Monday, September 7, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s second published novel confirms once and for all that Harper Lee was the writer we all thought she was when To Kill a Mockingbird became a worldwide success. Considering the period during which this novel was written, the arguments Lee places in the mouths of her characters seem as dangerous as a torch of oil-soaked rags burning hot in an airless Southern night, both for and against basic civil rights for black people.

The voice in this novel is distinct enough never to be mistaken for another, and the pleasure we derive from the stories liberally spiced with Southern wit and reminiscence…Jean Louise learning about sex, the morning coffee for neighbor women, or Scout wearing falsies to her first dance…make us want to laugh and weep that there is so little of Lee’s writing to enjoy. Watching Jean Louise take her first steps as an independent adult and see what it means to be a family member and a Southerner in a time of unequal rights is revelatory and beautifully clear.

In a time when authors find themselves hiding their meanings within complicated storylines and off-kilter personalities, this story and its thrust comes across as clear, powerful, and very close to perfect. Yes, its arguments may seem dated, but they certainly weren’t in the mid-50s when this novel was written, and considering race relations in the U.S. currently, we could all use a little look back at how little many of us have progressed in sixty years. Could it be that we just don’t listen to any voices that don’t accord with our own? Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack tells us we don’t have to try and understand, but then we won’t grow. Ah, there it is.

No matter how many times it has been written that this book preceded To Kill a Mockingbird in its genesis, but was refused by Lee’s editor, reviewers have persisted in calling it a sequel. And no matter that this book contains keys to important concepts many of us have never understood, e.g., a credible explanation for how individual Southern soldiers viewed America’s Civil War, and how reasonable men can disagree on something so fundamental as civil rights for all people, reviewers persist in voicing their indignation over the attitudes of a fictional lawyer. If the reaction to this book is any indication of how her first work was received, it is no wonder she never wanted to publish another novel: “I would not go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money,” she told a close friend.

This is a novel about growing up and learning to reconcile painful truths about the world. Lee’s meaning couldn’t be clearer, since she puts her arguments in the mouths of learned and articulate people and has precious little plot or character ornamentation to obscure her arguments. Some have called this bald sermonizing. To me it was a balm. The arguments surrounding race relations are so fraught that someone stating straight out what their issues are aids clarity and understanding, even if distinctions are still fine and complicated enough to make me weak with relief that I don’t have to read this book in translation, or in a language not my own.

I really can’t understand the twisted-mouth criticism of this novel. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker (July 27th edition) calls the novel “touching, beautiful…and magically alive,” though heavily hyped. It was so hyped I became suspicious of its value as literature before I read it. Considering the success of Harper Lee’s first novel and her reclusiveness in the years since, a new book from her really is an event to be celebrated. Look what happened this summer leading up to Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Purity. You’d think his book was a miracle instead of one from a popular writer in the middle of his career. The American marketing machine cannot be accused of shrinking from their god-given right to make money anyway they can.

I listened to this novel read by Reese Witherspoon whose southern accent gave the novel a charming verisimilitude. And listening to Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack at the end help her integrate what she’d learned during her stay in Maycomb was grace itself.

Don’t let any reviews discourage you from enjoying this novel for yourselves. It is a wonderful, spicy, clear-eyed view of the South with all its peculiarities. A better defense of color-blindness I have not heard.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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