The Fat Lady and the Boy

Two literary figures accompany me, one on either shoulder, whispering in my ears, when I make music. One is Seymour’s Fat Lady, from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; the other is the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. I think we all know some version of this latter story: the Emperor, convinced that he is invincible, manipulated and puffed up by those round him, parades down the street clothed in what he imagines to be the finest outfit in the world, something so sublime that only those of special taste and understanding can appreciate it (or even see it). Those who see only his nakedness, blame themselves for being of a lower order, and go along, pretending to see the glory of his raiment, shouting his praises. The innocent (perhaps snotty and obstreperous) child speaks the truth: “But he’s naked!” The whole sham caves in and sanity takes over—but as adults we suspect the kid is actually taken out back and whipped, and that the charade continues long after the book’s cover has been closed.

Franny, a brilliant and promising young actress, at the end of her emotional rope, returns home from college to have a nervous breakdown. Her older brother Zooey, also an actor, tries everything he can think of to break her out of her self-absorption. He finally dredges up their shared image of the Fat Lady, a figure invented by their older brother, Seymour. The Fat Lady has thick, veiny legs, sits on a porch all day in the heat in an awful wicker chair, sweating, swatting flies, listening to the radio full blast; she probably has cancer. Seymour has told both Fanny and Zooey-- privileged, talented, special children-- to “do it” for the Fat Lady—to shine their shoes even when no one will see their feet, to perform their hearts out, to communicate. On the book’s final page, Zooey says to Franny, “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady…don’t you know who that Fat Lady is?... It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

The presentation of great music is immensely, deeply challenging. It is difficult to do well. We are often tempted to deceive ourselves, our colleagues, the public, by settling for the appearance of a good job, which we then promote the heck out of with expensive publications, flowery prose, gorgeous venues, and broad claims about our competence. And this can work; the boy isn’t always present to pull us up short. Throwing glitter in their eyes can be very effective. Why not? We may not even be aware we are doing it; we may feel this is the way it is done. As Robert Shaw opined in anther memorable one-liner: “Anyone can buy a ticket; not many actually hear the music.”

But the Fat Lady really gets to me. Salinger is by no means considered a Christian writer—far from it. He uses and freely adapts ideas and images from many religions. Here, he pinpoints a central question with which all of them grapple: who are we to one another? How do we live together and care for one another? Does it matter? Franny has everything; but living for herself, focusing on her personal salvation, is not enough. It is in sharing her best with the lowest and least of these, that she refinds herself. And, presumably, is motivated to go on with her life, doing the best she can with her gifts.

The Fat Lady and the boy, in my mind, feed and support one another. Neither is complete without the other. If we believe that honest, face-forward immersion in the arts transforms our world, and reminds us that it is worth saving, then we have to believe that the Fat lady deserves them, needs them, as much as the rest of us.