Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: Go Set a Watchman

Alrighty, folks. Here we go. (It actually won't be that long, I don't think. But I'll meet you at the end, and we'll compare notes.) I got my hands on a copy of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee surprisingly quickly considering I'm not a buyer of books but a renter of them, generally speaking. (I know that the title is supposed to be italicized, but bloggity blog blog isn't cooperating. That being said, let's move on.) There's some glorious hype about this work seeing as how Harper Lee has really reached something of a mythical status in American literature lore. She's really one of those one and done authors that we all wish had produced more during her glory years. Or any of her years, for that matter. If you're going to make a short list of seminal American lit works, To Kill a Mockingbird (again, italicized...I know) has to be on it. It HAS to be on it. It may not win the award for THE American novel, but it'll come purty close. (I'm also aware that I switched from "American lit works" to "American novel" which are not one and the same. No, they are not. I'm condensing for the sake of nothing much.) There is a real purity and true goodness about To Kill a Mockingbird and the trifecta of Atticus Finch, Jem and Scout. This lies in large part that the rise and fall of the events relating to the act of overt racism is experienced and reckoned with through the eyes of a child. That's a genius move since it wasn't just a token perspective but the honest account of all that was good and bad in that particular (fictional) moment. With Go Set a Watchman (GSAW), Lee alters this perspective in some ways. The social disconnect and conflict is still told through Scout (Jean Louise), but she is a 26-year old city girl returned home for her annual two-week hiatus. The generally recognized story is that Harper Lee spent somewhere around 4 1/2 years editing To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) before it was published. Lee is decidedly elderly now, and this manuscript is not the same. The public understanding about this latest publication goes that Lee wrote GSAW first but shelved it and then wrote TKAM, which was then published alone. Supposedly, this is the "lost," "forgotten," or "missing" manuscript that has recently surfaced. IF this is not so much heresy but rather a true story, as I at least want to believe, then I do not believe that Lee spent much if any time in the editing process of the GSAW manuscript. It's clunky at times. Transitions are often rough. And the general tone is harsh, specifically in the last 2/3 of the book. That being said, it's a harsh subject. But, so was TKAM. I do believe that a skilled author and a careful editing process does or can soften these rough edges. This book does not always read as a truly finished product, to me. However, I found it to be completely believable as a Harper Lee product. Especiallly in the last 2/3 of the book. I realize that this sounds counter-intuitive that the section that I find to be the harshest in tone is also the most believable to have been written by Lee. Comparatively speaking with TKAM, this section would benefit from some amount of polish, but the subject matter, the emotion, and the character development are much more in line with the final product that we have so well loved with TKAM. As far as the characters go, we still love Scout, though we miss her in the guise of Jean Louse. We must recognize that Dr. Finch fulfills the Atticus Finch character in developing Scout's understanding and perspective such as we remember from TKAM. (Atticus is still around in GSAW, but his character is weakened physically and impactfully.) And finally, Aunt Alexandra does not live up to her role as the "new" Calpurnia nor does Hank/Henry provide a satisfactory substitute for Jem. The moment we all want, a showdown between Jean Louise/her developing perspective and the gloriously crafted Atticus does come to fruition, but this is the only moment when Atticus shines throughout the entire work. Even better, Dr. Finch's explanatory and decisive interaction with Jean Louise does provide the necessary punctuation for the conflict. He is the Finch that really shines when it matters most. He is portrayed as half-senile (strikingly similar to the half-daft by dint of his I-don't-care-what-others-may-think-so-long-as-I-follow-my-conscious attitude that exemplifies Atticus in TKAM) and impassioned. It is truly what we want and why we read this text, save for our ongoing love affair with the delightfully, tomboyish, who gives a flip Scout. The day before I started reading GSAW, I had a conversation with a lady who was on page 113 and was bemoaning the lack of purpose of the text. In her words "It shouldn't have been published." To that end, I disagree. If you're willing to work your way through the first 100 pages or so, there are nuggets of insight buried within, glorious bits of pain and confusion that tantalize and develop. And, it begins on page 113 when the church leader quotes the Biblical text to "Go set a watchman..." There is deep purpose that lies therein. Who is the watchman? Who is responsible for guarding us all? THAT is just what Jean Louise has to reckon with. And, it turns out, our tomboy Scout loses her human deity but gains some perspective on just what it means to be called as a social watchman in a cruelly developing reformation.

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