On the Setting of Watchmen

The great, unintended ironies of the book of this season include, but are not limited to, that the character who claims that she is colorblind apparently visits the African woman who was, for all intents and purposes, her mother, only once in a book about the secrets of families, that the characters that form the moral fabric of our nation in another book are a a series of incoherent ethical messes without any driving purpose in much the same way as they should be if the cultures are carried forward in time and people permitted to be part of them, that… this sentence is running away from me. In the same sense that to drag Boo Radley out into the mean and terrible community around him is to kill a Mockingbird, dragging the mean and terrible world into the world of the classic Mockingbird book’s characters slays them in public consciousness. Time will tell if this book kills a mockingbird.

The incoherent mess of ethics and morals and race relations present in the text, where many characters argue without success that segregation had to do with states’ rights, and hate speech was allowed by the well-meaning forces to permit the community to handle its own business, and… Don’t try to follow the logic. It really doesn’t work. It’s all as crazy as the eccentric Finch uncle, who retired into 17th century literature and pretends to be an aristocrat in a fallen world. Life is also an incoherent ethical mess. In abler hands the text could still be readable and interesting, but it is dialog heavy, and the only joy in the text are the vivid flashbacks to childhood that were seemingly ripped from the liner notes of a superior, later book.

Much of the text is driven by dialog and deep insight that feels out of pace, comparatively, to the gorgeous sections of reminiscent childhood. The romance plot is flat and forced. When the only thing keeping characters from their love is themselves and their own mental nonsense, it is not an interesting romance. It became briefly interesting when the perfect couple discover that one is a member of a KKK equivalent. This moment coincides with the commission of a crime that will be mostly glossed over in the text, and used as an excuse to reveal that Atticus Finch, as has been widely reported, is definitely a complete and total racist. In a superior, later book, the court case in the text led to some of the most fascinating and unforgettable scenes of racial tension in American letters. In this text, about a Watchman being set, there is no court drama. It is going to happen someday, and it is not going to be a good outcome, and everyone knows what the outcome will be, and the NAACP had better not get involved.

The interesting sections, and the good stuff of the text, is the stuff of Scout’s childhood. It is easy to imagine that an editor would see these glorious gems interspersed in all this dreck, and insist upon a novel of just that kind of stuff. They often feel forced into the text, and stylistically disconnected, and two of the main characters of childhood – Dill and Jem – are absent as adulthood comes. It is a sad kind of nostalgia for Scout, and a sad kind of nostalgia for us as readers who cannot escape the shadow of her superior novel.

I wish the NAACP would get involved in the case. I wish the book was longer, deeper, and wider with room for more characters than just Scout and Atticus and Hank and Aunty and their narrow, little world. The rest of the community are often presented as a dull mish-mash of floating quotations. The histories and personalities of everyone else in the community are not permitted to be more than just a set dressing of Scout’s origin myths. I can’t help but feel like the moral of the story applies, with great irony, to all the people around Harper Lee. This book does belong in print, as an intellectual curiosity of interest to scholars in some sort of collected unfinished works of Harper Lee from a University Press, an American icon for her startling single novel. Go set a watchman for your conscience, all you who have abused this icon, shattered these myths, and done so in the name of money, and money, and great, heaping piles of money. This “book of the year” is not even a finished book. It slips through the eyes in an afternoon, a rambling and incoherent mess that wraps up into a tidy, forced moral flourish defending racists and racism and arguing for the states’ rights of the southern experiment, their right to abuse and push down their fellow man. It’s disgusting to read a book that argues for the defense of white supremacists when people are still dying at the hands of the police for driving while brown-skinned.


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