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Nostalgia in Flames

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2015-08-20


One week after Harper Collins published Go Set A Watchman, the much-anticipated second novel from To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee, the firm released an announcement that said that the book had sold 1.1 million copies in its first seven days, becoming the fastest-selling title in the company's history. The book immediately shot to the top of most of the nation's Best Seller charts, including amazon.com, where it heartily outsold the second most popular book on the list To Kill A Mockingbird, inevitably, re-released and re-energized with the news of the new novel.

What wasn't reported after Watchman's release, however, was what happened to 90% of the 1.1 million copies after they had made their way into the eager hands of the book's purchasers. What happened was this: after reading approximately 25 pages of the new novel, about 950,000 readers who had settled in with book for the long haul, in a nice easy chair, or in a hammock, or in a plane's window seat, or on a beach towel well, each of the 950,000 readers quietly sighed, gently closed the book, set it down, and then stared off into the distance for about an hour with an inscrutable look on their face. To say that the vast majority of readers were "disappointed" does a disservice to the concept of "disappointed": the negative response to the novel has been so titanic that one really needs to invent another, more comprehensive word than "disappointed."

You know how you can tell when an incredibly anticipated work of art fails completely? It's when nobody ever talks about it again. I had dozens of friends who cheerfully announced, on Facebook and Twitter, that they had just bought Go Set A Watchman and were getting ready to dive in, but in the subsequent days, on their feeds, there was absolutely no mention of the book again. Not even a terse "How disappointing" or "God, what a drag." It was just: zilch. Zip. Nada. Amazing, really, in this era, when people are always so willing to unburden themselves about virtually anything on their minds on Facebook. But again: nothing. The silence was, as the cliche goes, positively deafening. It was as if the readers just pretended that the book had never happened, that it had never actually existed.

There is an ethical matter here for Harper Collins to deal with, and to their credit, they have been trying to get in front of the negative publicity, publishing a response to why they decided to go ahead with the book's release in the first place. But the question is a nagging one, and so simple: Is it right to publish an unpublishable book just because the pent-up demand is so great? And thereby tarnishing the legacy of a book that frequently tops lists of "Best Loved Novels of the American People?"

For anyone intrepid enough to pick up a copy of Go Set A Watchman, there's a few things they should know. First off, though the book is set after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird with the same characters, it was written years before. It is obviously the work of a writer just trying to find her voice. Reading Go Set A Watchman is like reading a very rough draft of the book that To Kill A Mockingbird would eventually become, but without the maturation and deftness. I imagine the recently published book might be of interest to Harper Lee completists and potential biographers, but for everybody else, its inherent value is debatable. There's a reason it stayed in a lock box for so many years. It's to Harper Lee's credit that she moved on from Watchman but kept the characters and changed the time frame. Perhaps some writers are better writing about their childhood than they are writing about their 20s.

So though it's been called a "sequel," Go Set A Watchman really isn't. It's like an alternate-universe version of the characters' lives from the first book. I can't really think of another parallel in modern publishing maybe Alexandra Ripley's ridiculous "sequel" to Gone With the Wind, Scarlett, published in 1991, another critically-drubbed mess that sold boat-loads. Or Benjamin Black's homage to Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, The Black-Eyed Blonde, published in 2014. (For a hundred pages, Black--a/k/a the novelist John Banville reproduces Chandler's distinctive prose wonderfully, but then it gets away from him.) But Watchman is written by the same author of Mockingbird, though fans of the first book would be hard-pressed to reconcile this fact after reading the other novel.

There's no joy in reporting this, for, like many others of my generation, I read To Kill A Mockingbird as a kid and returned to it countless times as an adult. (An interesting exercise: try to find the person who loved Mockingbird and yet read it only once.) More than anything, reading To Kill A Mockingbird is an exercise in nostalgia, and not just for the 30s, when the novel takes place. It makes you nostalgic for the 60s, too, when the book was published (the movie came out in 1962), it makes you nostalgic for the Kennedy years and the Civil Rights struggle that provided such a potent backdrop for the story. It provides nostalgia for your own youthful reading history as well, the physically pleasurable act of reading as a kid, toting that highly portable, beat-up, 5x8 pocket edition around with you all the time. The way you'd fold the corner of the page into that little triangle, to keep your place, for you never were responsible enough to keep a bookmark handy. I've probably owner five copies of the book over the years, and they all looked the same: weathered, well-thumbed, the corners of the cover blackened or missing.

So I feel bad for the 1.1 million, of which I'd bet 1,099,637 were wishing that Harper Collins had thought twice about unleashing Go Set A Watchman on the general public. (Not to be the spoiler, but on page 13, Harper Lee whacks Jem Finch. Jem dead. Jesus, how's that for an introduction?!? And that title reminiscent of the first book, but so unwieldy, so incomprehensible.) You wish the publishing conglomerate had possessed that essential skill so vital to working comics throughout time immemorial: Always leave 'em wanting more.

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