Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets.
What a great quote. Doesn’t really have anything to do with the topic at hand, I just dig it. It’s from Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman.
I’ve read a big chunk of the book now and…eh. I’m fairly underwhelmed.
Let me confess here: I loved To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) not for the technical brilliance of her writing, which I find relentlessly boring, but for the story itself and for the lessons in that story. What the book says, rather than how she says it.
My biological father, the sperm donor, was gone early in my life. He was a mess, a liar and abuser, a man for whom the superficialities of life were most important. Ultimately, I did better as a man because of his absence.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes miss having a presence. It wasn’t an overwhelming absence, I didn’t sit around bemoaning the lack of a father because I had the all-time great mother (and if you want to know about her, just read my work, her presence is in every word and character and thought and deed and dream), but every so often, I would remember there was only my mother.
So in reading TKAM, I sometimes wanted to be Scout. I sometimes wanted a father who stood up for what was right and righteous.
I had that in a mother, but not in a father and sometimes I wanted it in both. So I read Scout and I reveledl in what she had; hence the story rather than the writing.
Which means, having heard of the new Atticus Finch, I approach GSAW with some anxiety. In this book, written first, he is the product of his surroundings. He is a white man raised in Alabama and aged 72 years in the middle 1950s. He is, in this first book, not that far removed from the George Wallace who refused to let black students register at the University of Alabama in 1963.
He is that way because Lee was writing what she knew, what she’d grown up with and been surrounded by. Go read the Bible quote that gives the book it’s title. Isaiah 21:6. It is a command to set a watchman, who then reports back what he sees…in essence what all writers do and what Lee was doing specifically by writing a book about a white Alabama man in his twilight years.
Thus far, in GSAW, Atticus Finch has not been particularly interesting. He is not be the man who captured my imagination originally.
Because TKAM has become the novel it has, because it has picked up the emotional and sociological resonance it has, GSAW will, too. It will absolutely be read through the lenses of TKAM.
It shouldn’t be. Why? Because it’s a trunk novel, for fuck’s sake.
It was written first, when I suspect Lee wasn’t entirely sure what she was writing or what she wanted to say. It wasn’t until her editor suggested a rewrite that focused on Scout as a girl that Lee got fired up and found the story she’d been trying to tell in the first book.
It happens this way with writers all the time.
I just finished a novel called When the Lonesome Dog Barks. It’s the third in my Jace Salome series and I set it up in the series’ second book. Initially, it was supposed to focus on a particular deputy and some of his domestic issues, and end with his death and a gynormous cop funeral.
But as I was writing, that storyline disappeared beneath a new one that was more interesting, more vital; one that got me more fired up as a writer. This was the story I wanted to write, not that.
GSAW was a first attempt, an early novel, and while it’s interesting from a what-was-Harper-Lee’s-thought-process standpoint, it’s not part of the TKAM world. The story and the characters, the heart, of the story changed, they became something different, just as Lonesome Dog did for me.
That is part of the writing process, and to imbue the new book with the same intensity of examination as the previous book is to look at apples and oranges with the same rose-colored glasses.
Plus, first books are always shitty. Period. “The first draft of anything is shit,” said Ernest Hemingway.
My first novel, Power Play, written in high school, is a straight up theft from Stephan King. And the writing sucks.
My second novel, Razor King, also written in high school, isn’t a theft from any particular writer (so I learned from that), but is juvenile. I mean, come on, the title (and most of the plot) is from a song by the group Gamma, and the characters are named Dave, Eddie, Michael, and Alex (hmmm…I wonder what group that was).
If you want to read those books, sure…I guess you could. I’m not embarrassed by them because they are part of me, they are me trying to learn how to write, it’s just that they suck. Why spend time reading suckass books when there are so many good books to read? Why read Power Play when you could go straight to the source material and read The Stand?
So as far as I’m concerned, GSAW is early material; early I’m-still-learning-how-to-do-this material. But it’s also the false start that plagues so many writers when they start working on a novel. Writer William Gibson said at a reading I attended once that starting a new novel was like learning to fly a jet…from the back of the plane, there will be mistakes galore before you figure out how to keep things level and keep from crashing a fiery death into a mountain.
That’s what GSAW is…the first tentative steps in a story that she figured out how to write better in a second draft, that draft being TKAM.
So I refuse to stuff all the weighty pronouncements that To Kill A Mockingbird has gathered in the last half-century into Go Set A Watchman. The new book is the first, lesser draft of what became literary history; interesting in a navel-gazing sort of way, but not really worth the time.
But the first Jace Salome novel, Slow Bleed? What a classic! Snatch that shit up now!