Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I was really excited about this book because, like many people, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it was brilliant. It always seemed a mystery to me that a writer could write one book, and only one book, and have it that good. Well, some of that mystery has been clarified now that I know that Go Set a Watchman was really her first book. If I had one word to describe this book, it would be: muddy.
It reads like a first book. It reads like someone who has got a lot of the pieces, but isn’t quite perfect at setting them in order and knowing what to leave out. The novel is about Scout, Jean-Louise, who goes back to her home town in Macom county Alabama to visit her father Atticus, who has recently become disabled by arthritis. Here’s where the first discrepancy comes in, because she’s obviously been there often enough and recently enough that her boyfriend Hank kisses her with familiarity, and yet she’s been away long enough to be surprised by how far her father’s illness has progressed. How long has she been away? I really would have liked that clarified.
For the first half of the novel, I struggled to figure out what the novel was supposed to be about. I thought the main story was about “will she or won’t she marry Hank?” That’s the sort of low-stakes plot of a romance novel, but a romance novel has its own tension and structure, which this novel lacked. The novel kind of meanders with Jean-Louise not quite fitting into the rigid domesticity of her cohort, not melding with the mores of her aunt Alexandra, and manufacturing fights with Hank for want of anything better to do. This is interposed with flashback scenes of how idyllic her childhood had been, with her playing with Dill and Jem.
Dill and Jem were problems. They loom large in the flashback scenes, but are completely absent from the scenes in the present day. Dill’s whereabouts are unknown, and Jem has died, but they never really say when or how, at least, not that I caught. This oversight irritated me. After a while I just assumed Jem died in the war, but then they’re standing in an office and she says “this is where he died” and I thought “What, right here? In this office? WTF?” If they are important, it’s important to know what happened to them. There were a few glimmers of interesting social-hierarchy there, with Jem always getting the best roles in their play acting, sort of pointing out that who’s on top and who is important was determined early on, but without clarification on who Dill was and what happened to him, that observation was wasted. It was a nice try that missed its target.
The spatial fuzziness also bothered me. She mentions that her childhood home is now an ice cream parlour, and her father is living with his sister, but there was a second house the aunt lived in? At one point, she’s talking about going to visit someone for a funeral, and she describes in detail the line of cars out front. Then she says something about how it doesn’t look like a hearse, and she looked in the window and saw a row of chairs, and because the author had spent so much time on the cars, I wondered how they fit a bunch of chairs in the back of a car.
There were other amateur-writer mistakes too, like a scene when Scout is going on about something, getting angry, and it’s all from her point of view and then she says “Henry could tell by the look on her face she was angry.” I noticed them more and more when I was halfway through the book and still wasn’t sure what kind of book it was, because the flashback scenes didn’t really seem to enhance the point, and I was strongly aware that this was by an amateur writer. In real life, things happen that don’t have a point. In a novel, you should only include scenes that have relevance.
There was one scene where Scout is going to try to kill herself, because she heard you get pregnant when a boy kisses you, and she got kissed and didn’t want to dishonor her family by having a baby so she counted the months and then climbed the water tower to jump to her death. I guess it’s supposed to be “ha ha, how silly!” but it just got my ire up, that people think it’s noble/good/admirable to preserve a complete ignorance of sex and sexual functions in children. To this day many parents fight hard to protect their children’s ignorance (calling it “innocence”) and this scene was proof of the emotional and in some cases physical suffering that this backwards attitude can cause, and yet the scene was painted in the harmless and funny tones of the end scene of a sit com where all the misunderstandings are clarified. Ha ha! You didn’t know! Ha ha! Cue sappy music. At the end of the book Scout rails against her father for allowing her to believe that they shared the same political leanings, and yet deliberately keeping her ignorant of how her body works and how a girl gets pregnant was so trivial that she doesn’t even mention it EVEN THOUGH SHE SUFFERED AND NEARLY DIED BECAUSE OF THIS IGNORANCE.
There are some touches of important social commentary in this book. For example, Jean-Louise and Hank get in a fight and she pushes him in the water. (I guess that’s “feisty” and cute in a Southern woman, but I’d call it violent with a lack of impulse control.) So the rumors start that she was skinny dipping, even though she had the wet dress to prove they went in clothed. Hank points out that she has the class background to get away with breaking social mores, such as skinny-dipping, whereas he has to toe the line or people will cite his transgressions as evidence of his “trash” breeding. That was a rather astute observation, but it was buried deep within chapter after chapter of dross.
Jean-Louise is a problematic character too. I didn’t like her. She’s given to histrionics, starting pointless fights, wailing and tearing her hair out when she doesn’t get her way, such as when her old cook, the woman who raised her, used a slightly more formal tone of voice with her. This may have been exaggerated by the narrator, since I listened to this rather than read it. Jean-Louise lives in New York, which accounts for her Yankee notions of equality, but she still seems unusually shocked by the state of affairs in her hometown. (How long has it been since she was back there? Two years? And yet, she and Hank seem to have never split from one another.) She’s flabbergasted that someone changes the tune to which they sing the doxology in church, and yet when her rather backwards town responds to the equal rights’ amendment by hunkering down and becoming more ossified in their white-supremacist attitudes, she’s utterly baffled by their resistance to change. She goes to a kaffeeklatch she abhors, and considers becoming the kind of wife/mother she doesn’t understand, and yet the idea that a man deeply entrenched within the fabric of society might choose to pretend to adhere to ideas he doesn’t believe in just to preserve his livelihood seems her as rank cowardice. She’s either hypocritical, or kind of stupid. I guess because she ends up deciding not to marry and move home, she is not hypocritical, but she still comes across as devoid of wisdom in the way that you see more in 18-year-olds than women who have been living on their own for a while.
Jean-Louise’s uncle was also a problem for me. She goes to see Dr. Finch, and he rambles on and on without making any sense. She says again and again that he’s not making any sense, and she gets frustrated, but it’s not like his ramblings really got clearer later on. Or maybe they did, and the point of the novel was supposed to be that it was a coming of age novel, and “Jean-Louise has to learn that sometimes people in her family are racist hypocrites, and that’s okay, because racist hypocrites are people too.” Actually, I think that is the point of the novel. Dr. Finch spouts a lot of state’s rights blah blah, much of which is repeated by Atticus later, and then he says something like “when you can’t take it anymore, come and see me,” like some wise-old sage who can see the future.
Sure enough, Jean-Louise loses her shit when talking to her father (I found it bizarre that she called her father by his first name, which is rather informal, and yet she also called him sir.) They get into an argument, where he “wins” by getting her to agree, at least, that negros are “backwards people” and by saying that it would be a mistake to let them vote, because they aren’t educated enough yet, and also that you can’t let them be educated beside the white children, because they aren’t ready yet. She agrees to this as obvious, our liberal non-racist hero does. She ignores the obvious point that Hank grew up with nothing and no education but managed to do very well for himself because he had a patron who supported him and educated him despite his “trash” background. But then, Jean-Louise doesn’t come across as very bright. She basically agrees with him point for point, except that she thinks white people should be nice to negros and not snub them. And yet this difference of opinion tears her apart and gives her a crisis of conscience.
The point of the book seemed to be that Jean-Louise had a mental breakdown when she realized that she and her father had separate opinions and that he was fallible. She screamed a bunch of cruel things and then resolved to steal his car and drive to the depot to go back to New York. Then her uncle came and calmed her histrionics by backhanding her a couple of times and making her drink a tumbler of whiskey, a scene which I found rather disgusting.
The point should have been that Jean-Louise came to her home town and realized that racism was complicated, that people were resistant to change because they fear losing what they already had, and that some of the attitudes she abhorred, from her liberal position, were tenets she herself had deeply ingrained in her own mind and had never challenged. But that’s not the book that was written. A spoiled and myopic girl visits her stultifying hometown, there’s a few pointless flashback scenes, then she finds out her dad and her beau are white-supremacists, loses her shit, and gets backhanded into sense by her eccentric uncle. Then there’s a half-assed epiphany where she admits bigots are people too.
Go Set a Watchman is an unfinished sketch, the throat clearing before the aria, the messy crap Lee had to get through to get her thoughts in order enough to write a masterpiece. I’m thinking there was a darn good reason it remained unpublished for all those decades.