The Short Story: Opening Lines: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

The Short Story: Opening Lines: A Perfect Day for Bananafish

‘There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.’

JD Salinger, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, in Nine Stories (New York, Little Brown, 1953), pp 3-18, p.3

This is the opening sentence of a short story by JD Salinger called ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ first published in The New Yorker in 1948. 

I have just joined a group of emerging writers who all have full manuscripts we want to turn into books. We are all very serious about making our manuscripts as good as they can be, so we plan to meet monthly, to discuss our work and practise over brunch. Steph, who brought us all together, in whose house we meet, and who facilitates these meetings, suggested that one of the things we could do to help us understand our craft is type out the opening lines of stories and/or novels we admire, just to see how they work. When I got home from the first meeting, last week, I was so enthused by the idea I decided to get on with it immediately. Thus by the end of the day I’d typed out a number of opening lines, and, in a reply to an email from Steph the next day, mentioned this. She had set up a Face Book page for the group and asked that on it I post my conclusions. ‘Okay,’ I said, eagerly. But it’s turned out to be much more time consuming than I envisioned. I guess this is because when you start interrogating anything at all, you tend to find there’s much more to it than initially meets the eye. But there’s also the problem of trying to explain my thinking to others. It requires a level of clarity jotting things down in my journal doesn’t. So it’s taken me over a week, and I now have far too much for a Facebook post, so put it here instead. I warn you, it’s still a bit of a stew. I’m a very slow writer, and a week is nowhere near long enough for me to polish a piece of writing. I share it only because I promised, and can only hope it makes some sense.

The idea of doing this is to try to gain some understanding of the decisions Salinger made as he wrote, edited, and polished his story. So I’ve just gone though it, clause by clause, and tried to interrogate it to discover his secrets. 

It’s a compound sentence containing two main clauses linked by a dependent, or subordinate clause/phrase and a strange little isolated ‘and.’ We also call such sentences ‘cumulative’ because they begin with a main idea in the form of a main clause (a simple sentence in its own right) and adds details to further expand that idea. 

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel,’ is the first main clause. On first reading it sounds like a mere statement of a fairly dull fact, but read it a few times and it starts putting ideas in your head.

For me it begins to sound both comic and faintly sinister. It could almost be the first line of a joke, think three men walked in to a bar, but the very notion of ninety-seven advertising men, wherever they’re from, I find a little claustrophobic. I see a glossy hotel lobby swarming with cocky men in suits whose purpose is to manipulate people into parting with their money. I can see them flashing their expensive watches, the spoils of their endeavours, their badges of honour: ‘is that the latest Breguet? Wow!’ Advertising uses language and images to convince us we need things we don’t, like absurdly priced watches, it’s purpose is to wilfully miscommunicate in order to increase the profits of its clients. That these particular men are from New York adds another level because New York is the financial capital of the United States: the image of stop at nothing greed is cemented. The main idea, then, seems to be that something big (97, not a small number), whose business it is to subvert language for its own ends (advertising men) is at large. But there’s also something comic, and therefore diffusing, about the number ninety-seven in this context. 

‘There were ninety-seven New York advertising men…’ say it out loud, feel where your tongue lands, there’s a kind of spitting action in the act of annunciating those ‘th’ and ’n’ sounds, as though you have something unpleasant, tea-leaves, say, in your mouth. It’s hard not to lisp. Hear, and feel, the hiss of the Ss; the assonance of all those Es punctuated by the two Is and the single O; the soft consonance of the many Ns and the two Vs. There’s something flaccid sounding, no plosives to liven things up. Add this slightly toothless sound to the number 97 which, being three short of a nice round hundred, sounds a bit limp, especially if you consider that advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry (possibly only multi-million dollar in 1948, but still). So, ninety-seven sounds both too many – you’d be bumping into them everywhere! – and not quite enough. 

I also began to wonder about the narrator here: did s/he count the advertising men, ask the receptionist, or just make a rough guess? If it was a mere guess s/he’d probably just say about a hundred: 97 is oddly precise. I’m not going to insist it means something hugely significant, but it is something to consider because it must tell us something: Salinger decided on the number for a reason, surely? Another thing I wonder is whether the only advertising men in the hotel were these ninety-seven from New York. Could there have been another 33 from Arkansas; 72 from Delaware; 109 from California, and so on, for some massive industry conference on how to extract even more money from hardworking consumers? Whether there were or not is less important than the fact that Salinger, in the space of ten words, has managed to conjure all these thoughts, and make them grow in my head.  

The second main clause in this opening sentence is : ‘the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.’

The first thing I noticed about this was it is both vague and particular. ‘The girl’ is vague, she must have a name but we’re not told it, though use of the definite article singles her out for attention. We know we’re going to hear more of her. If Salinger had written ‘a girl’ we might think her nothing more than an example of the effect the advertising men were having on the functioning of the hotel, and conclude the advertising men to be the main subject of the line and, thus, the story. But he called her ‘the girl’ and gave her a specific room number (507 which, because of the 7, links her to the ad men with a little flash of recognition), and a time that manages to be only somewhat clear. Having been so exact with regard the number of advertising men, I might have expected the narrator to say ‘two twenty-three’ rather than ‘almost two-thirty.’ That ‘almost’ alters the tone just enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself, there are two other parts to Salinger’s opening line that add to the meaning of the first clause, and foreshadow the importance of the last. First, the ‘and’ which he gives a space all its own.

The word ‘and’ is a conjunction. We use conjunctions to join two clauses in a sentence. If the second clause is subordinate, that is it isn’t capable of being a stand alone sentence, we don’t conventionally put a comma before, or after, it. If it joins two main clauses we do put a comma before it. Here Salinger puts a comma either side of it, isolating it, surrounding it, for no grammatical reason. But he must have made that decision for a purpose, so what might that be? 

Try reading the whole sentence out loud (again), what happens when you reach the ‘and’? When I read it I stumble and hesitate, every time. Those commas interrupt the whole flow of the sentence. They make you, me at least, stop and think about how to proceed. It’s a minor stumble, but by including it Salinger demonstrates how even a tiny event, in this case a random couple of commas, can suspend (briefly, I know) communication. A much simpler reading of this aspect of the text could be that it merely indicates the narrator stopping to think, or for breath, before going on and, thus, provides a little insight into the mental state of the person telling this story. The phrase that follows also adds information about the narrator by slightly altering the tone.

The first clause could be the opening line of a rather boring newspaper article: ‘There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel for a conference on the value of packaging,’ for example. ‘Get it right, they concluded, and you can sell snow to Eskimos!’ Or something like that. My point is there is little indication of the narrative voice in it. But that isolated ‘and’ which pauses the flow of thought, is followed by a different tone: ‘the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines,’ is colloquial and faintly hysterical. It’s as if someone rather excitable is attempting to recall the details of the story, and they start off calm enough, pause to think, then emotion begins to get the better of them. A calm person would be more likely to say, ‘and because they were…’ but this person says, ‘the way they were…’ which makes me wonder, what way? What ways are there to monopolize long-distance lines? The only way I can think of is to make long-distance calls, all at once. 

The use of the word ‘monopolizing’ too, is dramatic. I get an image of swarming, taking over, suffocating. When something is monopolized its benefits are taken from the rest of us. We actually have laws to prevent that happening, and there are often, in the news, stories of businesses trying to monopolize some service or product, or natural resource. It’s a sinister word, that becomes even more sinister in the context of communication. These advertising men, whose business is to miscommunicate, have taken over the very means of communication with the outside world. The lines of communication have been broken, and now ‘the girl in 507’ can’t ‘get her call through.’ I can imagine one of the hotel workers, let’s say a bell boy, recounting the story in the pub later, a little drunk on both beer and his inside knowledge of the events that later unfold.

I’ve already said something about the nature of the final clause: that it’s a mix of vague and specific; that its subject, ‘the girl’ is not named, but has at least been given the definite article, which singles her out from all the other girls in the hotel. So we know she’s important to the story in her own right, not just an example of how the men of the first clause have affected the running of the hotel. She had to wait ‘to get her call through.’ Not merely to make her call, or to call her mum/friend/brother (whoever), ‘get her call through,’ adds a level of tension that ‘call her mother’ wouldn’t. We are impressed with the notion that this is an important call, and she is being prevented from making it. She is being curtailed by the advertising men. But, there’s something about the time, ‘from noon till almost two-thirty,’ that makes me doubt this is all the fault of those pesky New Yorkers. 

We aren’t told how big the hotel is, but I can’t help feeling no matter how vast I would notice ninety-seven of any grouping of men, or women for that matter. Advertising men, in their business suits and shiny shoes, would be unlikely to go unnoticed by anyone with the slightest interest in their surroundings, surely. And their presence would suggest some sort of business event, a conference say. Such events usually break for lunch, and during a break one could easily imagine them all dashing out to call home, or the office. Lunch breaks usually occur between the hours of noon and two. If I were staying in a hotel in which a big business conference were taking place I wouldn’t try to make a phone call at that time (remember we’re talking about a time long before mobile phones). If the call were as urgent as the words ‘get… through’ imply, I’d have tried earlier. Of course, we don’t know what has happened to make her need to get a call through, or when it happened. It may be that something occurred just before noon. If you read the rest of the story you’ll find, though, that that isn’t the case, so ‘the girl in 507’ has made a decision (to make a call when 97 other people are likely to) that is now causing her a problem. 

This could be for any number of reasons: she hasn’t noticed the mass of similar men; she has noticed them but didn’t think any further about what they are doing there; she’s used to being able to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants; she’s too disturbed to be able to think clearly… Whatever the reason, Salinger leads us to consider there is one, that it’s not all the fault of the advertising men, and that a little thought is all that’s needed to overcome the barrier they create. There’s actually a little bit of hope in there, I’d say, a little bit of thought and forward planning could stop the monopolisers. So this becomes a story not about a poor maiden thwarted in her attempt to get her message through by a group of evil ad men, but a much subtler story about how the decisions we make contribute to our own problems. In this case the problem seems to be one of communication. 

I could go on, as I’ve been writing this I’ve been harried by all number of ideas, including the fact I should probably be a bit clearer about such things as literary devices. I’ve mentioned a few, Salinger’s use of assonance and sibilance, etc., but not fully explicated them all. However, I think I’ve probably done enough to get a decent conversation going about the decisions writers make, and how they affect the reading experience. 

Not sure I’ve come to any conclusions, but I think I’ve found that the opening sentence of ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ sets the scene for a story about a problem of communication, and gone some way to showing why I think that. Just to reiterate: we have a hotel full of advertising men from New York who, at lunch time take up all the long-distance lines, and prevent the girl in 507 from making an important call. The way Salinger structures this sentence, and his word choice, leads this reader to believe that there’s much more to the fairly mundane scene than is immediately obvious. And there’s your hook.

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Header image: my annotated copy of Nine Stories.

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