Guest Review: ‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee

spoilerOnce again I have managed to coerce a coworker into contributing to the blog. This time it is my amazing friend, Scott!

I am going to assume, since you’re reading a book blog, that you know the whole backstory behind Harper Lee’s “new” book Go Set a Watchman: how it’s not really a sequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but an early draft set at a later time. You probably also know all the problematic events that led to its release, including the questionable validity of Ms. Lee’s involvement; despite the publisher’s insistence, if you do not want to pay to read this book on moral grounds, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s not really worth the money anyway.

There’s a reason why books pass through many eyes before they hit the stands, why they are picked over by judicious, savvy editors who only want to create the best product possible, why there are writer axioms like “kill your darlings.” The whole affair reminds me of a line from the great Coen Bros movie, Inside Llewyn Davis: “You’re not supposed to let your practice stuff out.” (Except he doesn’t say “stuff.”) Taken solely as it is, Watchman is a well-meaning but unfocussed narrative about a young woman in the 1950s, returning to her rural roots after living on the liberal east coast for a while, and discovering that racism was insidiously infecting every aspect of her childhood. It could have made waves for the subject matter alone if released instead of Mockingbird, but it lacks a lot of the charm, the extra certain somethings that made the final version of this story a timeless classic.

The book we got was vivid, a lively portrait of a time and place, seen through the eyes of a young child. There was a lot going on in it. The characters seemed to live and breathe, and every turn of the page brought some new detail that strengthened the book’s message. The characters in Go Set a Watchman – in some cases the very same people (sort of) – are faintly sketched blurs who have lengthy discussions about judicial activism and the NAACP encroaching on southern values. If we hadn’t read Mockingbird, we wouldn’t think very highly of Jean Louise Finch’s aging father Atticus, even though she insists he was the greatest man she’d ever known. The axiom for that one is “show, don’t tell.” The entire courtroom plot of To Kill a Mockingbird is described in about a paragraph or two, and given very little further rumination.

As pleasure reading, the book begins to fall flat once you realize the colour is being drained from the narrative, something like halfway through when Jean Louise (she hasn’t been “Scout” in years) follows her father and sometime-boyfriend Hank to a white supremacy meeting and spends the rest of the novel wondering what’s up with that. She throws up some, drinks a lot of coffee, and spends a good deal of time being lectured by her Uncle Jack and others on the true meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. Ultimately she realizes that Atticus’ progressivism only stretches so far (despite coming at it with as much logic and perspective as he can muster, he and others around are set firmly in a way of thinking modern audiences will identify as “bonkers racist.”) The whole ordeal basically serves to get an insider perspective on racial segregation from people who think it’s great, and to watch a liberated modern woman embrace new ways of thinking rather than remain bound to her secretly-racist upbringing.

There’s not much of a story there. No Boo Radley, Dill has long since moved to Europe, Jem dropped dead years ago. Even the Tom Robinson trial has a different outcome, for what little part it plays in the plot. Harper Lee’s southern gothic prose, which is elegant and casual, and the best thing this book has going for it, fades away as the lectures get longer and more difficult to process. The message of the book, about the insidiousness of racism, is actually shockingly (and sadly) relatable today, but the mark still isn’t hit. As a dialectic, Jean Louise doesn’t even have much of a rebuttal besides “This stinks, I’m out of here.”

I was worried – rightly, as it turned out – that releasing an unedited manuscript as a book would result in something not totally enjoyable to read. It was better than I feared (Lee’s style is quite fun even when the content flags) but still simply not there. But the publisher releasing Go Set a Watchman in 2015 would have been daft to edit it any further. The selling feature of this book is not that it’s more greatness, but that it’s the unvarnished, warts-and-all original version, and isn’t that intriguing? It’s a curio, an object of study rather than a novel. It’s the DVD extras, the making-of featurette.

For those looking to learn the true value of editorial guidance, and some insight into the various forms a creative work can inhabit before it reaches greatness, the book will be a surprisingly interesting artifact. The book ultimately works as a testament to Lee’s original editor, Tay Hohoff, who helped mould these raw elements into something great and indelible. It’s clear (moreso now than ever, I’d reckon) she had great influence on picking out what worked in the book, what needed to be cut to fit, and what message it could be used to send. I’d doubt this is a case of Ms. Hohoff imposing her will on the first-time author, more likely a collaboration between like-minded individuals for the improvement of the product. Rather than taking aim at a time and place as Watchman would have done, Mockingbird looks for a deeper truth inside of people. The work that was done on Atticus is particularly astounding, but I’m even more amazed just by how the world of the book was expanded out to become more sweeping and grand while still only being about a simple southern community. The end result was something subtle and poetic, but powerful and unmistakable. Here we see it in its embryonic state as something clumsy and vague but good-hearted. Mighty oaks from little acorns…

Scott’s Rating: two-stars (an okay book)

When not reading – and usually when he is – Scotto is listening to a wide variety of music, which he then writes about on his own blog, Sonic Sandwich.


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