A second novel by Harper Lee. It was the one we couldn’t have predicted last Friday when we published our list of upcoming 2015 releases. But that was the news that came out of the US on Tuesday when Harper Collins announced it was publishing Go Set a Watchman, a novel written by Lee in the mid-1950s, but shelved on the advice of a publisher, and then later presumed lost. Set in the period in which it was written, Go Set a Watchman, which is now the most hotly anticipated release of the year (perhaps the century), is said to feature Scout as an adult and many other characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. It follows Scout’s return to Maycomb to visit her father Atticus, some twenty years after the events of the first book. The current word is that the manuscript will be published as it was found, without editing. In the words of Lee herself, ‘it’s a pretty decent effort.’
Like so many stories that involve Harper Lee, however, the discovery has quickly become contentious. Some commentators have been deeply suspicious about both the timing of the ‘sudden’ find and the ethical dimension of the publication process itself. The manuscript is said to have been found in a safety deposit box or bank vault, wrapped in a manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper’s lawyer Tonja Carter shortly after the death of Lee’s sister Alice in November last year.
The major question that has now emerged is whether Harper Lee was well enough to consent to the publication. The jury, it would seem, is deadlocked, with conflicting reports coming in from Alabama and from Harper Collins. In 2011, following the controversial publication of Marja Mills’ memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, Alice claimed that Harper ‘can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence’, and that her sister was losing her memory. Harper Lee’s editor, meanwhile, told a newspaper on Wednesday that while he was confident she was fully involved in the consent process, he had had no direct contact with her due to her poor health and that all communication had long taken place through Carter. On the same day, however, Wayne Flynt, a friend of Lee’s, rejected the idea that Lee was not of ‘sound mind’, claiming that she was ‘quite lucid’.
Lee seems to have substantiated the latter claim when she spoke up yesterday and said: ‘I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reaction to Watchman’. And why shouldn’t she be? Lee wanted the book published back when it was first written – it was her publisher who decided to hold it over. Then the manuscript disappeared. Perhaps it makes sense that she is ‘happy as hell’ to see the book find its place in the public consciousness. The book is scheduled for release on 14 July.
Last week’s Critic Watch essay ‘The Poet Tasters’ has been generating an enormous amount of interest. Sydney Review of Books has received a couple of missives in support of Ben Etherington’s foray into the world of Australian poetry criticism, while over at Cordite editor Kent MacCarter has fired back a couple of shots, though he admits that ‘Etherington is spot on re: backpatting and a review “formula” that tires easily’. More intriguing are the unofficial reports that have been filtering through of poets buttonholing each other to discuss the implications of Etherington’s thoroughly researched essay. The most substantial public response so far has come from Steven Herrick, who makes the point that there are popular poets who exist outside the ‘closed circuitry’ of the Australian poetry scene and who do reach a substantial audience. Sydney Review of Books hopes the debate will continue.
This week’s Sydney Review of Books features reviews of two ambitious novels. The first is ‘Creature Comforts’, Francesca Sasnaitis’s critique of The Wonders by Australian novelist and scriptwriter Paddy O’Reilly. Due to be published in the United States this month, The Wonders tells the story of three ordinary people who undergo radical medical treatments which turn them into freak-show curiosities. The book has been variously described in the Australian press as ‘dystopian’, ‘a unique brand of magic realism’, and ‘surreal’. For Sasnaitis, The Wonders is an ‘allegorical novel with worthy intentions’, though she finds its attempt to grapple with a long list of issues, such as environmentalism, animal rights and gender politics, ‘marred by over-simplification and a tendency to parrot clichéd and prosaic opinions’.
Our second essay, ‘The same but different’, is Stephanie Bishop’s compelling review of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, a work whose prose style she describes as ‘Whitman-meets-Knausgaard-meets-Ashbery’. Like his debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04 blurs the boundary between art and life, drawing the reader into a literary riddle. In 10:04, the narrator’s life parallels that of his creator. For Bishop, the interest in this technique lies in the way the melding of biographical data with fictional narratives ‘re-arranges our understanding of the form of the novel and complicates our idea of fictionality’. This is amplified by Lerner’s dexterity in manipulating time (the novel’s title refers to a pivotal scene from the classic 1980s teen film Back to the Future) and in the way he recasts memory, transforming it in the process of reiteration.
Our selection From the Archives complements this week’s essays. On the eve of the release of the fourth novel in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle literary cycle, we revisit James Ley’s review of Books One and Two of My Struggle – A Death in the Family and Man in Love. Our second essay from the Archives is ‘Performing Reality’, a review of Rachel Kushner’s acclaimed novel The Flamethrowers by Mireille Juchau, a story she finds steeped in ‘discretionary lies’.
Our image this week is a photograph by Francis van Hout that accompanies Into the Void, a new documentary by Margaret Gordon about a group of legendary New Zealand rocker-slash-artists. Purveyors of heavy metal music crossed with ‘intellectualism, noise, art beer, weed and Dudley Moore’, Into the Void have been kicking up ‘Black Sabbath-inspired riffage’ for almost three decades. The film is screening at the Darren Knight Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney until 21 February, alongside an exhibition of works by founding band members Ronnie van Hout and Jason Greig.