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.