Soggy And Hard To Light

Finished it in less than 72 hours.  All my favorite Hogwarts characters were there, Harry expanded his magical arsenal and was less of a wimp than the last time, more intriguing details of the Potterverse were revealed, and Rowling garnished it all with those tasty Briticisms that us culturally insecure Yanks just can’t get enough of.  Yup, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire delivered in all particulars.

What’s that you say?  The "new one"?  Oh, you mean this 870-page doorstop sitting next to my mouse?  Ah, yes.  Haven’t so much as cracked it.

First, a word about hardbacks vs. paperbacks: historically, I’ve done a significant plurality if not a downright majority of my reading on buses.  A further portion of my reading time comes in the interstices surrounding the activities (school, work) to and from which I ride the bus.  These circumstances dictate not only that my books be easily portable but also that they suffer the abrasions of jostling in my satchel with a minimum of degradation.  When you add the consideration of price, paperbacks are the clear winner in almost every case.  On those rare occasions when my anticipation of a new release is so keen that I cannot wait for the paperback, I usually join the queue at one or both of my local library systems, which eventually (often more quickly than I expected) provide me with a hardback edition armored in about a kilo of cellophane, free of both charge and proprietary concern for depreciation.

So what am I doing with a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix less than a week (or so) after its publication?  Well, my kindly mother was at Amazon selecting Order of the Phoenix to read on holiday in Napa Valley, and she couldn’t resist upping ITEM QTY to 2 and bestowing the second copy on her favorite son.  So why haven’t I dived in or even finished it by now?  Well, the thing is, despite the fact that it’s been over two years since the hardback came out and almost a year since the paperback release, I hadn’t even acquired Goblet of Fire by this week, let alone finished it.  Fortunately, my mother had a paperback edition of Goblet lying around (she must have escaped the hardback hype last time), which I duly borrowed.

Although its comparative length was not irrelevant, my reluctance to pick up Harry Potter #4 had more to do with my uneven satisfaction with #1-3.  Like most geeks I have an enduring relationship with "children’s" fantasy fiction, but I was relatively ignorant of Harry until the publicity machine geared up for the hardback release of Goblet of Fire and the impending film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone.  Of course, whatever curiosity I might have had was repelled by my distrust of the hype.  If so many, well, Muggles were into Harry, how good could it be?  My less reflexive friends, however, were unanimous in their praise of Harry, and so I scoured the used bookstores for paperback editions of the first three books.  I plowed through all three in less than two weeks.

I suspect that I did Rowling no favors by compressing three iterations of her increasingly predictable formula into so tight a period.  I quite enjoyed the drawn-out "awakening" process in Sorcerer’s Stone as Harry was tantalizingly introduced to the notion that he really didn’t belong with the Dursleys, but I was dismayed at the prospect of having to endure summer with the Dursleys at the beginning of every book.  By Prisoner of Azkaban, I was grumbling for Harry to be adopted by the Weasleys already and have done with it.  Similarly, the deus ex magica climaxes both undermine Harry as a protagonist and Rowling as a reliable narrator; the closing expositions are just too exhaustive (and exhausting).

An "ethical" mystery is one in which the reader, if she is attentive to all the clues dropped by the author, can reasonably be expected to puzzle out before the author spells it out.  Whether Rowling’s predictable structure is her preferred form or an imposition by her publisher intended to insure a winning formula, it’s possible that Rowling might have tried to off-set this predictability by littering the narrative with apparent red herrings which don’t explain anything until the penultimate chapter when Dumbledore tells us how.  This might be rewarding (if challenging) in a story set entirely in our Muggle world, but when Rowling introduces a brand new spell, artifact, or secret society in every other chapter, and when the characters (all adults, notably) Harry has had every reason to believe are trustworthy turn out to be shapeshifters or otherwise under Voldemort’s control, it’s hard for all but the most juvenile readers not to regard it as cheating.

Any fantasy geek will tell you that it’s not the characters that matter, it’s the world.  To most kids our world is boring, and it only gets more boring the more you learn about it.  It does, however, have the advantage of having rules which more or less apply all the time.  Fantasy worlds are (hopefully) less boring, but it’s difficult to create consistent rules that will allow characters and readers to navigate such worlds meaningfully.  As delightful as the examples of magic in the Potterverse are (and as impressive as they are rendered in their film adaptations), for me they are only as satisfying as they are consistent.

Now, I am perfectly open to the theory that Rowling’s project is the Education of Harry Potter who, like us, was raised by Muggles and is therefore ignorant of the wider magical ecology.  Such a project would necessarily require that the "ways of the world" be revealed gradually, as Harry keeps bumping into assumptions and common knowledge held by the wizard-raised students.  Unfortunately for this project, Lord Voldemort has been hunting Harry as part of his ambition to plunge the wizard world back into chaos since the very first book, and while many of the series’ characters turn a blind eye to this glaring fact, Dumbledore and the other authority figures in whom Rowling has reposed our trust do not.  It would seem, then, that it behooves everyone who would resist Voldemort that Harry is brought up to speed on all the magical politics, personalities, and (duh!) assassination techniques known to wizardkind.  Instead Harry is forced to rely upon partial conversations overheard at the Weasleys’ breakfast table and Hermione’s fitful research efforts.  That Harry is excluded from Dumbledore’s strategy briefings and returned to the mind-numbing wretchedness of Privet Drive every summer might be Rowling’s plan to keep us in childlike wonder throught all seven books, but to me it cannot help but seeming like Rowling’s distrust of the reader to remain interested in an increasing immersion in a complex fantasy world, or her distrust of herself to provide it.

A prime example of Rowling’s "shifting goalposts" is her theory of evil and its reflections in the four Houses at Hogwarts.  One might expect a children’s book to incorporate the perils of first impressions and misleading appearances.  The Durselys and the Malfoys of the world may be vile but they aren’t necessarily murderers.  Yet the whole ceremony of the Sorting Hat is given such a teleological finality (except for, of course, Harry) that we are encouraged to see House as destiny.  I resisted this assumption by resorting to the argument: If Dumbledore permits the House of Slytherin to endure, it can’t be the hotbed of Death Eaters Rowling lets us think it is.  Yet it turns out to be exactly that.  When we have reached the end of the seventh book and Voldemort is finally dead, will the wizard world undergo some sort of post-Nuremburg deSlytherization?  The Malfoy family exterminated, root and branch?  How far does Rowling’s absolutism* extend?

As Harry’s first introduction to the magical realm, Hogwarts is at first presented as the center of the wizard universe.  Oh, we hear about Arthur Weasley’s job at the Ministry, but as "incidents" increase and alumni meddle in Dumbledore’s affairs, Hogwarts seems less like Wrykyn and more like the Battle School.  Then, just when we think we’ve got a handle on the school politics, rivalries, and family connections that will bring about or prevent Voldemort’s return, in Goblet of Fire we are introduced to the fact that there are other wizarding schools, the details of whose allegiance and resources are dribbled out at Rowling’s convenience.  If, viewed over seven volumes, this shaggy owl story turns out to make for a satisfying epic, then Rowling will deserve our applause.  Viewed from the 700-pages-every-other-year perspective, however, it’s hard not to regard each installment with the weariness usually reserved for the lopsided dramatic pacing of NBA games.

Of course, I’m critical of Rowling because I find so much in the Harry series that’s worthwhile, and I wish she’d minimize the ominous-yet-inscrutable omens and mysteries so that I might enjoy the oh-so-scrutable wonders and delights.  The complex ecology of magical beasts and non-human races, the delicate balance of Muggle relations, the clever details of what a given spell will and will not do, and above all, the society-in-miniature that is Hogwarts; to me, these are what make Rowling’s world memorable to child and adult alike, and are what is threatened every time Rowling jiggers with The Rules as she’s written (or omitted to write) them.

So what are my plans for the weekend?  Oh, nothing.

*  I realize that the absolutism in Tolkien (to take a personally favored example) is no less pervasive and appearance-driven than in Rowling, but in Tolkien there are many occasions where characters (almost always Men or Hobbits, tellingly) either rise above or sink beneath expectations and appearances, and non-humans fill arche- or stereotypical roles.  In the Potterverse, the non-humans (Dobby, Myrtle) are the ones to watch for character development, whereas if Ron Weasley or Draco Malfoy ever defy expectations it is certain to be the result of the Imperius curse or some unrevealed (and unhinted at) motivation.

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