Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter

I suspect that the series doesn’t have the sturdiness to last more than two or three decades, the amount of time for kids currently reading to try to force it on their own offspring. Rowling does manage to maintain a forward momentum that most writers never quite nail—as Terry Gilliam puts it “she keeps the pages turning”—but the entire thing is too ramshackle and padded, too second-rate really no matter how entertaining. At most this should have been a trilogy, possibly even a single book would have been sufficient considering how much is basically just sitting around and waiting. The entire fifth book, for instance, feels like it should have been a few pages in one of the others but Rowling committed to seven books and that’s what she was gonna produce.

The most troubling aspect though isn’t the technical issues but the treatment of Muggles. Though anti-Muggle thinking is considered wrong by the right-thinking characters and is in fact a minor plot issue in the final book (“minor” in how it actually functions though clearly intended to be much more significant) such focus is only superficial. The books themselves (ie Rowling) consistently show a smug contempt for Muggles. The non-magic-users are either bad folk or befuddled simpletons who have nothing to offer wizards and witches. One of the most telling moments is in Deathly Hallows when a roll call of the dead comes to an entire Muggle family that Rowling doesn’t even bother to name. Think this is over-reacting? Replace “Muggle” with “Jew” or “Asian” and then the books would immediately and correctly be considered racist. Several commentators have pointed out how Voldemort (notice the uh clever “mort”) resembles some quasi-fascist demagogue but considering that nobody else has any interest in Muggles, and only lipservice compassion, he’s merely the same as all the other characters only a bit more extreme. Just notice that at the end even the Malfoys who wanted to help enslave and murder thousands of people are given group-hug redemption but that the Dursleys, child abusers though they were, are completely ignored.

There was a point at the end of the fourth book where I thought the entire series was coming into focus not as a good vs evil story but instead about making the choice. What immediately sprang to mind was Babylon 5, how so much of the first season seemed like amusing stories much as the early Potter books until you saw that there is a big conflict and pretty much the entire show is about choices. It’s interesting to note in B5 how often characters claim they have no choice in something but it’s almost always how they justify a decision they’ve already made. (Extra credit: Compare and contrast to 24 where people who have no choice frequently don’t. Does 24 suffer from this rigidity? What are the political implications?) B5 eventually upends the entire good vs evil concept, not in any philosophical make-a-point way but more quietly in a Renoir-ian “everybody has their reasons” way. Voldemort acts the way he does because he’s Evil but on B5 the Shadows have a perfectly legitimate reason, even if one that most of us will oppose, and even the closest to an Evil Character, Bester, behaves plausibly and even has a moment of humanity. The Potter books, though, get by with a lot because they’re children’s books, as if that was a blanket excuse.

Handling magic in books is always tricky because of the way it undermines narrative operations and Rowling wasn’t up to the task. Though magic doesn’t have to operate with explicit and unyielding laws it does need some consistency or the story will lurch when it shouldn’t. Rowling too often offers up “oh by the way” types of comments. Harry’s “death” is an obvious example – “oh yeah if he really intended to die then he won’t really.” Admittedly this is hard to prepare the groundwork without tipping off the ending but it feels too much like a cheat, just like the appearance of a “dead” Dumbledore to explain the missing backstory or elsewhere the labored explanation of why wizards can’t conjure up food (an “Exception” don’t cha know). After a while I felt that Hogswart itself was just some giant catch all where characters can get anything they need from the Room of Requiring (no further comment) to one of the Horcruxes its own bad self. Just compare to a lot of “children’s” fantasy from Le Guin to Wynne Jones to Pullman to see what I mean. Even stuff as deliberately haphazard as the Xanth or Discworld books are more narratively plausible.

Considering that Rowling had to pad seven lengthy books and clearly has no Dickensian imagination (or for that matter Tolkenian, Leiberian, Moorcockian, etc) then there’s going to be a lot of jerry-rigged backstory. Perhaps her major plotting weakness and one so severe that even the characters in the book comment on it is that she too often relies on withheld information. Dumbledore lets out only dribbles whenever convenient even though he seems to know the entire deal and much of the books consist of Potter trying to discover information that somebody could easily have told him. This gets tiresome very quickly and the justifications (protecting Potter, letting him discover for himself) are nearly nonsensical. Rowling’s abilities are also why right into Deathly Hallows I realized that Potter couldn’t die – killing off a point of view character is tricky even for a skillful writer and while Rowling is nowhere near capable enough to do it properly she also seems aware enough to realize at least some of her limitations (and pumped up the body count to compensate). To her credit Rowling didn’t make the final book easy for the screenwriters. Apart from the sheer length it’s very nearly an array of different voices. Numerous characters stop to unburden themselves of some story or another and in addition we get newspaper articles, excerpts from a pop biography, a fairy tale, flashbacks, overheard conversation (very convenient that Potter is in the British wilderness at the same location as passing fugitives) and so on. And here’s where I might as well add that while the sentimental epilogue seems to have been the most criticized aspect of Deathly Hallows I thought it was perfectly pitched and almost necessary. The somewhat flubbed final battle is a different matterl I had to go back and re-read parts because I thought something was missing. It’s almost as if Rowling got to the end and just went “Whew, Potter kills Voldemort. I’m off to the beach.”

The entire focus on endings and surprises was unfortunate because it can’t help but have deformed response. Does Harry or Hermione or Ron die was such a focus of discussion that it tended to make Deathly Hallows almost a reading race to the end, kinda the reverse of a mystery where you want to find out whodunnit but here will it be dun. Not that Rowling or Scholastic could have done much about that but still.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bond synchronicity,,2123271,00.html

Well, this is strange. I'm about halfway through Engleby, the new novel by Sebastian Faulks when the announcement comes that he's written the forthcoming James Bond book. Strange because Faulks seems a quite unlikely choice given that he's more self-consciously literary and mostly interested in psychology (Engleby is Holden Caulfield if he was British and possibly or possibly not a murderer). Or as the Guardian imagining of Faulks' story goes "For now Bond had an appointment with M to discuss his new role as the unreliable narrator." Then again Kingsley Amis and John Gardner had previously been tapped so this is a minor tradition but just imagine what we could have seen from Martin Amis or George MacDonald Fraser or Philip Hensher or even Zadie Smith just to stay with Brits.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The whimpering of 24

At one point I thought I'd be so cool and post about each episode of 24 just like a real blogger instead of the sporadic quasi-sequiturs that otherwise mark this Funhouse. But as much as we all pretended otherwise this past season started bad and just went downhill from there. I knew the pre-season hype about it being the redemption of Jack was just fluff - he's barely even a character and the writers have never shown the slightest interest in anything other than pure plotting. By episode 4 it was obviously all up. The death of Curtis was so badly botched that what should have been well not shattering but at least unnerving moment was just tossed off. Just think of what they could have done with Curtis alive and involved but nobody quite trusting each other. Again, pure plot, pure effect. Same as last season when the Peter Weller character was introduced and the prospect of Jack working with somebody who may or may not have been wronged opened up. But then once again any ambiguity was shut down immediately; in the same episode Weller first appeared if I remember right. And then episode 4 ended with a nuclear bomb explosion in L.A. Surprising certainly but then where do they go from there? More bombs? Something bigger? (I was half-convinced that the terrorist scheme involved detonating enough bombs to trigger an earthquake which seemed like a stupid idea at the time but I now wish they'd used.)

But I honestly think that when the ratings weren't at the top the writers just threw up their hands and let the pieces fall where they might. There was one point about a month from the finale when I literally couldn't remember what the story was; weren't the terrorists already dead? One producer even admitted that they start filming without having determined the ending or even mapping out much of the season's story. That at least explains the slapdash feel to nearly all seasons and even the poorly done finale to Season Four (where stopping a missile depended on whether CTU hackers could recover info from a smashed PDA - hardly a tension building device). This writerly indifference would explain why there are so many rehashes of previous story devices not to mention why it's nearly impossible to figure out just what a major character like Jack's dad actually wants.

By the time the story reached the point where Chinese-hired mercenaries entered CTU headquarters through a sewer gate it had started to look like the worst Mad parody ever. After being bombed, gassed and infiltrated by double agents you'd think CTU would be darn near a fortress. And in the middle of a major incident have more than just a few rent-a-cops around; if I was CTU boss I'd have National Guard or at least SWAT. But at least this invasion finally got something going. How about the investigators from Division who showed up near the end (fourth episode from last? fifth?), set up shop in CTU, promised to be watching and then were never seen again? Or what about the brother of the dead agent who shows up an episode later (yeah it's no security breach to allow uncleared people inside a major government agency devoted entirely to stopping a world war) and then--my last boldface, promise--vanished! Like Chloe turns around and he's gone like some magic trick.

And let's not even get into Jack being the one who almost started the war due to his arrogance about tricking the Chinese but only one person even bothers to call him on this; the offshore oil rigs being by a beach within walking distance of the Secretary of Defense's vacation house; the complete pointlessness of the former president story line (and how did he know about all this anyway?); the fact that a freakin' NUCLEAR BOMB goes off but it only ties up traffic for a couple of hours; the needless complexity of stealing drones when terrorists could have just driven to another target; the probability that nobody else will ever want to be president in the 24verse considering they barely outlive mayflies; the odd fact that apparently all CTU agents are trained helicopter pilots; the Russians moving troops in a few hours rather than the days it takes in reality; and on and on. I don't expect plausibility in 24 any more than I would in a Marx Bros movie but at some point you just don't care.

I'll certainly watch the opening of the next season but won't be giving them the benefit of the doubt again.