Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Who Do Our Heroes Belong to? Go Set a Watchman & The Meursault Investigation

It's the story of a crime, but the Arab isn't even killed in it---well, he is killed, but barely, delicately, with the fingertips as it were.  He's the second most important character in the book, but he has no name, no face, no words.
--The Meursault Investigation

She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father.  She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, "What would Atticus do?" passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.
--Go Set a Watchman

It was perhaps foolish to think our literary heroes would be immune to the profit-driven plot regurgitation that has become so common in Hollywood that it's cliche to comment on.  But, alas, Babylon!  Our Atticus has come back for a sequel.  The internet was unhappy.  Then it was seeing a silver lining.  The dust has settled, the publisher is rich, and we'll probably have to wait twenty years to see what the scholars have to say.

Just before reading Go Set a Watchman, I came across The Meursault Investigaton, a sequel of sorts to The Stranger (plug: my senior thesis was on Camus's four most important works, including The Stranger), told from the victim's brother's perspective.  The book is a wonderful, even if deeply critical, homage to The Stranger.  In it, the reader is presented with Meusault's murder from the point of view of colonialized Algeria.  Unsurprisingly, it is an unflattering portrait.

Enlightened crusader for justice?
Or patronizing racist?
Why bring this up and review these two books together?  Because rather than a review of each, I want to discuss something else: who do our heroes belong to?  Put differently: who has a right to re-write our heroes?

The most obvious answer is the hero's creator.  I would suggest that Go Set a Watchman is proof that this is the wrong answer.  Go Set a Watchman's Atticus is a racist and resistant to change.  He is inconsistent with To Kill a Mockingbird.  He also does not represent the same ideal he represented in To Kill a Mockingbird: where before he represented astute moral judgment, now he represents a morality to cast aside.

This is not to say that the moral of Go Set a Watchman is bad or wrong or a bad story; it is, however, a poorly executed one.  The inconsistencies with To Kill a Mockingbird coupled with the horrific narrative timing of Go Set a Watchman make this both a bad sequel and a bad novel.  Although acceptable in the academic context of a first draft, it is unpalatable as a fully fledged second novel or a fully fledged sequel (as promised by the guileful marketers).

Sisyphean hero of the absurd?
Or imperialist pig?
That Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's novel does not make it okay.  Must we accept this new Atticus merely because Lee wrote him this way?  Much in the same way we reject Jar Jar Binks, we may reject this Atticus.

And I think the reason we may reject this Atticus because it's not a good novel.  It doesn't fit.  It doesn't resonate.  It does not speak to us the way To Kill a Mockingbird does.

In contrast, The Meursault Investigation does work.  It is not a stand alone novel in the same way that sequels are not stand alone (I hesitate to call it a sequel though).  But it supplements what The Stranger has to offer by both playing with the themes of The Stranger and criticizing them. (to be fair, Meursault himself never makes an appearance in the novel, thus preventing the risk of inconsistent characters).  In this way, it is harder to reject

Seriously: fuck this guy.
So who do our heroes belong to?  Based on these two novels, I think our heroes belong to whoever can write them well---not necessarily their original creators.  That is: writing the character well is self-justifying and makes the appropriation acceptable.  Appropriating poorly, however, is unacceptable.  This distinction is important because I suspect Go Set a Watchman will not be the only marketing sensation based on a character we all love.  And, I think this leaves open the possibility of rewriting failed character appropriations (I'm looking at you, Star Wars Episodes I-III).  Treating characters as a kind of community property frees them from the tyranny of their creators and recognizes the fact that, when we love a character, that character can become bigger than his creator.


Brent Waggoner said...

Good essay. So would you consider GTAW to be worth a read? I've never heard of this Mersault book but I've read The Stranger 3 times so I might check it out.

Randy said...

I think, for most people, GTAW is not worth the read. I think it's only worth reading if you have any kind of "academic" interest in it---such as curiosity about an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird or GTAW's controversial publication. However, aside from an extrinsic interest in the novel, I don't think it's worth reading. It's really just an okay novel.

Brittany said...

Alternately, you could just watch the Thug Notes on Go Set a Watchman and call it a day.