Friday, September 4, 2015

"Go Set a Watchman" Review

It's been sitting on the arm of my sofa for several weeks. My parents brought it to me the last time they came to visit. My dad read it, then my mom, and then they brought it to me, without its dust jacket, probably left at home so it doesn't get damaged in the travel. Dust jackets are to be enjoyed for their aesthetic value and then taken off as soon as possible, because reading books with the dust jackets on is impossibly difficult. I sewed the book into an ugly yellow hand-made cover to protect it from wear and tear instead.

My parents. It's hard to separate Harper Lee from my parents. It was one of the first grown-up movies I remember getting to watch -- one of the ones that really meant something. I think I was in third grade the first time I saw To Kill a Mockingbird. I fell in love with Scout, Jem, and Dill, and the tired old town that was Maycomb. There were tire swings and noble, tall men and things I didn't understand but deeply felt were worth fighting for. I used to want to be Scout so badly. I would pretend I was her and I wanted to be a tomboy so intensely I made my tomboy cousin at a family reunion in Oklahoma teach me how to spit because I thought it'd be something Scout'd do. When I was little, it was something my dad and I shared. We were both overjoyed with its stylized romanticism. It's one of those movies I'd watch over and over again and my dad and I would shoot lines at each other from this movie. "There goes the meanest man that ever took a breath of life." "My word, Mrs. DuBose, don't you look a picture"/"He don't say a picture of what." "Oh no, Mr. Tate, he can't shoot." "My lord, Aunt Stephanie, you nearly gave me a heart attack!"

When I got older, we would talk about the moral and social implications of the book and the movie, philosophizing about its merits and themes. My mother would talk about how her cool aunt gave her the book when she was in middle school and how much she loved sharing a love of literature with her aunt. I myself read the book for the first time when I was in middle school, and have read it several times since then. Really, when I needed to feel comforted while I still lived at home, I would take my dad's hardback copy off the shelf and flip through it until I found a homey scene with Scout and Jem and some trouble. They were all old friends, and even though they suffered and I suffered with them, it turned out just enough alright in the end. Not perfectly, but enough.

The news that Harper Lee wrote another book and was intending to publish it hit me hard. I had very much believed that she should only write one book, and it seemed like she believed it too. To Kill A Mockingbird was a literary masterpiece that has been taught in every high school in America. If I were an author like that, I'd probably never write again, or I would have begun writing again very, very soon afterward, sort of like J. K. Rowling. She began writing new things almost directly after she finished Harry Potter, and although she will always hold the distinguished authorial position in my heart of being Harry's creator, she is no longer superhuman in my mind. I have read everything else she has written, and I still enjoy her but she is no longer infallible. She has stepped down off the pedestal into the world of real people. Harper Lee has now done that, but because she chose to do it decades after her entry into the world of hallowed authorship, it feels like a fall from grace. This book is about smashing idols and has also caused idols to be smashed.

I didn't even really want to read it at first. I had heard so much about it, and it didn't seem like the kind of book that would positively add to my warm and fuzzy recollections of the first book. In fact, it sounded like it would downright degrade them. But I like to try and give things a fair shake, so when my dad bought the book I decided upon borrowing it from him when he was done. Which, for my dad, he did in record time. This is the man who typically gets through one whole novel a year, and he literally blasted through it in about a week. Now, I had a day off from work and no more excuses.

The kindest thing but also the worst thing and the most mundane thing I could say is I'm disappointed.

I'm not even so much disappointed about Atticus, though that's mixed up in there. I'm disappointed that Jem was killed off and absent, with only a few sentences of explanation. I'm disappointed that Dill is gone to Europe (and had to find out about Jem's death through a newspaper clipping! The horror!). I'm disappointed that grown-up Jean Louise Finch is so young, so fiery, so unwilling to listen and understand. I'm disappointed that Atticus has this seemingly new attitude of paternal superiority. It does cast the events of To Kill A Mockingbird in a tainted new light, that he was defending Tom Robinson because of his belief in carrying out the law, not that he did it because he felt that the system was unfairly rigged against a black man and he should do whatever he could to help.

But more than that, I'm disappointed in the way the novel was actually carried out. It felt confused and incomplete. There were issues of consistency between this book and Mockingbird, particularly with the story of the trial of Tom Robinson. Hell, she couldn't even keep pronouns straight sometimes. Every time they would get to the moral meat of the book, the heart of the problem, the center of the controversy, the characters were constantly interrupting each other and talking over one another and misunderstand each other. But unlike Mockingbird, where everything was lovingly laid out and tied neatly together, where the narrator made her point about the mockingbird without belaboring it and it was clearly understood, despite the subtlety and subtext, in this book nothing seemed clear. It seemed like the author thought everything was obvious when nothing was. I'm still not entirely sure what Atticus's position is, or why it's okay, or even really how it impacts the actions of the first book. I kind of get it. I have people I love who very firmly believe in things I see as wrong. It made them human instead of idols to be worshipped, but that was a painful process. And I can gain a lot more by being open-minded and kind instead of yelling.

Mockingbird took the intimate, the familiar, the understandable and projected it onto the difficulties of the world. The world is an ugly place, but you can stand firm in your convictions and attempt to evince as much positive change as possible. Watchman does the opposite. It belittles the larger view, the worldly perspective, the big picture in favor of "just getting along". According to Watchman, lots of people are just going to think of black people as backward and in need of protection because they are childlike and unevolved, and what you can do about it is sit quietly and wait until they realize the wrongness of those notions of their own accord. What if they don't? You sitting there never saying anything so you don't disturb the peace isn't going to affect any change.

But this point is not a good one to make right now. Mockingbird was welcome during the Civil Rights Movement because it made the point that anyone could stand up for the right thing. And simply acts could be moving and poignant and profound. This book makes the point that we should just sit back and ignore the things our neighbors and family members say because that's the way the world is and they won't listen anyway. It won't help. But sitting back right now will only make things worse, I think. The atmosphere is violent right now. Our times are coming to a head, and right now things are kind of ugly. But if good people sit back and don't stand up for what they believe in, bad things will happen and things will just continue as they have been, which obviously hasn't been working. I firmly believe now is the time to stand up for what you believe in. This is a time when you will lose friends. This is a time when you may lose standing in your community for what you believe in. But the consequences are not nearly so severe for the majority of us today and the rewards could be great. We don't, most of us, live in the itty-bitty rigid Maycomb, where if you don't toe the line you will be crushed under the town's collective heel. It's possible to stand up for what you believe in and also not be an ass. It's possible to stand up for your beliefs while not pulling others down simultaneously. Watchman makes it seem like the two are mutually exclusive. It makes it seem like in order to keep the peace you have to relinquish your beliefs.

Instead, I think you should be quietly peaceful in accordance with your own convictions. Be like the tree, which will bend with the wind but not be uprooted. And slowly, quietly, other trees may grow nearby.

I will keep Mockingbird in my heart, alone and unaffected, and I will keep Watchman at arm's length. But I am glad to have read it.

1 comment:

  1. I have not read this book. But because there has been controversy about Harper Lee's current state of mind, I wonder if she really wanted this book to be published. Because the book has made so much money, I always will wonder as well if the manuscript was published just to cash in on Lee's fame and America's love for these characters as opposed to being a fully finished novel and not just a manuscript. I suppose that in this day and age if you are famous enough, everything you ever write will end up getting published if it is discovered. Personally I wish Harper Lee had been left in peace after the death of her sister.