Friday, September 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts (For What They're Worth)

*Note. I originally began the bulk of this review about a week after the book's release. For whatever reason I fell away from it. (Perhaps that's telling of the impact the novel has had on our psyches and it's importance in our libraries?) For whatever reason, I've decided to finish the final few sentences and publish it only because I didn't want my reading to have gone in vain. This is 2015 after all and I need all of social media to know just how hard it was to read an entire book.*

Harper Lee's new (and only second) novel "Go Set a Watchman" has certainly set a lot of fires recently. And rightfully so. If you follow the novel's history it's quite clear it was never meant to be published. Well, Lee never intended it to be published. There's quite an extensive back and forth about her being "trilled" that it is "finally" seeing the light of day but the general consensus is...that isn't true. There are a lot of suits and, ironically, lawyers behind the book being released. After suffering from a stroke years ago, Lee has had trouble seeing and hearing and it has been reported that she'd sign pretty much anything put in front of her and told to sign by people she trusted.

Needless to say, the rocky back and forth about whether the novel should or should not have been published should be laid to rest. It happened. It upsets and excites considerable amounts of people. But the novel is now available and that's the end of that story. Is the world a better place because it is now available to us? No. But is the world now a worse place because it is available? Certainly not. Quite honestly, it isn't a terrible book but it also isn't terribly good. It's content is a bit mired in the same mud that the conversations about the novel are: What do we do with this?

I was never particularly attached to "To Kill a Mockingbird" as so many are. I haven't revisited that story in many, many years but when I saw "Go Set a Watchman" on the shelf at my local supermarket, I stopped dead in my tracks. For whatever reason, to me, there is electricity in the notion that the author of one of the greatest pieces of American literature has published, at 89 years old, her second book. To me it was an opportunity to further explore her psyche, to add more context to her legacy, her craft, and her previous book. And with that book, as with life, context is the key to everything. Many people have a difficult time reading this new novel and remembering when it was written and why it ended up in Lee's scrap pile. Many also find it impossible to set apart the Atticus Finch they know and love from "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Atticus Finch of "Go Set a Watchman". They are distinctly different and that difference does hit like a punch to the gut. However, "Go Set a Watchman" was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird" and it's clear why she shelved the project. It feels like an early draft and when the back cover is closed it doesn't feel like a complete novel. But it isn't entirely bad. And although the controversy around it stems mainly from Atticus being a racist 72 year old man, it doesn't mean it isn't without its merits. And, to me, it more greatly empowers the current interpretation of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Essentially, this is the sequel/prequel we didn't ask for. We had a perfect novel, so naturally what do we do with perfect things? Make imperfect sequels and/or reboots. However this "sequel" was already written and, in a sub-textual way, serves as a prequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" considering it was written prior. I think if there was less pomp and circumstance surrounding its release it would've caused less of a stir. If it were released via the internet as a manuscript or a leak or an unreleased, unpublished draft, we'd all look at it through the prism of "NEAT!" And then the finer details would have us saying, "I can see why she chose not to publish this." Or, "She definitely cut her teeth on this and that more refined style and prose is greater reflected in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." Also, "I'm glad she chose not to make Atticus a racist."

However it's the race issue that actually, at the end of the day, makes "Go Set a Watchman" important. There are 3 days in your life that are specifically the worst.

3. When you learn there is no Santa Claus.
2. When you outrun your dog.
1. When you learn that your world view mustn't mirror your father's (or parent's).

"Go Set a Watchman" is certainly the third. And those are simply my perspective. I am very close to my Dad. He is absolutely my hero and if I grow up to be even a tenth of the man he is, I'll consider myself a good person. Thankfully he hasn't surprisingly turned out to be a racist. But I vividly recall the moment I realized that he and I disagreed. What the issue was I honestly don't know, but that the moment happened is what's burned into my brain. There's a feeling of helplessness, of being lost, and of knowing that at the exact moment I had become my own man. I was free to act, think, and believe as I pleased. And a great burden comes along with that. I am now responsible for my own actions and decisions. But until that moment everything I learned about life had come from my Dad. As soon as you realize you're free to draw your own conclusions it is both freeing and terrifying.

Scout learns that her father, despite being the pillar of justice and equality she remembers him as being, has a problem with the black population of Maycomb, Alabama and an even greater issue with the NAACP trying to help empower them. To a person living in 2015 (well, to some people living in 2015 I should unfortunately say) race should be a non-issue. So when reading the book through those eyes the initial reaction is a modern one. That people speak about other races in such a way is disgusting and deplorable. I will say, every time the "N word" is used it stings with venom. It feels unclean and inappropriate. There has been some desensitization of it over the years but it's context in "Go Set a Watchman" is vulgar and harsh. And very effective because of that. This is a 60+ year old book. It will not conform to the standards of 2015.

But for all the hate the book has received for turning Atticus, white people's former champion and greatest literary hero, into a racist, the book shines the new (and temporarily positive) spotlight on Scout. She is the hero. And how is that so bad? She was our narrator in "To Kill a Mockingbird" but not necessarily our hero. Here we, heaven forbid, find strength in a female protagonist who stands for something so strongly that she is willing to stand up for it. So strongly that she is willing to sever ties with her father, the great Atticus Finch. Now I know what you're thinking, "But I thought only men could do important things!" And the strength of Scout comes from, you guessed it, her father. The notion of that world crumbling down (seeing your father as God) plays a large role in the book and an important one. But because the book offers up important conversations on race is why, in my opinion, it should be read. It is both enlightening and heartbreaking that a book written over half a century ago still offers relevant commentary on racism and race related issues. That isn't to say that we expect these things to look and feel dated, but that maybe we haven't come as far as we believe we have.

When you turn on the news what do you see? White on black violence, black on black violence, police on black violence. And it never ends. The campaign "Black Lives Matter" is so important because it's true. Perhaps, as a reviewer, I'm writing from Scout's perspective and from that of an idealist. But I assumed that come the year 2015 we'd all be treated equally. But we are not. And it is soul crushing. Racism still runs rampant throughout the world and, sadly, I do not see an end. It's so twisted in some circles that after the devastating shootings in Charleston, SC I saw articles blaming women for men like Dylann Roof. If only we as a society hadn't repressed masculinity and perpetuated the notion that masculinity is "rape culture" then guys like this wouldn't need to do things like this.

The article also mentioned the notion of over medicating kids with mental health issues, but once the preposterous claim that women were ultimately to blame came along I checked out of anything sensible they might'be said (if even by accident).

But finally "Go Set a Watchman" becomes an unfortunate reminder that even the greatest authors are fallible. Or at least shouldn't have every word they've uttered become publish worthy material. However, that fallibility was not one we were meant to witness had Harper Lee been of sound mind when she was approached with the possible publication of her "lost" manuscript. Even towards the book's conclusion Scout makes a half-hearted acknowledgement that (essentially), well of course blacks aren't the same as whites, but still...we shouldn't be treating them so poorly because they're people...kind of?

When it finishes it is much less of a book than it is a manuscript, the very thing we knew it was if we'd done our research, all along. And now we have it and we must find something to do with it, like that fairly thoughtless gift you receive from an absent minded relative at Christmas time and are too embarrassed to return or dispose of for fear of hurting their feelings.

Finally, just like that "gift" it ends up buried on a shelf in between more important volumes or even worse, depending on your reverence for "To Kill a Mockingbird", it finds its way into the closet. Only to be rediscovered and reflected upon poorly when you're cleaning it out due to a move or a spring cleaning. And just like those items it will find its way into a thrift shop or a donation pile, and the cycle perpetuates, and its presence does not fade unless it is destroyed. Sadly Harper Lee did not have the foresight to destroy it decades years ago.