began.
If I recall correctly, the J. Peterman catalogue sometimes got delivered to this house. When Lynn was little I shopped a lot by catalogue, and buying from one purveyor got you on the mailing lists of others. I was familiar with the tone from J. Peterman ads in The New Yorker, the items displayed in line drawings instead of photographs and the copy more about the feeling one might have about oneself from wearing the duster or the safari vest than about the value and utility of the item. Though I’ll never (well, probably never) go on a safari, I do own a safari vest — I like all the little pockets for my pens and my notebooks and magazines that leave my hands free on a Gallivant that requires a lot of walking — but I think it came from Banana Republic.
I don’t get so many catalogs anymore, but one that comes consistently, because I order from it consistently, is Lands’ End. I like their sport knit pants, their plain black skirts and cotton twin sets, their sturdy luggage that comes in orange. I even own a Lands’ End bathing suit, but unless you frequent the Friendship Center whirlpool early in the morning, you’ll never see me in it. “Mom clothes,” Lynn calls the stuff, although she admits she recently acquired a pair of orange leather moccasins. I think it saddened her to be looking at her twenty-fourth birthday and seeing she had just bought the same shoes I have in purple.
A Lands’ End sale catalog arrived about the same day Lynn did last week. She’d taken some time off to be in town when her best friend, who got married last summer and lives in Utah, would be visiting. We were sitting together at the table Saturday morning, and as Lynn paged through the catalog, my eye fell on p. 42, and the picture you see at left.
I don’t know about anybody else, but I got the reference right away. (You probably have to be of a certain age and a certain literary sensibility to do so.) The large tote is marked “Seymour,” the medium is monogrammed “JDS,” and the small tote has a single “S” (a little hard to see because of the glare from the camera’s flash on the glossy page). This is clearly a reference to J.D. Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and included in Nine Stories, the 1963 collection that I turned to after I read The Catcher in the Rye.
In this story, Seymour Glass, a man about 30 who has returned from the war with what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, is staying at a luxury hotel in some unspecified beach resort with his wife, Muriel. In the first part of the story, Muriel talks to her mother via long distance telephone about how the trip was and how Seymour is doing. Muriel’s mother is concerned about Seymour’s fragile mental health, exhibited by some bizarre behavior such as erratic driving and fear of people seeing his tattoo, although he does not have a tattoo.
In the second part, the focus shifts to Seymour, who is sitting on the beach having a conversation with a child named Sybil. They talk about bananafish in terms that become more and more fantastical. Seymour pronounces the day a perfect day for bananafish. At the end of the conversation, Seymour returns to his hotel room. Muriel is sleeping. Seymour sits down on the edge of the bed, takes out a gun, and kills himself.
I was seventeen years old when I read that story for the first time. I still have my collection of the four volumes of Salinger’s work published in book form, in Bantam paperback editions that sold at the time for less than a dollar each. The look and feel of the books, the yellowed edges of the pages and the musty smell that rises up from the acid-laced paper when I open one, are a remnant of my adolescence. The Catcher in the Rye had become the cult favorite in my circle of friends, the Harry Potter or Twilight that we carried around, read closely, studied, tried to emulate.
My Salinger period lasted probably through my college years. By 1969 I’d read all four books several times, and though I’ve carted the little clutch of books to six different residences, I’ve probably opened each only when I need to quote or recall a passage for some other purpose, such as the odd defense I wrote last year of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (a novel to which Catcher is vastly superior) or the piece I wrote a few months later about Lynn’s new car, in which I use the voice of Holden Caulfield as an epigraph.
I am a much more sophisticated reader than I was at seventeen. Reading the story again I see its brilliance anew, or maybe for the first time. As a teenager I didn’t know anyone who had Seymour’s particular mental illness (well, undoubtedly I did know some, but didn’t know what it was I knew), I had no experience with an intimate emotional relationship (and thus did not fully appreciate the nature of love’s austere and lonely offices), and I still tended to expect a happy ending. In just 4000 words (the recommended length for a modern short story), Salinger shows us a man coming unglued, a woman who we fear may be too fragile herself (and too self-absorbed and shallow) to cope well with the horror she will wake to, and a child whose wise innocence is not compelling enough to save him.
If “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” raises more questions than it answers, so does the Lands’ End ad. The placement of the name and the initials has to have been deliberate, and I’m wondering what motivated the designer. But I’m happy to have been given this little nudge back into my literary history. I think I’ll be visiting with the Glass family some more this summer.
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