Short story: “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor”

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“For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” by J. D. Salinger

From the April 8, 1950 New Yorker, collected in Nine Stories; also found here

7,972 words

I think on my first teenage reading I wondered vaguely, like any amateur writer, why the narration changed partway through (six tenths of the way, going by wordcount) and why names were so flimsily concealed. The answer is obvious now, but not the reason it works so well. The story hinges on that moment when Esmé’s world intrudes on Sergeant X’s. Until that point, X’s breakdown has left him detached from reality, or more exactly, so hypersensitive that he’s forced to detach: he can’t concentrate, he can’t steady his hands, he can’t “be sincere.” The archness of the fake name fits as much as its emptiness.

I probably also wondered why the first six tenths of the story was spent introducing the sergeant, Esmé, and Charles in such a leisurely fashion. To make Esmé’s world real, I think. Esmé has to be both memorable and convincing, otherwise her reappearance wouldn’t feel like waking from a nightmare.

There is often something strange about an excellent story. Not inexplicable, but uncanny, like déjà vu. Explanations make it easier to understand but not necessarily less strange.