Friday, July 17, 2015
Warning: major spoilers and disillusionment forthcoming.
I have purposely avoided reading any reviews of Go Set a Watchman. I read it as fast as I could so that my mind wouldn't be swayed by anyone or anything about its merits. As I write this review, I have not read any others. I didn't want it to be reflective of anything else out there. Only my own review. And here it is:
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
As a reader and lover of literature, and--I will add--a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, I feel messed with. (As a side note, this is the only book I've ever pre-ordered.) I set the book down five minutes ago and my heart is still pumping with rage. No, I did not just read that book. No, that is not what happened to Scout. No, that is not what happened to Atticus Finch. No, that is not what happened in the town of Maycomb. No, no, no.
Without further ado, I offer my reasons to flat-out skip this book, if you haven't already fallen victim to the hype, as I have. (The "hype" being that this book in any way resembles its predecessor.)
1. It will crush you. Never mind the real disappointments in your own life. The book you once loved will offer no respite either. Atticus Finch, a racist? No, just no. I know there is value--and typically an interesting story there--when a character becomes disillusioned with someone he or she has looked up to. In this case, Scout is disillusioned with her father. But, for Pete's sake, Atticus Finch?
Can't we, as readers, have ANY heroes? Is nothing sacred? Isn't there anyone we can get all warm and fuzzy about when we think of them? Can't we just sigh at the memory and be done?
I understand the whole concept of character flaws, but this is taking a heroic figure--one of the most beloved in all of literature--and making him a villain. (Of sorts. He doesn't do anything particularly mean-spirited in these pages, but he is presented as a sort of ideological villain.) He went from being the anti-racist in Mockingbird to a racist in this novel.
My own disillusionment aside, how does the author justify this change in his character? In Mockingbird Atticus is one who goes against the grain in his ideals and passions. He embodies the kumbaya movement. The very name "Atticus" means a good, kind, love-for-all-people, willling-to-risk-his-career-for-the-good-of-humanity, gate-keeper of justice type character. Suddenly, a few years pass and he's a card-carrying, board member of their white man's evil society. And he takes great pains to get Scout (Jean Louise) to see the joys of going with the flow. Oh, and I adore how the uncle just casually mentions (in order to twist the knife into my heart farther) that Atticus once wore the robes of the KKK? Gosh, it's almost laughable if I weren't so bloody angry. OK, in his defense, Atticus only went to one meeting in order to see who and what was behind the robes. But still. KICK ME WHILE I'M DOWN.
2. It goes from small-town sweet-life anecdote to angry rant in 3.5 seconds. The first quarter of the book nothing much happens. Scout learns some new things about the quirky folks in Maycomb. She remembers the follies of her past. She elaborates on the oddities of her Aunty Alexandra. Then, like a slap in the face--the whole book becomes one big angry rant. She argues with her boyfriend about his views, she argues with her uncle about his views--and then we get the grand pappy--her argument with Atticus about his views. Once Jean Louise sets her tongue a-blazin' there's no turning back. She argues her case to the misguided people she once loved. During these conversations, there are almost no other descriptions of what else is going on--just quotes--people pontificating. I have to believe Harper Lee meant to make changes to this manuscript. I have to.
To what end is all this in-text arguing? Is anyone reading this book actually going to disagree with Jean Louise's enlightened opinion? Is anyone reading this book not going to be horrified by the town's transformation? Maybe back when it was written, it would've had greater impact, but for today's readers, this is a moot point. Stale mate. The main character is preaching to the choir the whole time and I found myself thinking--why am I reading this? I agree with her. I've settled on my opinion about racism and I'm not learning anything. I'm certainly not being swayed by any of the yahoos she argues with. Which brings me to my next point.
3. The main character doesn't change and grow. Ok, here's where I pull out hours of writing conference rhetoric that tells me, "Your main character changes over the course of your novel--and that change is what your book is about." If that's true, then I'm at a total loss of what this book is about. Jean Louise already has an enlightened opinion. It's everyone else that's messed up. But they don't change either! I found myself getting annoyed at this high horse mentality. Yes, we GET that everyone else is a backward-thinking idiot. What is your point, Miss Jean Louise? Are we supposed to marvel for hundreds of pages about your lofty ways of thinking? As a reader, that doesn't entice me.
So, as far as theme. I think it was hinted at a couple of times, but I'm not certain. I may need to take some time and put my knee-jerk reaction aside to think about this one.
Here's one idea. Atticus says to Scout in the context of him being proud of her for holding to her convictions: "Every man's island, every man's watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience." (Except in Maycomb, apparently.)
There is also a moment at the end when Jean Louise learns to accept and even love her racist father. "As she welcomed him silently to the human race, the stab of discovery made her tremble a little." So, then, is the theme learning to love someone with disgusting opinions? Because this little discovery of Scout's happens on the last page. So, is that what this story is about? I don't know. I'm trying reaaaaally hard to think of it anything beyond this: Woman visits her hometown. Woman is disgusted by her hometown. Woman leaves hometown.*
4. Everything is stated so obviously. There is no subtext. No subtlety. As readers, there is no need to think on our own. All the thinking is done for us. Mostly in the form of Jean Louise's angry rants. I kept thinking, "Just tell the story and let me arrive at my own conclusions." But the problem was that all the conclusions were already arrived at. It was too overt. It was definitely an anti-racism story but it was told from their mouths and not told by what happens. In essence, not at all like To Kill a Mockingbird.
I've resolved to re-read Mockingbird, this time with another set of lenses. My "did I like this book as much as I thought?" lenses. YES, I am now questioning my love for a book that is very dear to me. Doubts are creeping in. Will I still love it as much knowing what Atticus becomes--what the town becomes?
5. It leaves you hanging with no rope in sight. The whole town has let her down. Everyone has become racist. The town has changed and everyone in it. No one is the same. She visits Calpurnia, the Black woman who raised her, and Calpurnia will barely speak to her. She seems to be in a sort of trance. OK, that avenue is gone. Her boyfriend--the childhood love of her life--she dumps because, well, he's now a pig, too. Did I mention that Jem, her brother is dead? It's just as well. One less person for Jean Louise to loathe in the present. The ultimate blow is of course, Atticus, the person who taught her everything is now an adversary. Where is the hope?
The story ends with Jean Louise about to leave to go back to New York.* Will she return to Maycomb and make a difference? Will she turn hearts and help others see the error of their ways? We will never know. If Harper Lee was so hesitant to release this book then I strongly doubt she would consider writing another. In fact, now I understand her hesitancy. Now I see that there was more to the release of this book than meets the eye. Having read it, I'm more suspicious than ever.
Harper Lee is an amazingly gifted writer. There is no doubt of that. To Kill a Mockingbird is evidence to that. And there are moments in the book, Go Set a Watchman that were powerful and lovely. The imagery, phrasing, and understanding of human nature are pure brilliance. That's why I'm so disheartened at my violent reaction to this book as a whole. Don't pick it up. And if you do, do so to be part of the inevitable discussion that I'm sure will happen and is probably happening now on social media.
My goodness, I hate that I am saying this but that manuscript would've been better left in that safety deposit box.
*Footnote: I re-read the ending and it isn't clear whether she intends on leaving or staying in Maycomb.