Review Fridays: Go Set a Watchman

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience.” –Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

As the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, muddled in controversy over its publication, Go Set a Watchman tries very hard to make a point. It is an earnest novel, but also a very young one, and in an odd way does not seem to stand on its own. If I had not had an interest in the characters because of the revised version of the novel, I would not have enjoyed it at all. It was a quick read, yet one that does not seem to know itself as well as it should.

A few negatives stood out to me:

  1. It felt dated. It is very much a product of the time in which it was written, lacking the timeless quality of To Kill a Mockingbird. Filled with stereotypes of Southern young wives and husbands, race relations and infantilization and Otherness, it could have done with a few more rounded characters to interact with Jean Louise. What I wouldn’t have done for a Miss Maudie or a Boo Radley.
  1. The narrative structure seemed disjointed. There were two flashbacks which stood out, one involving a revival and the other falsies. They read like short stories written separately, both with an almost painfully forced attempt at a payoff moment in the end. They seemed to be stuffed into the rest of the novel in order to fill space. Also noticeable is the way that the third-person perspective created an unpleasant distance between the reader and Jean Louise.
  1. The pessimistic tone did not work. The book ends on a low-point, with characters coming to an uneasy truce. This is a very adversarial book which pits Jean Louise against just about everyone, constantly, seething with righteous indignation.  What sets apart To Kill a Mockingbird is that it deals with difficult issues without losing its optimism. Atticus will always be there waiting when Jem wakes up in spite of Go Set a Watchman.
  1. The attempt at setting up a relationship between Jean Louise and Henry, a new character who moved to Maycomb after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, made me cringe. There is all manner of talk about what sort of people the Finches are and what sort of people Henry’s family are and whether the two are fit to mingle. Plus, there was no chemistry between the two. They swim in a lake fully dressed and engage in a cliché courtship. Henry is dull, a bland stand-in for Jem in Atticus’s life. No wonder Jean Louise can’t be persuaded to marry the man.
  1. A slight spoiler, and only slight because it’s mentioned in the first chapter, I missed Jem, my favorite character from To Kill a Mockingbird. The moments which held the most feeling, and therefore the most interest, for me were when characters were reflecting on the loss of Jem and how it affected them all. Rest well, Jem.

In short, the only thing that makes Go Set a Watchman significant is its relation to To Kill a Mockingbird. From a literary point-of-view, it is interesting to see how the story started and to take apart the threads of the draft that led to a classic novel.

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Look! An introvert!

“Mary, you know I hate parties. My idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room where everybody has to play hockey properly.” –Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I spent many years of my childhood blissfully unaware of one crucial detail about myself. While I was reading, enjoying time by myself staring out of a window in contemplation, I did not realize that my proclivity towards solitary activities somehow put me in a minority. That doesn’t mean that I hate people. It has to do with scale and a need for recharging after the event. Large parties are a horror that can only be counteracted by hours of quiet.

Hello, I am an introvert. Nice to meet you.

We seem to be a society intent on pigeon-holing everyone and everything into categories. There is a sort of obsession with personal quirks that create Otherness and Sameness. Introvert or extravert. Gay or straight. Male or female. Because of the guidelines in the DSM-V, someone who is shy, eccentric, or lives an untraditional life can be classified as mentally ill. The neatness of these categories creates a landscape where it is difficult to determine gradation. Rather than accepting individual differences, we try to find a way to describe them, a way to figure out if that fits in with traditional views of society, and whether another person is the same or different from us.

The popularity of Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is both empowering and problematic. People are all too eager to pick up the banner of introvert and proclaim their need for a quiet moment. In large, this is good. We cannot all be Dale Carnegies in this world. But it also sets up a polarized image of one or the other when there are possibly a great deal of people who fall somewhere in between, neither one nor the other, or who feel different preferences at different points in their lives. Many other aspects of personality receive this same treatment.

I sometimes buy into this line of thinking. For instance, I identify as an INFP on the Myers-Briggs personality test. However, in accepting this label, I have perhaps been limiting myself. I remember first taking the test as a high school student, and, when I got the result, I felt like I had been put into an unemployable box by the artist label. A quick search will turn up many suggested occupations to go along with this type. It is fascinating, in a way, to identify with a group of like-minded people, but isn’t it also cutting off possibilities of who and what I could be?

So, I guess I am an introvert, if I must be labeled. But we are all many things besides the categories we enforce on ourselves. We all have quirks, and they don’t have to be considered in terms of Same or Other.

Finding inner balance

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In the process of moving forward, I have spent too much time unwisely looking to the past. I can hear the advice others gave me (“that is where the jobs are” as if they were Lydia Bennet telling me that Brighton is the place to find a husband). There came a point where the roads branched off. I chose a path. The person I was then had other options, could have developed other skills.

Novelist Jonathan Odell says to never get good at what you hate. I have followed that way of thinking pretty much without wavering ever since I became old enough to make my own decisions. Instead of trying to fit into an employable mold or picking a path because it would look more impressive to others, I have instead chosen my own way.

And then I allowed outside noises to goad me into feeling lost and shamed.

If you listen to all of the advice available and try to fit into molds created by other people, it’s inevitable that you will begin to feel as if you have lost your path somewhere. I am still figuring out my own path (hence the blog). However, in really committing myself to figuring out who I am and what I want, I feel like I have more certainty about the present moment and where it leads.

Things I have learned:

  1. It is hard not to feel regret for all of the paths not taken. But there comes a point to realize that you are only answerable to yourself for your choices. Words like disappointed or wasted potential should not come into the conversation. You are not responsible for the feelings of others.
  1. Changing course is natural and completely doable. You can reinvent yourself at your lowest points, using books, using whatever resources you can find. If you discover you have chosen the wrong path, it is never a dead-end. There is always another way around.
  1. Commit to time for recharging. Whether through meditation or reading, crossword puzzles or a quiet dinner with friends, make sure to take time for yourself. There is so much pressure in this world to accomplish everything as quickly as possible that sometimes it can be hard to stand aside and just appreciate the moment.

How to make a difficult decision

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Today, while trying to make a difficult decision, I found Ruth Chang’s TED talk on the topic. More elegantly than I could, she came to the conclusion that hard decisions (and some easy decisions) are not a matter of one choice being greater than, less than, or equal to another choice. There is no way to determine an absolute value, no scale to balance between them, no time machine to see the consequences of the various decisions. Instead, there are merely choices and the ability to weigh them internally against what is important to you.

You risk drifting, she says, when you instead listen to the outside noises of what others think is important. There is an infinite amount of advice available by just entering a few words into a search engine, and sometimes it can be difficult to focus on your own internal compass when tons of people, all convinced that they are right, want to give you advice. You have to decide what is the core of who you are (a donut-eating, urban-dwelling artist, for example) and to make all of your choices based on that core.

So, while money may be the primary factor that drives another person’s decisions, it is not safe to assume that a job that offers more money is the best decision for you. There are a variety of factors that need to go into the decision. The standard of living you want, the hours, your outside interests are all important factors. While this doesn’t offer a neat solution to my own choice, it has helped me to pinpoint a few things on which to focus:

  1. Tune out the other voices. For a moment, consider who you are, what you value, what is important to you. Personally, I know that money will never be a big component of my happiness. Having a career with a big salary does not fit in with my INFP, dreamer personality type. I have spent so much time reading career advice and listening to advice from friends and family members that I have strayed away from the core of what is really important to me.
  1. Be realistic. I like Penelope Trunk’s advice because she is a great writer. She manages to be both practical and a good story-teller. And her life is full of drama that she doesn’t attempt to hide. Even on topics that don’t interest me, like homeschooling, I can usually find something to take away and use in my everyday life. For instance, you cannot be anything you want to be. Which is true. We all have limitations within our particular set of skills which we have to acknowledge when making any big decision.
  1. Take time to acknowledge that the decision is difficult, but that there has to be a choice in the end. I personally feel better before I make a decision, so I tend to prolong it as long as possible. Any excuse I can make, I will, procrastinating until the absolute last minute. The thing is, the extra time doesn’t help, and, if anything, it just delays the inevitable. It is perfectly fine to realize that you are lost, that the decision is difficult, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to keep moving forward.

Making a difficult decision takes a lot of courage, strength, and soul-searching. It is not easy, but it is worth the time and effort that goes into the choice.