‘”We need,” she said, as I arranged myself in the chair across from her large wooden desk, “to talk about Jerry.”’ Who’s Jerry? The J in J. D Salinger. Who’s I? The young Joanna Rakoff, starting out in 1996, the literary world spread out before her for the taking, a Salinger virgin, fed instead on the works of Sylvia Plath. Like many recent graduates Rakoff found herself in the out-of-university predicament, the ‘pivot’ year, the year of change, of new directions and finding one’s feet. My Salinger Year is a beautiful memoir, one that expertly documents the trials and joys of making one’s way in the big city. Full of hope, not yet sullied by the endless hours of 9-5, Rakoff took on a so called ‘glamour job’ at a literary agency as an editorial assistant, the kind of job that gets you invites to all the parties, where you get paid – not with money – but with the people you meet.
However it soon becomes evident that Rakoff’s day job is no ordinary debut into the world of literary agencies; rather than finding herself sorting through slush piles, her days become filled predominantly with sorting through endless piles of fan mail—specifically J. D. Salinger’s. In the process Rakoff uncovers a whole world of stories, a wealth of reviews and responses, a sea of animated readers at the tips of her fingers. As time goes on she begins, tentatively, to respond to these messages. Her efforts to reply to the piles of emotive and often heart-warming messages streaming in and out of the office day by day offer a response, a symbolic shoulder to lean on, a sympathetic listener, even the occasional insight or unsolicited piece of advice. However, frequently the retaliations to her words suggest her efforts are more trouble than they’re worth. Rakoff’s efforts to connect with Salinger’s fans often result only in anger and pain, together with a deep rooted frustration.
Reading this book as an intern myself at the time felt slightly surreal, Rakoff’s post-graduate world strangely similar to my own, the same routine tasks of admin and tea runs, the same exciting people flitting in and out of the office every day. The world of work was one I was discovering in the same manner Rakoff describes, with all its ups and downs, the painful glamour of ‘creative-city’ poverty: the hapless attempts to find accommodation; the over-dependency on city smart friends and relations; the unconscious splurges of that minimal budget on a sandwich that really shouldn’t be as expensive as it is in some chic little deli round the corner; the long and suit-filled commute.
This is a wonderful book. It’s a book that manages to be heart-achingly intimate at times, and yet remains undeniably eloquent even when describing the most mundane of office tasks. Rakoff captures with ease the eerie and exhilarating bustle of a literary agency. By the end of the book one gets the impression that, like a Salinger character, all Rakoff is really doing is recounting the trial of coming of age. She’s produced a bildungsroman of entering that ‘real world’ after the sanctuary of university, student loans strapped to one’s back, dreams as high as ever, funds equally as small. Like Salinger’s infamous Franny one gets the feeling that all she’s trying to do really is ‘figure out how to live in this world’; the world that she creates, however, one that is convincingly worth living in.
By Thea Hawlin