bananafish noun, imaginary fish that swims into banana holes and eats so many bananas that it cannot swim out, subsequently dying in the hole
“They lead a very tragic life,” he said. “You know what they do, Sybil?”
She shook her head.
“Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas.” He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon. “Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again. Can’t fit through the door.”
I was at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas a few months ago for work when I saw a brand of children’s bedding at the exhibition named “bananafish.” It had been a long time since I had read JD Salinger’s “Nine Stories” but I still remembered the plot and the meaning behind the fictitious creature. I wonder if this bedding company knew the story as well or even at all. What a strange thing to pick for a brand name.
I suppose you could regard the bananafish as a positive creature as opposed to it being connected with the sadness of Salinger’s tale in a twisted sort of way. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s short, not cheerful though, so be in a good mood or at least a contemplative one before you do. In fact it’s a bit shocking when you read it for the first time. The main subject commits suicide at the end after having been lounging on a beach and playing with a toddler named Sybil in the ocean. As he guards Sybil on her inflatable float, he tells her to look for bananafish. It’s one of the last and few things we know about the main character, Seymour Glass, other than the fact he came back from WWII a bit off his gourd – most likely PTSD, which in those days carried quite a stigma.
Salinger has a magical way of isolating his characters and their pain from the world around them while simultaneously and clearly emphasizing that everyone and everything else goes on despite their troubles. He does it famously in Catcher, even better still in Frannie and Zooey. He has a magically simple and perpendicular way of doing so with stark dialogue and perfectly chosen adjectives, completely without literary frivolity. His writing is beautifully simple. His characters are complex and loveable, but often intensely melancholy. They always seem quite realistic and relatable. Reading about them somehow makes me feel less lonesome and I often seek their stories when I am feeling down.
So, bananafish and Seymour Glass…
Before we are given the scene of Seymour and Sybil, we learn about his wife, debating with her mother on the phone about her troubled husband, Seymour. Her mother is quite worried about his mental state and that her daughter might be in danger; the same Seymour watching over Sybil in the water and inventing imaginary animals. The Seymour that we are introduced to says a few strange things, but overall is funny, imaginative and protective of the little girl – the way a toddler, lacking the cynicism of an adult, would regard him.
In my opinion, Salinger’s gift to the reader is Sybil’s version of Seymour. The bananafish is his final act. His humor and imagination devoid of depression and mental illness in this moment of invention. His flaws are forgotten in their watch for the bananafish and what we and Sybil know of Seymour is marked by a feeling of paternal comfort, the last gasp of his true soul and being…the part that everyone else overlooks in their doubts and fear of him.
Or perhaps Seymour is the bananafish, having eaten his full of all the disappointments and sadness that the world so abundantly offers, now stuck in the hole of his own despair, full and ready to die.
You can think of bananafish in many different ways – none of which make me want to purchase children’s bedding, however. Perhaps the moral is to be more like Sybil and allow us to be more accepting in order to see the good – no matter how small and imaginary – others have to offer. If only for a brief moment, to suspend judgment and give someone that moment as it could be their life’s last gasp, like Seymour. Or maybe we should stop being bananafish and consuming the world, gorging on every fear, disappointment, horror that it serves to us daily, hourly, by the second. That we should slow down, digest it all and swim out of that hole instead of dying, trapped inside a victim of our own devices.