Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go read a Watchman.

"Now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle to your father's. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man's heart and a man's failings."

I’m a slow reader who squeezes books in around the edges of life, so it took me about a week to read Go Set A Watchman. During that time, the reviews came flooding in. I heard everything from hate to love and all the spaces in between – a phenomenon I suspect says more about the subjectivity of taste and literary criticism than it can ever say about a single book.

As for me, I was joyfully surprised to discover I loved it. It was everything I hoped it would be but was scared it couldn’t possibly.

So here’s a very scrappy list of impressions, mashed together haphazardly because my mind just isn’t… braining.

First of all, Harper Lee can write. I know this isn’t really a surprise, but when you drop the mic and leave just one massive book bomb out in the world, there’s sort of a mysterious sense of this sudden stroke of genius, something that appeared quickly and possibly disappeared even more quickly. But even in all of its unedited glory, Watchman is a masterpiece of words. Really really. It's worth reading for its beautiful sentences alone.

But I’m also impressed at the continuity between To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman. (Now don’t read this as some embarrassing evidence of me somehow thinking that there’s any correlation between my baby apprenticeship in writing and Harper Lee’s absolute master craftsman status, buuut --) When I draft, my stories undergo multiple reincarnations. Characters experience complete personality changes or go extinct altogether. Events get rearranged. What I once thought made sense or was important suddenly looks ridiculous. I expected at least a little of this with GSAW. Since it was rewritten into Mockingbird, I assumed there would be a great variation between the characters and events of one book and those of the other. But Harper Lee knew her characters inside out. Their development, the way their lives pan out, and tiny nonessential but lovely links between the two texts made this first book feel very much like a sequel to the second.

I especially loved seeing Scout as a grown-up. Jean Louise Finch is exactly as the adult Scout should be: smart, fierce, funny, unconventional, and occasionally blinded by her own sense of justice and morality. She loves Maycomb and its people, but, maybe for the first time, she's beginning to see through them and it unsettles her. I love this. I love that she's experiencing a quarter-life crisis before that was even a thing.

A couple of the complaints I've seen mention that the book feels like a draft, that it could've done with more editing, and I agree to an extent. The ending felt a bit rushed and the text's tendency to switch between voices (the narrator and then Jean Louise's internal monologue) without any visual markers make it momentarily confusing in spots. I've also seen criticism that the book wasn't particularly plot-driven, but I am okay with that. Mockingbird was about a town. Watchman is about a woman.

If anything, Watchman feels more literary than Mockingbird. It's less neatly packaged, less clearly black and white, less tied up smoothly. Morality is not so clear cut. Good characters do bad things. There are choices made and opinions flaunted that made me angry when I read them. But maybe that's kind of the point.

Mockingbird's theme feels global; the theme of Watchman feels personal. Mockingbird is about race, and Watchman is, too, to an extent. But it's less of the white author speaking for black Americans thing and more of a white character hanging onto the issue of race as the point of reference forcing her to examine the morality of the people she loves. I don't know if this is better or worse, and I don't think I can speak to that.

Ultimately, though, Go Set A Watchman is about a young woman's relationship with the people who raised her, about maturing as an adult and finding her own feet. I think it's incredibly relatable. It looks at the forces that shape us into who we're becoming. It's about the inherent idolatry of childhood and what's it's like to shear away from that. It's about recognising the humanity in everyone -- not just the people we 'graciously' condescend to out of our perceived social or economic or intellectual superiority (one of the most uncomfortable things about Watchman), but the people we once thought we looked up to.

My consensus is: you should definitely read it. It's less powerful than To Kill A Mockingbird, maybe, but also, perhaps, more real.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Waiting for Watchman:

I'm very excited about the release of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman tomorrow, but it's a hesitant sort of excitement. I like to avoid buzz if I can, preferring to form my own opinion before reading through someone else's eyes, so I've tried to steer clear of spoilery stuff. But it's hard to avoid. The literary world is spinning, and I guess rightly so. Harper Lee has managed to maintain an almost Emily-Dickinson-like silence since the sixties, adding to the allure already created by the near-mythic nature of her "just one novel" history.

But the fact that Lee is now living in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke in 2007, makes me nervous that perhaps the magical discovery of this 'prequel-written-sequel to Mockingbird' isn't all it's cracked up to be. Apparently Lee hasn't reread the manuscript, which seems an unlikely choice if she were actively involved in the publication project. I hope she has agency here, but it's hard to tell.

Then there is the fact that the preorder price for this book is incredibly high. The lowest I was able to find here in Australia when I was placing my order was $30, which is definitely on the high end for a not-particularly-long text. Physical bookstore prices I've seen hover around the $32-45 mark. Since this is substantially higher than other similar-length hardcovers on the market, I can't help but feel that publishers are capitalising on the buzz. I understand it; bookselling is a business just like anything else. But it feels a little wrong. Why does the book need to be so much more expensive than others?

Another facet giving me pause is the fact that Watchman is, in fact, Mockingbird in its infancy. Harper Lee's editor took a look at the manuscript -- voiced by an adult Scout -- and suggested Lee rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. Go Set a Watchman was shelved and To Kill A Mockingbird was born. Perhaps the editor was an idiot; Watchman was brilliant, and Mockingbird proves to be a mere foretaste of that. Or maybe the editor had some actual chops and made a wonderful editorial call, drawing from Harper Lee something even more polished and excellent. If the former proves to be true, then we are in for a real treat. But if it's the latter -- and this is where my anticipations lie -- then Watchman will be fascinating, but not brilliant. It might simply read like the early draft of something that needed serious polishing in order to make it great.

Finally, there is the conversation milling around the fact that Watchman's Atticus Finch is quite a different character to the kind, politically correct, and-nerdy-hot dad of Mockingbird. If early reviews are accurate, Watchman's Atticus is quite the bigot, voicing a whole slew of racially-cruel remarks. This of all concerns, however, is the one that haunts me the least. I'm a hopeful writer not worthy to kiss the ground Nelle Harper Lee walks on, but I can recognise that two drafts of a novel are not the same novel, and in the same way, a rewritten character may become an entirely new person.

Some fans are worried that reading about a racist Atticus will taint their vision of the "real" Atticus, but I think -- I hope -- that it'll be possible to read both Atticuses as their own, distinct characters. Van Gogh painted many self-portraits, but we'd never superimpose them on one another and claim one to be the Definitive Van Gogh and all the rest mere copies that either add or detract from the original. In the same way, I hope that we'll be able to read both Atticus Finches as disparate characters that reveal different aspects of Harper Lee's mind, motivation, and imagination.

For all his shining ways, Mockingbird's Atticus Finch was not a perfect character, criticised by some as a warped picture of well-meaning but miguided white superiority condescending to assist those "less fortunate." Perhaps a grumpy, cruel, and bigoted Atticus Finch will teach us things that the kind and noble Atticus never could.