Saturday, 25 July 2015

Go Set a Watchman

WARNING:  There are potential spoilers in this review.  I recommend you do not read it until you have read the book.

As a book lover, how could I not wade in on this one?  Not only did I study To Kill a Mockingbird myself when I was young, but as a high school English teacher, I have also taught it many times, and it never, never grows tired.  So I was nervous when the news came that this missing manuscript had 'turned up', and that Go Set a Watchman was imminently to be published.  Nervous of what?  Of it being badly written.  Of it being boring.  Of it repeating everything in TKAM (as my students call it) but less well.  Of it being pointless.  It never once occurred to me that what I should be nervous about, was the collapse of our idealistic view of Atticus.  And I read that Atticus is revealed as a closet racist before I read the book, which has probably been the case for many readers.  Did it colour the way I approached Go Set a Watchman?  Probably, because I read it - almost to the end - ready to find a defence for whatever it is he says or does that implies this racism.  I say almost to the end, because the last forty pages leave no room for defence.  I'll come to that chronologically.

The novel opens well.  Scout's voice is there right from the start, written into the first few lines.  The voice-over from the film (is it possible to separate that piece of celluloid perfection from the book any more?) floated through my head, its soft southern drawl telling me a new story.  I was excited to read on.

I liked Scout immediately.  I had read that she wasn't fully rounded, that she was flat, not the sparky little firecracker she'd been as the child we know so well.  But I disagree.  She fairly quickly, through dress and patter, appeared to me as a fifties beat girl, hopped up on Kerouac and New York living, still tomboyish, still not quite towing the line.  She says to her back-home boyfriend, Hank, not long after her return to Maycomb, that she is used to "living in sin" in the Big Apple: "I learned it from sleek, Madison Avenuey young marrieds - you know that language, baby?"  An image sprang into my mind of her leaning against a department store window, all in black, smoking and watching Sylvia Plath and her Bell Jar friends sashay into their secretarial jobs and their middle class family lives, and knowing that she would never be one of them.  Scout is my kind of young woman.

Politics soon rears its head, and it is far broader here than in TKAM.  Within the first fifty pages, we have had talk of the NAACP and the Montgomery bus strikes.  We realise that this isn't going to be the story of one small-town incident of racism, as TKAM is, but that this book is about the wider fight for civil rights.

Minor characters from TKAM are mentioned, some very fleetingly, others are given a couple of pages.  Dill is very different, now living in Europe somewhere, and never the sickly little boy of Mockingbird.  Uncle Jack is not so much different, as more fleshed out.  Indeed, he is more Atticus in this book than Atticus is.  He is the voice of reason, the intermediary, the family saviour.  He has a larger part in this novel than Atticus does, and it is he, not Atticus, who utters the phrase that gives the book its title: "Every man's watchman is his conscience."   In Lee's re-write, much of Uncle Jack seems to have become the Atticus of TKAM.

There are some interesting sections: Scout's (I can't call her Jean Louise) internal argument with herself at the 'Coffee' given by Aunt Alexandra to allow the young women of Maycomb to welcome Scout back, is unusual, but I like it: it is an insight into Scout's personality, and the originality of the style reflects that depth of character.  Critics have argued that TKAM's strength lies in its first person narrative, and that Watchman, being in third person, loses some of that power.  But actually, much of Watchman is in first person.  Lee skips from third to first effectively, and it serves to highlight Scout's aloneness, as there is a constant first person commentary on the third person action.

The plot is minimal.  Scout returns to Maycomb for a visit, finds an offensive flyer in the house, follows her father and boyfriend to a racist meeting, and realises that everything she had thought was true and safe and right, isn't.  There are various flashbacks to her childhood, none of which repeat the stories in TKAM (how edited is Watchman, or was it published as found?) but all of which have that same note of parable to them as those in TKAM,  and none of which, other than a half page mention of her father's defence of a black man accused of rape (the incident that becomes the Tom Robinson case), touch on the central theme of racism.

I find it interesting that few critics have mentioned the penultimate chapter.  For me, this is central to the book.  Scout confronts her father, and they argue, both of them cleverly, as we might expect.  And it is here that I stopped comparing Watchman with Mockingbird, because here, Watchman becomes a separate entity.  Whilst TKAM is easily accessible for children (although it is not quite a children's book), this chapter of Watchman is adult, through and through.  Scout's language is unimaginable in Mockingbird, as is protracted anger of this vehemence.  I confess I had to read it with a tablet next to me, so that I could look up aspects of the American Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, none of which are explained, but all of which are central to an understanding of this chapter.  It feels raw, which to Lee, at the time she wrote this, it would have been.  Is the exchange between Scout and Atticus, Lee's own internal debate?  Or is she trying to show the world  the South's argument?

As I said at the beginning, there is a strong temptation to try to defend Atticus, simply because to lose that role model is too painful, but at page 242, I gave up.  There is no defence of his views.  None. I felt Scout's frustration and fury.  I gripped the back of that chair with her.  I echoed the names she called him.  And I never thought I could agree with someone who says, " You're a coward, as well as a snob and tyrant, Atticus", but I do, wholeheartedly.  He cannot be forgiven.  Even his defence of the here-unnamed Tom Robinson is given a darker, more selfish spin.  Atticus is the worst type of man, the type who will fight change with nonsensical pseudo-science because he does not want his own position threatened.  He is deplorable.

Is the ending satisfactory?  No, I don't think so.  Whilst she doesn't forgive her father, Scout accepts him.  After her outrage in his office, I found this unlikely, and even Uncle Jack's rather odd and out of place confession in the final pages does not save the denouement from feeling lacklustre and disappointing.

So, let's address the questions everyone is asking: is it a good book, and should it have been published?  Yes, is my answer to both. I really enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, and whilst its flaws are writ large, and whilst I agree that TKAM is by far the superior book, this shouldn't be dismissed as lightly - or as quickly - as I feel some people have done.  It needs TKAM in order for it to make sense - if you haven't experienced the Atticus of Mockingbird, you cannot possibly understand Scout's horror in Watchman.  The two books seem to me symbiotic: TKAM is narrative driven, it tells a story, indeed, many stories, and the story is what pushes it from page to page.  But Watchman is like its older sibling, explaining and developing the big ideas as the story moves forward.  It adds depth to Mockingbird.  It invites a viable re-reading of Mockingbird.  It asks questions about the naivety of Mockingbird as a story.  It probably needs time to be assimilated into the legend of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that, in years to come, it will prove an apt partner.

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