The names and ‘identifying traits’ of many of the real-life people in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year, have been changed, but, she assures us, ‘this is the actual story of my Salinger year’. Her autobiography tells of her year living in New York in the mid-1990s after completing her Master’s degree at University College London, working as an assistant at a famous literary agency.
The beginning of Rakoff’s book paints a vivid picture of a swathe of young women commuting to their first after-college positions in New York City, ‘all of us clad in variations on a theme – the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith’. She goes on to say that she and the many other women in her position lived ‘never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves, and this seemed the most socially acceptable way to go about doing so, though it was already becoming clear that this was not at all the way to go about doing so’.
There is almost a feel of The Devil Wears Prada to Rakoff’s story at its beginning, working as she is for a woman set in her ways, who can be famously tricky to get on with. Before appointing Rakoff, she had been ‘interviewing potential assistants for months’. Rakoff is almost immediately put in charge of fending off those who are intent upon learning about J.D. Salinger, the agency’s most important client. They long to know where he lives so that they can ‘interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what’. Rakoff is honest and earnest, confiding that she had never read any of Salinger’s work, and detailing some of the replies which she wrote to the fanmail which arrived for him, which was, under strict instruction, not to be sent on. She sets out the ins and outs of her personal life alongside her job, and the way in which they sometimes overlap has been marvellous worked.
Throughout, My Salinger Year is so well written. The scenes which Rakoff illustrates come to life immediately; particularly vivid is her description of New York entirely shut down by a blizzard. As a memoir, it is compelling; as a piece of literary criticism, it is fascinating and sometimes even profound. My Salinger Year is sure to interest everyone who has ever wondered what life is like working within a literary agency, or who wants to learn more about life in the book world – or, indeed, about what J.D. Salinger, the man, was like.