Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Harper Lee: The Mystery Thunders On

Go Set a Watchman drama is all over my various Internet feeds today. If nothing else it brings up questions about what constitutes a draft, a true draft, and what is an entirely new piece altogether. I probably would have let sleeping dogs lie, but our culture has an obsession with reboots and sequels and prequels. If we can resurrect something popular from the grave, we’re going to do it, no matter what. This is not to suggest that Watchman’s story is similarly disheartening to, say, the threatened Point Break remake, but there are similar themes at work here. There is no bad press in a situation like this; whether they like it or hate it, people will buy it. Some will buy it and never read it, fascinated by the story behind the story.

Ultimately the questions surrounding this book are things that only Harper Lee can answer, and she either won’t or can’t. Last May we had an event with Marja Mills, a Chicago Tribune journalist, who lived very closely with the Lee sisters for two years in 2001. Harper and her sister Alice welcomed Marja into their home and neighborhood, and for the next 18 months, Mills extracted a tremendous amount of  information about the private lives of the Lee sisters and published it in a book The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee. Mills is a warm and personable woman, who had many sweet anecdotes about the pair of Alabama born sisters. Because Harper was and is so private and eschewed the public eye so often, it is difficult to determine her true wishes for Go Set a Watchman. There is, naturally, controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the memoir, but one would have to assume that Marja Mills captured a modicum of truth in her work on the Lee sisters. I would urge anyone who is even the least bit curious about Harper Lee to read Mills’ book. It is in every way a book crafted with respect and care, and through its intimacy with its subject, might shed some light on the mystery surrounding this beloved American author.

Today is Watchman's release date, and many readers are disappointed by the book already; whether that disappointment is “Christmas morning syndrome” wrought by the building hype of the literary world, or whether it is a response to the unexpected changes exhibited by well-loved characters doesn't really matter. You are not required to read Lee’s new novel. You are welcome to believe what you like regarding whether or not the Harper Lee of 1960 would have published the book or not. However, what we must remember, as we do or do not read the book, is that to the millions of people who have read To Kill a Mockingbird and to the millions more to come who will read it, Atticus and Scout Finch can still remain as they always have been inside the very specific world of their original story.

Go Set a Watchman needn’t be the death knell of your favourite novel, nor should it change what has come before it. In truth, writers make all kinds of twists and changes to their characters while they are still wretched and unfinished on the page, before an audience finds them worthy of love. Go Set a Watchman is being published largely unedited, in accordance with Lee’s wishes, but it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s possible Atticus’ development is commentary, but it’s also possible that the character you’ll interact with in this new novel is merely a prototype of the one in Mockingbird, before receiving his final coat of paint, so to speak. 

It would be naive to suggest that you keep these characters unchanged in your heart, and that no one can ever change how they made you feel or think about the world, but in essence, that’s what I’m suggesting. Fiction is a world ultimately free from reality. We are drawn to or repelled by characters for reasons unknown. In life, human beings are forced into three dimensions, capable of disappointing their loved ones and making copious mistakes. “To err is human”, after all, but reading fiction requires a suspension of belief; would it be so outrageous to let these characters remain, suspended in your imagination, in the various forms and manners you’ve known them to inhabit for all these years? I think a character conceived in fiction could be the most malleable, safest thing in the world, free from the constraints of our real world entropy. But only if we let it be free.

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