Monday 20 July 2015

The Atticus Problem: Responding to Go Set a Watchman

There has been a considerable amount of controversy in the bookish world, ever since it was announced that a sequel to Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had been found, and was to be published. Miss Lee is famous for having published just one masterpiece, and nothing since. There were concerns that the publishers may be exploiting a lady who is very elderly, frail, and reclusive, and no great assurance that she willingly approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Then, at the weekend, came the first newspaper reviews with their bombshell: Read this, and it could affect the way you see To Kill a Mockingbird and its most beloved characters. I didn't want to know this. I hate spoilers, but worse, I hate being told before I read or watch something new, what I ought to have a problem with. Because once I've read these (perfectly valid) criticisms, they stay in my mind, and I find myself picking holes that I might not have done otherwise. So I'll give you the chance to click away now, if you've managed to avoid the publicity so far and want to read Go Set a Watchman unspoiled, or keep To Kill A Mockingbird as a stand alone classic without a sequel.

The Garment-Rending Approach

The big bombshell of Go Set a Watchman is the character of one of American literature's greatest heroes of all time. Atticus Finch, for over half a century a champion for right and justice and equality, an extraordinary figure in 1930s Alabama, is toppled from his pedestal in the 1950s, when he reveals his less savoury views.

It's difficult to reconcile Atticus Finch with racism, and all the more so as in every other way, he remains 100% Atticus, polite, respectably subversive, a leading member of the community. Is everything we ever believed a lie? one asks. As To Kill A Mockingbird was actually written after Go Set a Watchman, it's hard to picture Miss Lee presenting us with a perfect hero, while sitting on the knowledge of his alter ego for fifty five years or more. But Go Set a Watchman is an unusual sequel, because it was written earlier, because of the gap between it and its predecessor, and because of To Kill a Mockingbird's magnitude. Does this invalidate the last fifty five years of literature? Can we ever read the triumphs and tragedies and honest goodness in To Kill a Mockingbird without remembering this other side to Atticus? How might one approach teaching Mockingbird in schools now? I'd scoff at the idea that one work of art might be "ruined forever" by another, but I wonder how long it'll be before I reread Mockingbird without holding Watchman in my mind throughout Atticus's scenes.*

The Dual Perspective Approach

Although, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is told in the third person, the focus character and the one to whom the reader most relates is Scout Finch, now known by her full name, Jean Louise. Jean Louise is twenty six years old, and naturally she has a different view of the world around her than she did as a little girl. It stands to reason that she would have a more critical, less blindly accepting attitude towards her father. A painful part of growing up is to discover the flaws in our heroes, that they are only human too. Does one flaw cancel out everything good about them? Is it possible for Atticus Finch to fight with all his heart for justice and do the right thing in the face of opposition, and still hold in his heart the same prejudice that influenced everyone else? I'd argue that nothing in Go Set a Watchman changes Atticus's behaviour or even his motivation in To Kill a Mockingbird. His character is another matter.

When you look up to people, whether they be celebrities, acquaintances, close relations, or ink and paper, they have the power to let you down. Go Set a Watchman is painful reading in places, for the very reason that the reader is going through the exact same thing that Scout (I can't call her Jean Louise) does, in seeing Atticus toppled from his pedestal. Literature takes us inside our characters' minds, makes us feel what they feel, and on a meta level, the fifty years of hailing Atticus Finch as a hero has made us all the more sympathetic, her dismay and ours all the more powerful. It is Atticus himself, fallen, and yet still recognisable, whose lesson to Scout is that she stand up for what she believes to be right and true - even against him.

The First Draft Approach

The important thing to remember is that To Kill a Mockingbird evolved from Go Set a Watchman. The publishers rejected the original manuscript, but liked the memories of Scout as a young girl so much that Harper Lee wrote a new novel entirely from that perspective. And the thing is, writing evolves. Stories evolve. Characters evolve. Regardless of author's intent, the evidence we've had to work with has been in the bookshops for over half a century; is that not long enough for it to be "real"? It's a story that lives not only printed on paper and on film, but in the hearts and minds of so many people. At some point (but at what point?) I think a story comes alive, becomes more than just the words of the author. To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly such a story. It's different from, say, Tolkien's Histories of Middle-Earth, which charter the evolution of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Go Set A Watchman is almost entirely a different story, with some overlap and some contradiction, but it formed a starting point, the end result of which was To Kill a Mockingbird. Anna James wrote her review from this perspective on the Pool website, describing the new novel as "the origin story of an iconic book" and the Atticus Finch portrayed within as "a work in progress."

The Discontinuity Approach

Related to the above, where do we place Go Set a Watchman in the canon of Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird is not simply a modern classic, but a classic, full stop. The publication of a sequel to a classic in my lifetime, so long after the first installment, is unheard of. Does Go Set a Watchman automatically rank beside its sister novel, or does it have to earn its own place in the annals of literature on its own merits, over time?

Add into the equation the moral doubts about whether Miss Lee really wanted the book published; after all, she refused to publish anything for over half a century, and some have noted that the "discovery" of Go Set A Watchman shortly after the death of her sister, who was also her lawyer, is too suspicious to be a coincidence. We'll probably never know her wishes, but if we read it, we should do so in the knowledge that it might not be the story she wanted us to read in the end.

On the other hand, like it or not, Go Set a Watchman has been released into the wild now. It exists, and people are reading it, and talking about it. Does that fact alone make it canon? It is more than a first draft, and follows on quite well as a sequel to the casual reader. But the text of Watchman contradicts the biggest plot events of Mockingbird: the court case Jean Louise remembers here had a different outcome, different details, but was clearly the inspiration for the Tom Robinson trial. One could view this as evidence that Watchman must be viewed as a separate story from Mockingbird, that the two books don't fit together in the same fictional universe.

But I feel uncomfortable denying Go Set a Watchman outright. "I can't believe in Atticus as a racist, therefore this can't be the real Atticus." I don't want to simply shut my eyes to unsavoury elements to a story just because they make me uncomfortable. It puts in mind the things I've been reading about the American school curriculum omitting to teach significant chunks of race-related history, as if ignoring them would make them go away. Obviously, Atticus Finch is a fictional character, but his dilemmas, opinions, strengths and flaws reflect the real world. Is it wrong of us to want to preserve a clean, good image of a hero at the expense of those who suffered as a result of the hurtful attitudes we'd rather not admit he expressed?

Or am I taking this all far too seriously? After all, "it's just a story."

Who gets to decide whether this is an official sequel, or a stage in the evolution of a masterpiece? I guess it's up to the individual reader, and I don't have an easy answer to any of the questions raised. One thing is certain, though: this is one of the biggest events in the history of publishing, and people will be discussing Go Set a Watchman for a long time to come.

*I watched the film after writing this post. I still have a huge amount of love for Mockingbird's Atticus Finch. Go Set A Watchman does not seem to have changed this. Perhaps it is like the rebooted Star Trek universe, canon and not canon, the same and not the same AT THE SAME TIME. Star Trek and To Kill A Mockingbird: not a comparison you come across every day, I suspect.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Contains spoilers

A young woman takes the overnight train home to Maycomb, Alabama, for the first time in many years. Before she arrives, she makes sure to dress in slacks, in part to scandalise her aunt, in part because they are the clothes that make her feel most like herself when she returns home. The woman is Jean Louise Finch, once known as Scout, the narrator and heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird. In many ways, Maycomb is the same, but in other ways it has changed. It is the 1950s, and times are changing. Racial tensions are high, with talk of desegregation, which meets with resistance among the white members of the community. Jean Louise's homecoming is bittersweet. Maycomb is home, with all the memories of her childhood; her boyfriend is here, and her father, although  her brother Jem is dead now, and Atticus is older, more creaky, but still the wise, quietly witty, respectably subversive lawyer. And Jean Louise will never see eye-to-eye with her Aunt Alexandra, and she no longer quite feels that she fits in at her hometown. There are shocks in store for Jean Louise, and everything she has previously taken for granted comes crashing down around her.

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and, although it works as a sequel, being a completely new story, the elements which later evolved into the classic are visible in another form. Harper Lee brings the humour and warmth that readers will instantly recognise from Mockingbird, the same wry observation and understated wit. Jean Louise is older, but the tomboy child is never far from the surface, and Atticus, though he may seem serious, has a dry wit of his own.

The prose is inconsistent in quality; less polished than in Mockingbird, a weird combination of dry exposition and presumption that the reader to has a little more contemporary political knowledge than I had half a century later. Go Set a Watchman is character-driven, without a big major plot event such as the trial at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird. As such, I felt it a bit less engrossing, a series of events and flashbacks, and wondering what the actual story was going to be. But when it's good, it really shines. Some lines of dialogue or description had me laughing aloud. (People who grew up in a certain kind of church will know exactly which hymn is being described as "bloodthirsty.") The characters walk onto the page fully-formed, and it's easy to forget that it was their first appearance on paper. Scout is as lovable, passionate, outrageous and unconventional as a woman as she was as a girl, a person who transcends ink and paper. The flashbacks to Scout's childhood and teenage years were very funny, as was the scene at Jean Louise's "coffee," and the way snippets of conversation from one-time acquaintances came together to be faintly ridiculous.

It doesn't really feel fair to compare the novels, except to observe how Harper Lee took the good elements of Go Set a Watchman and made them great. The change in narration from third person (Watchman) to Scout's first person (Mockingbird) brings you closer into the world, and the way that events run together in the latter, with a mixture of childish imagination and adult reality, build a complete child's view of the world out of the fragments of memory presented in Watchman. 

Go Set A Watchman covers similar themes to those at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird, of race, and justice, family, an end of innocence and Right and Wrong with capital letters. But Right and Wrong are more complex here; it is a more adult novel and leaves you, the reader, conflicted. Because here, Atticus Finch, Defender of Good and Right, a man with a sense of justice beyond his time, is wary of the changing of the times, and stands against the desegregation of the races in the South, attending meetings alongside hateful, bigoted people and condoning them with his silence.

The confrontation and conversation at the end of the book would be powerful and upsetting enough were these characters we'd met for the first time a couple of hundred pages back. With the weight of half a century behind it, however, and with literature bearing Atticus' reputation for more than twice as long as Jean Louise's twenty six years, I too felt that sense of betrayal and hurt, all the worse because Atticus remains in character throughout. His arguments against desegregation are calm, reasoned and thoughtful - and awful and wrong. It's hard to reconcile some of the terrible things he says with the man who has been long considered a hero, and I'll be posting a whole separate essay about that issue in the next day or two. There is a time when the bitterness of the rift between Jean Louise and Atticus seem impossible to get past.

Yet Go Set a Watchman ends on a note of hope and reconciliation. It has become necessary for Jean Louise to smash the idol she'd made of her father, in order to live by her own conscience, to fight battles because she knows them to be right, not to accept that everything Atticus says or does is good and right. Without wishing in any way to downplay or defend his beliefs and words, he is, for the most part, a good man, with strong morals, and a good father. The lessons she learned from him as a child and young woman set her up well for life. But he is still a man, and he is still flawed. It's as true for the reader as it is for Jean Louise; we come of age alongside her. Heroes will only lead us so far. Ultimately, we must become our own heroes.

Go Set A Watchman is not as wonderful a novel as To Kill A Mockingbird, but it was never going to be. It's a patchy, but pretty good, literary novel of its time; darker and more nuanced than its sister novel. It's interesting to compare the complex adult morality to the simple black and white of a child's understanding. Is it essential reading? Not in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is, but Go Set a Watchman is an interesting piece of literature, more than a first draft, but not quite a sequel, to be read thoughtfully with a critical mind.

Thursday 2 July 2015

June in Review

Another month is over, and June has been a satisfyingly bookish month for me. We're in a heatwave in the UK at the moment, and it's uncomfortably hot at work (the air conditioning has broken in its classic timely fashion) so I'm spending as much of my free time as I can on the beach with a book. Last month I was working a lot, but I had a couple of days off to go up to London for a weekend. I met up with the lovely Bex around the time of her birthday, and met her family. Of course we did a little book shopping in Canterbury - although I only bought one book with her: Harriet the Spy, which I vividly remember reading as a kid, but not one I ever owned. However, I also came home with two more full-sized books, and a handful of the 80p Little Black Classics from Penguin. I've also paid a few visits to the labyrinthine Ryde Bookshop and the petite, vaguely Black-Books-esque (but only in the best way) treasure-trove that is Babushka Books in Shanklin.

Books from June's to-read pile

  • Tigerman - Nick Harkaway
  • Weirdo - Cathi Unsworth
  • Mr Mercedes - Stephen King
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger
  • The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
  • A Room Full of Bones - Elly Griffiths
  • Dying Fall - Elly Griffiths
  • Lock In - John Scalzi
  • The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

Other Books Read in June
  • The Janus Stone - Elly Griffiths
  • A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald
  • The Somnambulist - Jonathan Barnes
  • Family Secrets - Deborah Cohen
  • Emma: A Retelling - Alexander McCall Smith

Books bought in June
  • When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • Thrice Upon a Time - James P. Hogan (Fantastic Store, Ryde)
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh (Waterstones, Canterbury)
  • Penguin Mini Classics: A Slip under the Microscope - H. G. Wells, The Fall of Icarus - Ovid, The Night is Darkening Round Me - Emily Bronte, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime - Oscar Wilde, The Life of a Stupid Man - Ryunosuke Akutagawa (all from Foyles, London Waterloo station)
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • Penguin Mini Classic: Caligula - Suetonius (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal (Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London)
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • The Go-Between - L. P. Hartley (Babushka Books, Shanklin)

July's To-Read Pile

For the first half of July I've planned to take time away from my own to-read shelf in order to get through my library books, borrowed books and gifts, the ones that "don't count" as part of my "read-three-buy-two" rule. I'm giving myself until the 13th to get through as many of the following titles as possible. The 14th, of course, sees the publication of Harper Lee's very long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman (or first - I believe it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.) I have my copy pre-ordered and will want to read it as soon as it becomes available.

  • Abarat - Clive Barker (borrowed from a friend)
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (borrowed from sister)
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger (from Hanna)
  • The Outcast Dead - Elly Griffiths (library)
  • Nunslinger - Stark Holborn (library)
  • The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane (Ninja Book Swap gift from Sarah)
Have you read any of these books? Any recommendations on where to start?  Here's wishing you all a happy July!

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Lock In - John Scalzi

It is the not-too-distant future, and the world has changed. After a worldwide epidemic of a debilitating disease, called Haden's Syndrome, whose worst (non-fatal) effect is lock-in syndrome, science and technology have made great leaps to help sufferers lead some semblance of a normal life. Firstly there are remotely-controlled robotesque bodies colloquially known as "threeps" (as in C-3PO). The Haden's afflicted person may physically be lying paralysed in a bed, but their minds can inhabit these synthetic bodies and do most of the things that everyone else can do. Then there is the Agora, a sort of fully-immersive internet, where people can meet in cyberspace without the hastle of computers or smartphones. Finally, there are the integrators, a small minority of people who can let the Hadens borrow their bodies for a while - but fully conscious, and are an essential part of the decision-making and action processes.

So, this is the world of Lock In. Quite a complex set of ideas to get your head around, and it's best to take the first chapter or two slowly to figure it all out, but it's a really fascinating concept for a book. After all, if a person's mind/soul/personality are all made up of electrical signals from the brain, then why not? Why can't they be remotely transmitted to other places outside the body?

The protagonist of Lock In is Agent Chris Shane*, a new recruit to the FBI - and a Haden. On Shane's very first day, an apparent suicide leads to the discovery that someone is abusing the Haden's technology for their own nefarious purposes, and it is up to Shane and partner Vann to get to the heart of the mystery. But the conspiracy goes far deeper than Shane could have imagined, with far-reaching implications...

Lock In is an intelligent science fiction novel which uses fantastical ideas to make you think about real-world issues, such as corruption in business, the dangers of the commercial side of the health industry, and raises questions about the ethics of  medical advancement, technology, and quality of life. The scientists in the world of Lock In see opportunity in disaster, and in treating Haden's Syndrome, they have made steps towards the evolution of a new life form. But what does this mean for the human race? In such a situation, do we have a moral obligation to fix what is broken or to take the broken pieces to create something new which could end up replacing us?

It is these questions which make Lock In something beyond a simple science-fiction detective novel. After finishing the book, I found myself missing it, sorry to have reached the end and said farewell to the characters, the world and the questions it provokes. An excellent novel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ready Player One, Scalzi's Redshirts (very different kind of story but the same humour and narrative voice) or Joss Whedon's TV series, Dollhouse. 

*It was not until it was pointed out to me that I realised that Scalzi never specified whether Agent Shane was a Christopher or a Christine. I assumed all the way through the book that the character was male, possibly because of the masculine-sounding surname, but I'm going to have to reread imagining the character as a woman. Apparently there are two audiobook versions, too, one read by Wil Wheaton and the other by Amber Benson (the lovely lovely Tara from Buffy!)
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