Friday, July 15, 2011

I Read Harry Potter

In honor of the release of the final Harry Potter film, here's a piece I wrote in 2009 (pre-blog), when I finally read books six and seven (spoilers ho).

* * *

It is now well over a decade since the day my best friend, breathless with enthusiasm, told me about the brilliant book she’d just read. I listened, enchanted, as she described to me a tale of mystery and excitement, of danger and magic, of friendship and evil; of a boy, a little older than ourselves, who discovers that he is a wizard. She had the sequel with her, and I stayed up far into the night, devouring it feverishly, terrified and thrilled in equal measure. For my tenth birthday not long afterwards, I received my own copies of these first two books. When the third was released later that year, she sent me a copy of that too (in a hardback first edition that I really wish I’d held onto; they’re worth quite a lot these days). And when the fourth book came out, I got that one as well.

And somewhere in that couple of years, Harry Potter went stratospheric.

But as Harry’s star waxed, my interest was on the concomitant wane. It was partly growing up: at twelve, I was beginning to feel a little old for the children’s series I’d enjoyed so much at ten. It was partly the Hipster Code, which insists that something is only good as long as it’s underrated, and the minute it becomes popular it loses all merit. (Twelve years old, a massive prog rock fan, and already the makings of a hipster - my parents must have been so proud.) It was partly some less tangible sense that I was losing my best form of escapism to the intruding rest of the world. It was partly a precocious discernment of decline in quality.

As the world succumbed to Pottermania, I remained resolutely uninterested. I did read the fifth book, found it unimpressive and unmemorable, and never bothered with the last two - until 2009, when, with the horf-inducing hype dormant (if not dead), I felt compelled to read the entire series, if only to have an opinion on it. More than that, though, it was a chance to get closure on the magical, wonderful world that afforded me so much joy at the miserable fucking ages of ten and eleven. Which would prove the more accurate, my initial assessment of awesomesauce, or my later opinion that it was all suckacious?

Prior to the evaluative process, though, I offer you three little pieces of advice. Number one - don’t go the total immersion route; reading all seven books in a single week will screw with your mind worse than a good Confunding spell. Number two - the American editions are wildly inconsistent; in book one we find the jarring happenstance of these quintessentially British characters saying ‘Mom’, but by book seven even ‘trainers’ are being left intact. Number three - those totally essential Ginny/Hermione makeouts? Don’t hold your breath. (That’s what is for, amirite?)

If the sparklepire woman is the Keyser Söze of criminals against the English language, then J.K. is that dude down the road who never bothers scooping up his dog’s mess from the street. Yeah, it’s unpleasant, and it’s technically an offence, but the style police have extremely bigger pizzas to fry. Rowling’s writing is workmanlike at best, intrusively inept at worst. ‘CAPSLOCK SIGNIFIES MY FURY! FEEL THE UPPERCASE RAGE OF MY TEENAGE ANGST!’ shouted Harry angrily... - annoying tics, but on the whole ignorable (hot tip for writers: if you ever, ever find yourself following a speech signifier with the word ‘sarcastically’, it’s probably time to reconsider your chosen career). The trouble starts when she overreaches, trying to describe deaths, traumas, and complex emotions, which she just isn’t really capable of. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not one to think a book sinks or swims solely on the elegance of its writing style; heck, find me a bigger fan of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and I’ll find you a well-written sentence in that book; but there are certainly times when it matters. One is when both style and content are so clichéd, so jaw-droppingly clumsy, that you cannot conceive of how the book actually got published (hello again, sparklepires!). Another is when the simplicity of the style just can’t bear the weight of the things it has to convey.

And I think that is the basic problem the series encounters as it goes on. The books are at their best when they’re content to be a kind of Roald-Dahl-cum-Enid-Blyton for the PlayStation generation, and, while I understand and sympathize with Rowling’s desire to get darker and deeper as her characters aged, she’s just not a good enough writer to pull it off. To start with, there’s the cartoonish grotesquery of the ‘bad guy’ characters - notice that the Dursleys and most of the Slytherins are fat and ugly - but with characters introduced later in the series the good/evil divide gets more nuanced, and it jars. The attempt to insert ambiguity into Dumbledore’s past, for example, was particularly clumsy, and (I have to say) would have been way more effective if she’d made his feelings for Grindelwald explicit. I mean, how awesome would that have been? Can you imagine the shitstorm if there’d been overt homosexuality in the bestselling children’s book series of all time? At least she had to stones to out him in an interview, even if we all kind of knew already.

Another difficulty is that of the characters’ aging: how do you convey sixteen-year-olds’ thoughts and desires without alienating the eleven-year-olds that love the early books? With a lot of immature bitching about ‘snogging’, apparently. (Really? A bunch of sixteen-year-olds cooped up in a castle that’s full of secret rooms and hidden passageways, and all anyone gets up to is snogging?) The sixth book was by far my least favourite, seeing that NOTHING. FREAKIN’. HAPPENED. for 500 pages. In fact, both of the last two books suffered deeply from the contractual obligation for seven books, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the story out. As a result, the pacing got seriously screwy. (It reminded me strongly of Buffy season seven, which also felt contractually stretched out, and would have been a lot stronger if there’d been less of the bad British accents and Buffy giving pep talks, and way more of the Nathan Fillion.) I would’ve combined them into one book, jettisoning all that tedious who’s-snogging-whom business as well as the whole camping in the woods bit, thus leaving only the awesome parts from both books.

Because that’s the really frustrating thing: J.K. can actually write a damn fine battle scene when she’s not desperately scrabbling for ways to fill out a few months on the Potterverse timeline. Both the dramatic you-all-know-who-dies part at the end of book six and, especially, the climactic battle at Hogwarts in book seven are pretty freaking killer. Of course, then it gets undermined by a tediously talky ultimate smackdown with Voldemort, which follows an awfully predictable death and resurrection sequence. (HARRY : JESUS, GEDDIT??)

My overall feeling is that neither of my previous judgments was quite right. There is awesome in places, and there is suck in other places. I still think the earlier, less ambitious books work better, and I still think the ubiquitous popularity is OTT. I rather wish Rowling had given us a cool female fantasy protagonist (à la Philip Pullman’s Lyra), instead of just another male Mary Sue. Hermione and Ginny both rule, and shouldn’t have been stuck playing second fiddle to boring old Harry*. But I do understand people’s longing for magic to coexist with the mundane, and hell, better the kids read this than Twilight.

*They should’ve banded together to form a sort of detective team, like a magical Veronica Mars. With makeouts.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Tonks is J.K. Rowling's Mary Sue avatar, I'm pretty sure. And I think she stinks at female characters.

    The only thing I liked about book 6 was the fact that, at the end of it, Harry suddenly snapped out of his idiotic incompetence and sneaky self-reliance and began acting like somebody who had learned a thing or two over the last six years. It was too quick of a change, but it made him likable for the first time since about the middle of book 1.

    Speaking of six-year character shifts: in defense of Buffy season 7, it succeeded in completing the most effective arc of character transformation that I've ever seen or read. The season 2 Big Bad went from antagonist, to mild irritant, to reluctant ally, to penitent, to hero, and each stage was believable. One of the best redemption stories ever, probably due to the fact that it unfolded over six years instead of being crammed into a two-hour movie.