As I began reading Go Set A Watchman, I quickly became aware that I was experiencing an impossible thing. Like the move Boyhood, cubed. Then multiplied times 3.14159.
How does anyone connive to write a novel then write a second novel, then publish only the second novel, which subsequently becomes canon among American Novels, then “forget” the first novel for several decades? Answer? One doesn’t. One invents that deception after the fact. But this is impossible. Even a good Southern Novelist can’t be that clever and deceptive. So you finally accept it at face value as an impossibility, which you are now, indeed, suddenly, through the miracle of modern publishing, devouring word-by-word at an astonishing rate. Impossible but true. For a reader, this process itself is singular and nearly off-putting. Reading as performance art. Reading real time. Reading with an audience made up of all of the "you's" you've been since the 60's.
But you shrug it off and read, and ultimately the novel, the actual work, begins to set in. The thrill of the present-ness of the event begins to wear off and the pacing of the book wins you. Jean Louise is a good, smart narrator. She remembers all sorts of crazy stuff from … wait! We remember it too! … go ahead JL, you tell it. You were there. But we were there, remember? Just beyond Miss Rachel’s fence? It’s uncanny fiction for those of us who paid the entrance fee, and impossible fare to communicate to those who didn’t. But I interrupt. Go on, Jean Louise. You were talking about Dill and Jem…?
And you threw in a love story, and we believed you, and we wanted you both to find happiness, and you might…and you might…just interrupt the narrative at any point….I feel like jumping in here with some political….seasoning might do these phrases good don’t you think…that these niggers are allowed to …jump in here Jean Louise and let’s swim in clear water with a strong current…and end up as racist bastards when we arrive? Where exactly are you taking us here JeaNelle Louise? Suddenly, like it or not, we’re paying attention. You’re talking about OUR past. Our heroes. Our struggles. And you’re thinking OUR thoughts. From both sides. Those we admit to and those we don’t. And we have to hold them all at the same time, as is our wont. As is our fate. As is our obligation.
Jean Louise doesn’t leave anything alone for long and soon she is puking and we too are ill. Where exactly is she taking us? This is, after all, a novel. She is, after all, a saint among novelists. Can she really be a one-trick-pony? Can she really not know of what she speaks? Can she really, would she really, will her handlers let her really spear Atticus’ head for the sake of PC? Can I take this? Do I want to endure this? Meanwhile her song just gets better. The strength of the story and the detail negates any comment on prose style. She doesn’t need any prose style but you are aware as you are swiping pages madly that she has a style, that she has you gut-hooked and sick at the thought of herself coming home a decade later and publishing six decades after that her realizations that her father isn’t Atticus Finch, but just a southern lawyer and though the prose technique is trite the emotions are true and someone else might speak like that even if I don’t and maybe Jack really was that smart and maybe he and Atticus really did…but no, you throw it off and try to wash it away as fiction but because you are living this, because you know that the ineffable is just that, it doesn’t stop once you lay the prose down and walk away. You are confronting truth via a marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime sleight of word where life and art overlay each other like legs flung in convivial bliss. And because you know the truth, in your heart you know the conclusion, you don’t need to finish this one. You tell yourself that as you walk away to maintain your veneer, but finally you do conclude. You pick up the book and read the final lines and set it down knowing as you do that you will meet yourself coming the other way, but this time you duck, begin a smile, and test for blood on your lip.
Never again in our lives will literature rise up as Theater and take on such Fourth Wall vitality. What a treat. There is no wrong way to experience this one except to sit it out. Happily, all of us who know better, knew better. And here we are. I’m smiling at my laptop, and that’s as fine as it gets in any part of this United States. And so much the better if you've lived it, are living it, or have a chance to be part of the changes.