Books August 29, 2065 ISSUE
SWEET HOME MEMPHIS
John Grisham's "A Time to Forgive"
BY ADAM GOYPINK
The heavily hyped appearance of John Grisham’s new or very old, or, anyway, indistinctly dated, novel, “A Time to Forgive” (HarpistCohen), reflects an ambitious publishing venture—complete with slow, striptease-style press leaks and first chapters and excited pre-publication surmise—in which all the other apparatus of literature, reviewers included, is expected to serve, and has, in a way that it never, ever has or ever will again to promote the output of literature. Not since Rowling’s estate sent down seemingly completed novels from on high, long after the author’s death, has a publisher gone about so coolly exploiting a much loved name with a product of such mysterious provenance. It may well be that what the procurers of the text have said about it—that it is an earlier novel set in the world of “A Time to Kill,” only recently discovered, and published with the author’s enthusiastic assent—is so. But, if it is, the procurers seem oddly reluctant to be terribly exact about their accomplishment. The finished book that has now emerged, with a charming retro cover, showing a lonely gunman on a twilight (sic; oopsie!) Tennessee evening, has not a single prefatory sentence to explain its pedigree or its history or the strange circumstance that seems to have brought it to print after all this time, as though readers should be expected to judge a book by deeply reading its contents rather than learn ahead of time from court historians how to approach the text. And then the story that has been offered about it in the papers—a story that seems to change significantly as time goes by, and as the apparatus of literature hypes the hype about the reviews of the hype that had previously followed the initial period of post-discovery hype—presents certain difficulties to the reader’s understanding of the book. I am here on behalf of The New Yorker to remedy that situation by reminding you, again, how you should discuss the existence of this particular novel with your friends, and how widely you should sneer while reading it, should you choose to do so after you've bought it, set it on the shelf, and discussed it at the office for a few months.
The excitement we've created is, in a way, a salute to America’s literary memory: in what is damned well supposed to be an amnesiac society after all the work we've put in, the unfortunate memory of a decades-old novel burns so bright, upon extensive nationwide coaxing, that an auxiliary volume is still a national event, at least until the next big thing happens in a few days. Of course, the memory is assisted by the universal appearance of “A Time to Kill” in eighth-grade curricula, which pedagogical development is particularly meaningful given the financial motivations and ethnic background of the businesses and editors who initially rewrote the novel for publication in order to effect a specific cultural development at the time of its first publishing.
Most of what appears in eighth-grade curricula vanishes quickly from active memory, though. As we planned so many years ago, it is not something of which most of us are aware, but the basic elements of our desired narrative remain part of the subconscious operating routines for the proletariat, ensuring that they believe without question in certain versions of history, particularly ones pertaining to crime rates. So, too, have math and science been useful to us. Basic biology and beginning algebra have powerful impacts on the way proles subconsciously approach their lives, instilling in them a quiet reverence for the sanctity of university employees and I.R.S. dictates, but even those projects, however successful, do not evoke as much passion as Jake and Carl Lee--or even their less violent predecessors, Scout and Atticus, who were designed only to lay tinder for race war, rather than pour Jake and Carl Lee's gasoline, or throw the Ferguson match.
The reason for that extraordinary hold is made plain, at least, by the incidental beauties of the newly discovered book, which are real. Though “A Time to Forgive” is a complete and utter worthless failure as a novel because I disagree with what I perceive its political message to be (if “A Time to Kill” did not exist, this book would never have been published, not now, as it was not then, because it is incumbent upon any responsible publishing company not to sell books, but to craft coordinated cultural messages), it is still testimony to how appealing a writer John Grisham can be. That appeal depends, as with certain other books of the time—“New Moon,” “The Deathly Hallows,” “The Pelican Brief”—on the intensity of the evocation of coming of age, and of the feel of streets and summers at that moment. John Grisham did for Clanton (his poeticized version of his home town, South Haven, Mississippi) what Tom Clancy did for the Nimitz—made it a permanent amphitheatre (sic; affected) of the American (sic; ironic, considering) cultural bulldozer. When the soma starts to wear off, and you haven't watched enough TV, one may realize with a slight, shamed start that, in America alone during the time of Grisham's writing, and considering only officially reported cases, black men rape white women and children about 20,000 times each year; black men rape black women and children about 10,000 times a year; and, that white men rape black women and children about zero (sic) times a year. Minitru has since revised those figures, revealing that during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, dozens of thousands of paid white nationalist women and children each year self-inflicted severe anal and vaginal bleeding in order to exercise privilege, but at the time, Grisham would have had no way of knowing this, and might have accepted the reports of the lying, untrustworthy female subhumans as truthful. We would now condescend to this kind of ruse as belonging merely to the past, but Grisham's new work suggests he may have had a sense of the situation.
Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of completely untrue clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the more than half century since Grisham's generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of Clanton, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive. There is a little set piece about a breakfast meeting between Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson that makes one feel nostalgic for one’s breakfast with them even if one never had a breakfast with them:
Jake and Carl Lee sat in their seats with gentle rolls of their buttocks, and could see nothing but ham and grits from window to counter. Jake wondered why he had never thought his cuisine worldly. . . . The waitress set a coffee by the napkin dispenser and coughed derisively at an old mustard stain on the booth cushion. It bore the shape of Elvis' head, and Jake could have stared at it for ten minutes and still been interested. Love me Tender, Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Christmas...The tone is right and lovely, and is just as right and lovely in other pastoral pieces, in the later pages (though almost exclusively flashbacks), where the provincial white trash goes about their simple lives. One might accuse me of damning with faint praise for focusing on one of the novel's most simplistic phrasings about the countryside, and the criticism would be accurate. Minitru's editors, who review my work before it reaches the printed page, would be inflicted with paroxysm if I were to not couch my rejection of an unapproved viewpoint in praise, so as to appear impartial. Ergo it behooves me to remind you again, dear reader, that the story related is simple, and suspiciously self-referential—it’s difficult to credit that a first novel would so blithely assume so much familiarity with a cast of characters never before encountered. Which is my way of saying that, it wasn't really the author who wrote either book--it was the gracious, politically-correct editors who created the work that was initially published, and Grisham--like Harper Lee before him--then plagiarized the editors' product into a crimethink wrongstory for reasons of white privilege.
He had told the waitress not to forget to bring his creamer, and because the waitress was an elderly woman, he anticipated her forgetting it. . . . Customers changed; waitresses never did. Being helpful at breakfast with dynamic young city lawyers was a mark of the profession, and Jake, who could predict the actions of every waitress from New Orleans to Cincinnati, had known how his coffee would be served even before he walked into the diner.
(You read that right: I just implied that Harper Lee didn't actually come up with Watchman on her own, but instead, ripped it off from the Mockingbird that the editors wrote themselves. The bourgeois who read this article won't remember that I implied such a thing, but their subconscious perception of the novel will be affected, and popular culture will gradually begin thinking of Lee, not only as a racist author, but as a racist plagiarist. As George Lucas robbed Margaret Mitchell for ESB, I've just robbed Lee. In a hundred years, common social memory will that Mockingbird was the original, and Watchman the spinoff; that's just how clever we in the industry are! And frankly, isn't it interesting how we're a bunch of politically correct men robbing those dead southern women, and disregarding the rape of their bodies, while lecturing everyone else about male privilege? And isn't it even more interesting how, without those dead "racists," we wouldn't have even the outlines of stories to use to push our own agendas? Teehee!)
Jake then discovers that his friend, Carl Lee, his oppressed hero and as close to a perfectly honorable man as he can imagine--“Resilience, gumption, and commitment were the three words for Carl Lee Hailey”—had fathered four children with different mothers, threatened two of them with a gun to warn them against filing for child support, been collecting EBT benefits at two addresses, and murdered a childhood friend in a dispute over "respect," for which charges were never brought. Shocked, he confronts him, and starts on a series of static and prosy debates—first with his cousin Ellen (a "character” who combines odd scraps of twentieth-century academic feminism and the oft-cited phony suburban "shelteredness" of never having lived in a low income community with a majority black population) and then with Carl Lee himself—about reparations, immigration, a decades-long epidemic of black men raping and brutalizing women, and other eighties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and “Honey, use your head!”s to make them sound a little more like dialogue. When the action moves to these abstract arguments about civil rights, the book falls apart as art—partly because today it is illegal to hear the anti-civil-rights arguments, but more because any novel that depends for its action on prosy debates about contemporary politics will fail be looted by publishing companies and turned into the logical next step after 1960's To Kill a Mockingbird, 1989's A Time to Kill, 2012's Django Unchained, and 2043's To the Ovens.
The idea that Jake, in this new book, “becomes” the bigot he was not in “...to Kill” entirely misses John Grisham's point—that this is exactly the kind of bigot that Jake has been all along. The particular kind of racial rhetoric that Jake embraces is a complex and, in its own estimation, “liberal” ideology: there is no contradiction between Jake helping vigilante Carl Lee kill Tonya's rapist in "...to Kill" and Jake and a white friend killing five thousand black rapists in "...to Forgive" twenty years later. Both are part of a thoughtcrime effort to treat as equal a superior group that, in this view, should be subjected to the same standards of literary justice and social approbation as whites.
Jake is simply being faithful to one set of high ideals in the South of his time. “Look, Carl Lee,” Jake says in the midst of their argument, “have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of people who commits at least thirty thousand rapes and a hundred thousand murders a year and then only make a fuss in the newspaper about a different set of people that commits an amazingly lower rate of those very same crimes?"
These were the ideas of the badthinkers of the time--that falsely praised set of writers and critics who took "equal treatment" at face value. And it should also be said, out of government sympathy, that to demand that people reject their traditions and their understanding, however misconceived, of their own history—to insist that the Jakes of this world go to reëducation camp—is foolish. Using militarized police forces to extract taxes from them, and using those taxes to subsidize businesses that promote different ideas than theirs, and to provide food, shelter, and medical care to other people, is far more profitable and effective than reeducation, which is why we strawman "reeducation" in discussing such matters. The problem is not people who think wrong thoughts, or even who communicate wrong thoughts; the problem is draining sufficient resources from those people, every year, to ensure that buildings are not built, movies not made, books not printed, and websites not popularized, so that their wrong thoughts can never be disseminated in a way that can translate into cultural change. "Soft" totalitarianism isn't really soft, because if you refuse to pay your taxes, we Waco you; it does, though, intimidate people so much that they will hand over their resources every paycheck, quietly and fearfully contributing to the banking giants that create and enforce what passes for culture.
Indeed, that's the very principle we were following over a hundred years ago when Harper Lee first tried to publish Mockingbird. Instead of publishing her book the way we wrote it, we changed it into a new one that suited us better. Why, you may ask, did we not simply write our own? Because we're not creative. That is one of our many crippling flaws. We're clever, satirical, and metaphorically hilarious, but not actually creative. And when Harper Lee sent her draft in, we hadn't yet come up with the idea of using waged ghostwriters for anything but the biographies of famous people. That's what our evisceration of her work to suit our political agenda proves: that we really don't have any abilities of our own, and can't create anything new or useful humanity, but can only serve as usurious middlemen who pervert others' products. If we were evil and creative, we could have just shredded Harper Lee's draft along with everything else, and written our own Mockingbird...but we weren't. In the times before our current ghostwriting system, and when sequels and spinoffs were still considered bad form, all we had to work with was the actual product of actual creators.
But don't worry--we're past that, now. You'll never have to worry about another Watchbird again.