Reading List as of July 27th: Thoughts on GO SET A WATCHMAN

By now you’ve likely noticed that the venerated Harper Lee has released a new book. Perhaps you’ve even read it. I picked up Go Set A Watchman based on a review from Cass at Books and Bowel Movements (and I’ve linked to her post to offer an opposing point of view).

I’ve come to trust Cassie’s reviews, and I want to say straight off I don’t regret reading Watchman. Her points on Atticus are true (and awesome). Her review is thoughtful and thought-provoking, designed to encourage discussion, and I will also say this: Watchman is a book that if you’re on the fence, you should read for yourself and come to your own conclusion.

Maybe you’re familiar with the synopsis, maybe you’re not. Jean Louise returns to Maycomb for her annual two week visit. She’s not the young girl we know from To Kill a Mockingbird, but a young woman of 26, calling New York City her home these days. She settles into the slow, familiar rhythm her life adapts on these visits, until she stumbles on a council meeting that upends her world.

The New York Times let the cat out of the bag with the revelation that Atticus is a racist. Some readers were shocked and upset and likely judged the book solely (or mostly) on that point. But this is a hard book to pick apart. You can’t view it through the lens of modern literary fiction; it was written far too long ago to be held to today’s expectations and standards. You can’t view it as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, even though the story does reference the events of Mockingbird.

So what does that leave?

You have to view it for what it is: a first book. Watchman is Lee’s first book, and it shows.

God, that sounds awful. Look, it’s not a bad first book. It just doesn’t deserve all the praise it’s getting, either.

The story behind the story is Watchman was rejected by an editor who then told her to write Scout’s story, not Jean Louise’s, and the rest is literary history. Watchman is slow. Literary fiction in general has a slower pace, focusing more on character than plot, but this pace drags at times. Nothing happens for the first eight chapters. Nothing. All we get are little pieces of what Jean Louise does while she’s visiting Maycomb, and it’s really quite boring. Before you say, “But it’s only eight chapters”, let me point out those first eight chapters take up a good quarter of the book. They are long chapters.

The plot is thin. Hinging an entire story on the dismantling of a single character can work, but it doesn’t here. Once we learn that Atticus believes people of color (blacks in particular) to be inferior, an entire chapter goes by where nothing relating to the plot happens. There are flashbacks to her childhood with Jem that pull you from the present, interrupting the flow of the narrative, such as it is, and Jean Louise herself tumbles from a strong, assertive woman to someone easily pushed back into a little corner by the men in her life.

That particular point is difficult to understand. That may have been the practice at the time the book was written, which is fine. But it doesn’t fit with the Jean Louise we come to know up until that point. Spoiler (highlight the blank space to see the text): She has a wonderfully logical, biting one-sided argument with Atticus (and a second with Hank) about what she sees as his hypocrisy, and then Atticus manages to talk her around to seeing that his way of thinking might not be so bad, at least for him, and there’s no point in trying to change his mind so she might as well give up.

I do have to say that the Jean Louise of Watchman is much the same Scout we came to know in Mockingbird. She’s outspoken, still has a bit of hero worship for her father, and she’s comfortable and confident in who she is and what she knows.

But even her characterization shows the flaws of a first-time writer. Early on, she acknowledges that she could never marry Hank, her childhood friend, no matter how much she loves him and enjoys his company, because there is that niggle of doubt that maybe he is not her be-all and end-all. Then she suddenly decides to marry him anyway? Her physical shock at learning her father is not the man she though he was was strong; it gets lost in all the mental gymnastics Lee puts her through.

In the end, had any other modern author written Watchman and written it in the manner we’re accustomed to for today’s literary fiction, the book never would have been published. Unnecessarily wordy, meandering pointlessly through a small-town landscape, the story of a young woman’s world being pulled apart at the seams lacks the verve and tightness we found in Mockingbird.

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