Go Set a Watchman


097) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, finished finished September 24
five days

I didn't have particular expectations for this novel. I knew it was lost, and I assume lost usually happens for good reason. I knew it rejiggered some of the timelines and characters of To Kill a Mickingbird, but hey why not. But it is from Harper Lee who wrote, arguably, the most beloved novel of the 20th century.

First, I want to say that for the first hundred pages, I completely agreed with Lee's editor. It seemed obvious that there was a much better book about Scout as a kid buried under some boring stuff about her as a grownup. What was an insightful editor who could see that and talk her into writing that other novel instead! #weneededitors

As I read deeper, I started to wonder if maybe the editor wasn't just afraid to sell this particular book---that it was too topical to land well. At this stage, I tended to compare it to another novel I'm reading now that came out four years after TKAM and also deals with topical race issues. That book---and, I was thinking during this stretch, Go Set a Watchman---are interesting more as documents of their time than as works of literature. Fascinating in a charming/horrible way but without much to say about our current situation.

Then I kept reading. And the book began to move me, upset me, break my heart. Jean Louise (as Scout is almost always known by now) feels almost (almost) modern and her reactions to her hometown's reactions to the NAACP and Supreme Court decisions and other race-centered changes do seem applicable to 2015.

Then the book, without letting up on its emotional hold on me, began to feel topical. Very topical.

Much has been made of Atticus as racist in this novel. And much e-ink has been spilled over how he was such a different character in TKAM. That, my friends, smacks of wishful thinking.

Yes, TKAM sets Atticus up as a hero for equality in a rough time. But he had nothing to lose but his self-respect in the 1930s. What's terrifying about GSAW is not an "alternate" version of Atticus but the very real possibility that this is exactly what Atticus would have been like twenty years later at age 72 when he does have something to lose.

This Atticus is certainly a midcentury Southern man, but he doesn't sound that different from Dumbo hipsters or those shouting cuckservative. He sounds, in other words, like 2015. Less pretty than the words we take out in public, but a modern rational racist who shakes his head sadly beause you just can't see the truth of things right in front of you. He's not racist! He just sees things as they actually are!

In other words, TKAM Atticus is who we aspire to pretend to be. GSAW is who we are occasionally forced to confront is (even now) our true identity.

The fact is that America has a troubled racist past and magical, overnight, universal colorblindness won't solve our problems.

Suddenly, Go Set a Watchman feels like a very important book for 2015.

It's hard to say how effective this novel would be without it's ability to play off one of the most read and remembered novels of the last hundred years. We've had fifty years (more than!) to turn TKAM into mythology, into hopeful history, into a guidebook. And so when this novel comes tromping in and knocking down the stage dressing, it's particularly shocking.

Let's get to the mechanics of the novel. Lee does some interesting things with dialogue (her reliance on an ellipses-based effect to make crowd noise is interesting and mostly effective) and interior monologue (her slipping from the third-person to Jean Louise's actual thoughts are frequently awkward and too irregular at the beginning---rough draft stuff that would have been fixed had it been published then). Her use of flashback is, let's say, too voluminous (though, thanks to TKAM, we like seeing scenes of Scout and the now-deceased Jem back in high school, etc, even if they do take up more space than makes sense for this novel's purposes). And it's just difficult to judge the adequacy of Lee's character development when we come into this novel already knowing these characters intimately.

So no, it's probably not the best-written book to come out this year. But I don't know of any other work of fiction that might force us into important (if awkward) conversations.

For now, I'm just grateful for the moments it set me stunned, silent, thoughtful.

(Incidentally, I've been reading some of the Amazon reviews, many of which are quite insightful---including the obvious fact that the pain Watchman causes us is largely because Atticus is our hero just as he is Scout's---like Scout, we grew up with him and he was magnificent and perfect. And, just like Scout, now that we have seen the chinks, we, alas, can see they've been there all along.)

A few other comments:
This novel---even though it's in third person---is much more solipsistic than TKAM.

Uncle Jack is an example of a young writer showing off her education.

Jean Louise's epiphany/catharsis at the end is a fascinating study. I've never read anything quite comparable and I'm still not quite sure how to describe it.

Atticus and Jack smiling at Jean Louise at the end is almost redemptive. But only if you can still accept Atticus as God. If you can't, it's rather ambiguous. It's another curious moment. And hard to tell how "finished" it is.

The cover will have you think that "watchman" is symbolic of the conscience. While true, it doesn't mean much until you realize Jean Louise is the watchman.
Share your own in the comments.

Previously in 2015 . . . . :

Book ninety-seventh
097) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, finished finished September 24

Books ninety-third through ninety-sixth
096) North 40 (volume one) by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, finished September 23
094) Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar, finished September 17
093) Castle Waiting Volume 2 by Linda Medley, finished September 15

Books ninetieth through ninety-second
092) Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O'Brien, finished September 5
091) The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, finished September 5
090) The Animal Family by Randall Harrell, finished September 4

Books eighty-seventh through eighty-ninth
089) Zenith: Phase 1 by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, finished September 4
088) The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay, finished September 1
087) Anthem by Ayn Rand, finished September 2

Books eighty-second through eighty-sixth
086) A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales edited by , Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, finished August 31
085) Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, finished August 30
084) An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy, finished August 30
083) Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact by Neylan McBaine, finished August 30
082) The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes by Gary Cieradkowski, finished August 25

Books seventy-fourth through seventy-seventh
081) Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver, finished August 20
080) That A Guise, John? by Brace Pannier, finished August 19
079) A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett, finished DATE
078) Revival Volume Four: Escape to Wisconsin by Tim Seely and Mike Norton, finished August 16

Books seventy-fourth through seventy-seventh
077) Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, finished August 15
076) Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, finished August 6
075) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, finished August 4
074) The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longing edited by Sam Hamill, finished July 28

Books seventieth through seventy-third
073) Dial H: Exchange by China Miéville et al, finished July 27
072) Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman, finished July 24
071) "C" is for Corpse by Sue Grafton, finished July 22
070) Isle of 100,000 Graves by Fabien Vehlmann and Jason, finished July 19

Books fifty-ninth through sixty-ninth
069) Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, finished July 17
068) Dial H: Into You by China Miéville et al, finished July 15
067) Benny Breakiron: The Red Taxis by Peyo, finished July 15
066) Bossypants by Tina Fey, finished July 14
065) Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature by Marden J. Clark, finished July 12
064) The Rise of Aurora West by Paul Pope and J. T. Petty and David Rubín, finished July 12
063) Battling Boy by Paul Pope, finished July 11
062) The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins, finished July 6
061) Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken, finished July 3
060) Templar by Jordan Mechner and Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham, finished July 2
059) Heaven Knows Why! by Samuel W. Taylor, finished June 26

Books fifty-sixth through fifty-eighth
058) Itself by Rae Armantrout, finished June 21
057) Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by John Frederick Nims and David Mason, finished June 19
056) Matilda by Roald Dahl, finished June 15

Books fifty-second through fifty-fifth
055) Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, finished June 14
054) Star Wars Underworld: The Yavin Vassilika by Mike Kennedy and Carlos Meglia and whoever, finished June 12
053) Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year - Dark City by by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo (et al), finished June 11
052) Deadpool's Art of War by Peter David and Scott Koblish, finished June 10

Books forty-sixth through fifty-first
051) Men of Wrath by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney, finished June 10
050) X-Men: No More Humans by Mike Carey & Salvador Larroca & al., finished June 9
049) Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, finished June 9
048) Miracleman Book 2: The Red King Syndrome by Alan Moore (not credited by name) and a bunch of other people, finished June 6
047) Coffin Hill: Dark Endeavors by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 6
046) Coffin Hill: Forest of the Night by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 4

Books forty-second through forty-fifth
045) Castle Waiting: The Lucky Road by Linda Medley, finished at midnight so either June 2 or 3
044) The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami and translated by Ted Goossen, finished June 2
043) The Round House by Louise Erdich, finished June 1
042) Best American Comics 2014 edited by Scott McCloud, finished May 31

Books thirty-seventh through forty-first
041) The Brothers K by David James Duncan, finished May 18
040) Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, finished May 18
039) Skandalon by Julie Maron, finished May 1
038) The Final Story by Jeff Shaara, finished April 29
037) Shutter Volume 1: Wanderlost by Joe Keatinge and Leila Del Duca et al, finished April 29

Books thirty-second through thirty-sixth
036) The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis, finished April 27
035) Zero Volume 1: An Emergency by Ales Kot et al, finished April 22
034) Deadly Class Volume 1: Reagan Youth by Rick Remender, finished April 19
033) Animal Man Vol. 4: Splinter Species by Jeff Lemire et al, finished April 17
032) Swamp Thing Vol. 4: Seeder by Charles Soule et al, finished April 15

Books twenty-eighth through thirty-first
031) Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, finished April 6
030) The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith, finished April 2
029) The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin, finished March 29
028) Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits edited by John Maloof, finished March 23

Books twenty-sixth through twenty-seventh
027) Passing by Nella Larsen, finished March 18
026) Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson, finished March 17

Books twenty-second through twenty-fifth
025) Ghost World by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, finished March 16
024) Hawkeye: L.A. Woman by Matt Fraction and some very talented artists, finished March 15
023) Hawkeye: Little Hits by Matt Fraction and a large number of artists, finished March 14
022) Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction and David Aja and Javier Pulido, finished March 12

Books twentienth through twenty-first
021) Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation by Eric Kaplan, finished March 11
020) Babymouse #8: Puppy Love by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, finished March 11

Books sixteenth through ninteenth
019) The Book of Mormon, finished March 3
018) Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos, finished March 1
017) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, finished February 26
016) Drawings II by Jake Parker, finished February 19

Books twelfth through fifteenth
015) The PreHistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit by Gary Larson, finished February 18
014) Nation by Terry Pratchett, finished February 16
013) Fences by August Wilson, finished February 10
012) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, finished February 6

Books tenth through eleventh
011) Adverbs by Daniel Handler, finished February 4
010) Death by Chocolate: Redux by David Yurkovich, finished February 3

Books sixth through ninth
009) The End of the World by Don Hertzfeldt, finished January 31
008) Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona, finished January 24
007) Drop Shot by Harlan Coben, finished January 18
006) Cardboard by Doug TenNaple, finished January 15

Books first through fifth
005) The Complete Peanuts: 1991-1992 by Charles M. Schulz, finished January 10
004) City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus, finished January 9
003) Harem Scarem in El Cerrito by Neva Calvert Carpenter, finished January 4
002) iPlates Volume II: Prophets, Priests, Rebels, and Kings by Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood, finished January 4
001) Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, finished January 3

final booky posts of

2014 = 2013 = 2012 = 2011 = 2010 = 2009 = 2008 = 2007

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  1. .

    [EDIT: Added one more additional comment I'd been meaning to for days before posting but only now finally remembered while online.]

  2. Haven't gotten to read this yet, though I intend to as soon as my hold comes up at the library (I'm only #223 in line!). Still, I wanted to comment because I've been thinking about modern attitudes toward the civil rights movement. I feel like there have been a lot of movies about that time period recently, and it makes me worry that we view racial tensions as a part of our history, something that was terrible but is now past. Maybe, though, these movies are happening because we're starting to wake up to the fact that we have a long way to go? I can't really tell.

    I struggle to know what my role as a white male is when it comes to conversations about racial relations or feminism. I especially struggle to know what my role is as a father of a white male. If I had a little girl, I'd be all about empowering her; since I have a little boy, most people seem to assume that he'll be just fine. I feel like my job, though, is to find a way to teach him how to not be a part of the problem, but since I don't know how to do that myself, I doubt my ability to do that.

  3. .

    I think chronic self-awareness is a good start.