Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Pre-read: I know this book came out today, but I'm going to re-read "To Kill A Mockingbird" before I touch this, and I have it on hold at my library. I'm like #45 of more than a couple hundred people, so it'll be a little while. But at least I got in line, man. I could get it sooner than I think, but we'll see.

Post-read: I need a little time to meditate on this book because I'm reacting to several things that upset me in the course of reading this book, in completely the wrong focus and wrong way. And maybe that's the problem with "Go Set A Watchman" - it doesn't necessarily shine a light on anything. Shallow portrayals of its characters, shallow portrayals of its issues, and pretty much an incomplete novel that seems like it's aiming towards something greater, but never fulfills that promise.

Full review:

I somewhat dreaded having to write this review, because this book really got to me for the wrong, wrong reasons. I shudder to think that I have to recall the reasons why I did not like this book. "Go Set A Watchman" has many issues. Forget for a moment what you've heard about certain characters in this book and how they've changed from their previous incarnations in the latter penned "To Kill A Mockingbird." Coming into the read, I was a little more forgiving to see this as another "image" of TKAM. It was penned three years before "To Kill A Mockingbird", and could be seen as a precursory draft rather than a prequel/sequel or companion novel as it was marketed (curse HarperCollins for their misleading marketing). It was rejected by the publisher, then rewritten and revamped to eventually become TKAM.

The only good thing I can say about my reading this book is that Reese Witherspoon is a fine narrator. She really is; she gave more life to the audio performance of the novel than I think I would've had reading this on its own. I'd give her 5 stars for the performance, but the book itself - nowhere near close.

Not only was this an extremely weak narrative from a technical standpoint, but its aim to shine a light on the respective characters and issues it touched upon failed miserably. On one hand, I know this is a dated novel - it was penned over 50 years ago, it doesn't show its age all that well and was probably reflective of some of the events and attitudes that were going on during its respective time. But that doesn't mean I can't call it out on its respective B.S. in terms of the way it chose to expand upon such ideas. Plus, I don't think "Go Set A Watchman" really felt like a novel that could stand on its own - it was more like an elaborate draft or outline of a conversation to be had in much larger context than it provided.

So where do I begin? It's hard for me to completely avoid comparisons of this novel to "Mockingbird" because this narrative hinges so much the former that I don't think you can completely separate the two. While Jean Louise (Scout), Atticus, Calpurnia, Jem, among other familiar characters are mentioned by name in this novel, you don't get a sense of who these characters actually are at any point in "Watchman". There are some snippets of fleshing, but very little delving into the background or development. I almost want to say that someone who's had no knowledge or experience with "Mockingbird" would have a hard time getting into this novel (especially in the first part - that part had very little hook or establishment) because there's very little to go on. We have some flashbacks of the young Jean Louise coming of age with her brother Jem and how Calpurnia mothers her (I chuckled a little with Calpurnia trying to explain to Jean Louise she couldn't possibly be pregnant from a kiss) were probably some of my favorite parts of what this offered. It seemed to me that Lee found her narrative flow most with writing these scenes of childhood/coming of age/slice of life. That's probably what led to Lee ultimately writing "Mockingbird" from the perspective of the much younger Scout, thereby incorporating that voice and experience for the work's whole.

Yet in "Watchman" - we have this constant back and forth between past and present. Part of this may be an attempt making the characters more familiar, but it's so darned choppy. Adult Jean Louise has very little to make her stand out on her own, and her naivete can be grating to read in spells.

So, despite the trade between Jean Louise's childhood and present adult experiences, the plot for this novel seems relatively simple. Jean Louise is returning home from New York (and we've no idea what her life was like in NY before coming home) to see her ailing father and catch up with the town she left behind, only to realize that the people she thought she knew and loved as idols and heroes were...well, racist.

Yep, that's pretty much the plotline, people. (Thank you and goodnight! *walks away, and then turns back around*)

Hold on, if it were that straightforward, I'd probably have a much shorter review to write than the one I'm penning right now (though still not without a fair share of rage). Because for all this novel's touting around that the adults in this are not plum perfect white people, and for the few moments where Jean Louise actually speaks against the blatant bigotry, this novel felt extremely empty for actually dealing with the issues it brings up. Even further, it actually never completely knocks down some of the harmful ideologies that the characters here contain (and Jean Louise even supports some of those harmful statements, which only served to piss me off and contradict whatever "message" the novel seemed to want to send).

Apparently, the only consistent lesson this book seemed to send was that people aren't the gods and goddesses you think they are in your youth - that they have flaws and that to grow up, you have to be able to open your eyes to see who/what/where/why they really are. It seemed really underhanded to me that Jean Louise not only had to learn this at the age she is (she's 26 in this novel) and coming out of the environment she did (She lived in the northern U.S. during this time, which had quite different ideologies than her home), but that her bigoted relatives had to be the ones to teach her this lesson and say "Hey, we're not perfect, little Jean Louise! Good girl for finally figuring us out and growing up, even though we're still racist jerks." And even then, Jean Louise ended up being apologetic for basically chewing them out for their prejudices.

*throws up hands* What in fresh heck, man?!!!!

Let's get something straight here: racism and bigotry embody more than just the use of nominative slurs against a collective people or group, it also entails ideals and actions that undermine that group's very existence. There was quite a bit of the use of the "n" word in this book, and blatant underminings of black Americans as far as trying to paint the NAACP as some group that threatened "states rights" (there's a really skewed portrayal of the history of the Civil War in this book and I'm not even going to give it legs from description because it sickens me). I hated that it pretty much reduced black Americans and their very existence to being a "political" entity. And while I could believe in the fact that these important people to Jean Louise could embody such horrific ideologies, it never feels like the narrative gives true weight to this without feeling like it's just telling these factors.

Further, some of the dialogues often made it like giving rights to black Americans would somehow undermine the rights of those who were of the majority (which is a prejudiced ideology that is applied to many minority groups even today, whether along racial, ethnic, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or any distinction you can think of.)

There's a lot of wide brush painting in terms of statements made in this book with respect to the clashes of race and societal identity here. It's not just the fact that the characters these clashes pertain to are even further reduced to background noise (poor Calpurnia, especially with what happens to her family), but the fact that the narrative seems to limit the conversation and injustices to make them impersonal.

I was shocked at one point when Jean Louise actually supported the idea that black Americans were "backward" as a people (I think this was a conversation she was having with Atticus when calling him out to be a contradictory piece of crap), but somehow she seems to think she's speaking right by saying "They're still people!"

FML. That's a backhanded statement and it made me want to throw more than just the book at her.

Jean Louise is not a heroine in this book, she might be talking a lot of so-called progressive talk, but for actually making aims towards true measures and ideals of equality, she's not even remotely coming close. If anything, when the conversation comes up that makes her feel guilty for calling out Atticus and relatives (even her potential husband) on their bigotry, she actually recedes and submits to their calls, her feeling guilty for making them guilty. I couldn't even begin to even with this.

But I shouldn't have been surprised when I saw that Jean Louise's potential husband to be supports his claim to being racist by simply being one to "follow the crowd", to not taint his making a name for himself from being labeled as "trash." Nope, he'd rather go on persecuting an entire race if it means he'd get ahead. Jean Louise calls him out on this, but her calls only go so far.

Granted, "Mockingbird" has its respective issues that are debatable, but it wasn't anywhere near as weak as this narrative was. The writing, the discussions, the dialogue, the overarching "messages" here - all of them were subpar and it offended the heck out of me, and not even for some measure of injustice as it was just sloppy handling of important themes. I was left saying "screw this book" ten times over when I was done and I know I'll never pick up this narrative again.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.