Thursday, February 5, 2015
To Kill a Mockingbird: The Sequel
I read all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series, out loud, to my boys, several times, because we'd revisit the series every time a new one came out.
Yet when J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy showed up, I got a few pages into it, shrugged, and moved on. Ordinary.
I've read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces many times—funniest book ever written. The Neon Bible, his first stab as an author, at age 16? Released as a salve to those who couldn't bear the thought there were to be no more books from him? Pass.
So obviously no joy here at news that Harper Lee, supposedly well into her decline at 88, suddenly had a change of heart, and after refusing to follow up her perfect American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird for more than half a century, will be offering the world its sequel in July, something called Go Set a Watchman.
Glancing around on-line, that seems to be the common, if not the universal reaction. Everybody smells a rat.
Yes, books should not be reviewed until they're read.
But that unfortunate title should be a tip-off.
That, and the fact Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird. Perhaps Lee was still learning her craft. Perhaps the book was set aside for a reason. Perhaps Lee had it right the past 55 years.
Usually this sort of thing happens after a famous person dies. Then their heirs, smelling money in the water, sells off every outtake, every half-formed fetal novel. All those crappy Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix albums that came out after their deaths.
Publishing is a business, and HarperCollins obviously feels there's money to be made: they're reportedly ordering up two millions copies of Watchman. And there is a one-in-a-million chance it could be a fraction as good as the original, the tale of young Scout Finch, her father, attorney Atticus, and the rape case that gripped their small town.
But don't bet on it. In fact, expect a little disappointment, at best, laughable disappointment at worst.
Part of Lee's legacy was that, having written a superlative masterpiece, she knew when to take her cards off the table and quit. Margaret Mitchell never wrote Return to Tara. Like J.D. Salinger's long silence, it might have been frustrating for the reading public, but there was a nobility to it as well. Why produce something second rate when you've achieved greatness? Why twirl endlessly in the public eye? Harper Lee putting out a book now is like Thomas Pynchon doing another guest spot on "The Simpsons." It toys with a precious legacy, those rarest of artists who learned how to walk away from it all. That too is a gift.
All we can do is remind ourselves that subsequent publications do not diminish the initial achievement. They can't, or anyway, shouldn't. Walt Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his life, making it worse every time. We still have the original 1855 version, and the later ones are curiosities for scholars. Harper Lee's sister, Alice, who always protected the shy author, died last spring, and obviously the vultures have set upon poor Harper. We should not judge her harshly, or at all. To Kill a Mockingbird will remain unblemished, the way that The Sun Also Rises was not spoiled by that cobbled together Hemingway novel that bobbed to the surface in 1970, nearly a decade after his death, the one none of us read and nobody can recall the name of offhand.
Islands in the Stream.
Someday...glancing at the top... Go Set a Watchman (really?) will enjoy the same fate.