Monday, June 18, 2012


Well! This one certainly started off with a lot of drama. And shouting. There was a whole lot of shouting going on. But of course we all came through it; it was just an excuse to delay the Return to Hogwarts for about 200 pages, and to make sure everyone still feels nice and sorry for poor, persecuted Harry.

Alas, the brattiness continues at Hogwarts, as everyone starts freaking out over a series of exams on which many future opportunities depend, Ron and Hermione continue bickering in that cute pre-couple way, and Harry seems to be having one long shouty temper tantrum.* Yes, being a teenager sucks, even if you can do magic. Especially if your two best friends now have AUTHORITAH!**

Amusing as Prefect Ron and Prefect Hermione are, though, their antics are not the main show. No, the main plot of this one, as far as I can tell, is that the Ministry of Magic is in denial about the return of the evil wizard and is suppressing all discourse about it while simultaneously infiltrating Hogwarts and trying to turn it into a school that is all theory and no practice and no fun at all -- i.e., a wizard diploma factory. This is potentially a very interesting development, and just possibly a very smart critique of the decline of education in the Western World into the "weigh the calf but never feed it" model, but of course here that's all more or less dismissable as another front in the War on Poor Harry.

Were I of a mind to re-read these some day (currently I am not, but one never knows), I wonder what it would be like to read them as a story of a mentally divergent boy who gets upset whenever confronted with the fact that he's not a special wizard boy at all and hallucinates a lot while wandering around in bunny slippers. I now picture Ralph Fiennes in the Madeline Stowe role. Hey, that might explain a lot of things, including Quidditch scoring!

...And I've almost talked myself into doing a re-read someday. This despite having two enormous books to go.

But then I'd have to deal with All the Adverbs again. Every writing critique, every style guide, every essay on good prose I've ever encountered has emphasized how sparingly (hee hee) these need to be used. I know it's largely a matter of choice, to use them or not to use them, and I originally wasn't going to say anything about this here, but after thousands of pages and now that I'm well over the Harry hump, I want to scream "Enough with the adverbs in your dialogue tags, Dame Rowling" (she said wearily). Popqueenie assures me I'm not the only one to be haunted by this awfulness. I want to put on a nun's habit and start rapping some knuckles now. Really, if your dialogue is good enough (and here's the thing -- it is! The dialogue is good and very expressive!), adding that nugatory bit of description in the tag is utterly unnecessary. Doing so just yanks me out of my happy reading trance. Argh!

I sound like I'm turning into a hater, but really I'm not. As I observed above, the dialogue is good and there are still plenty of imaginative touches, a trail of amusing and sometimes horrifying (the Quill of Detention!***) bread crumbs leading us to Rowling's/Voldemort's witchy cottage at the end. The Twins are still awesome (and their comic relief has never been so necessary) as are the ghosts. A lot of background/second tier characters get a chance to shine (Neville!). And even Hermione gets a funny line or two. Well, "Europa's covered in ice, not mice" made me giggle, anyway...

And sometimes, just sometimes, Dame Rowling actually displays some lovely writing chops:

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
Isn't that nice? By far that is some of her best weather writing to date. And there is plenty to which to compare it, yes there is. Of course it's meant as foreshadowing as much as anything; the later tone of the book takes a decided turn for the dark and forbidding, a turn that comes as a bit of a relief, it's been built up for so long: all that tension and fear feels like it's finally going to pay off somehow. However, this brings up, I'm afraid, another gripe.

Here's the thing. As with the other books, Order of the Phoenix is, at bottom, a mystery. As mystery plots, though, the Harry Potter books are fundamentally unsatisfying, because part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to solve it right along side the detectives. And to a degree this is possible in Harry Potter, but only to a degree: one can sometimes get an idea of who did/is doing it**** and maybe why, but almost never how. Or some other faulty combination of those three classics. And a lot of this has to do with Rowling's system of magic, the workings -- and, more importantly, the limitations -- of which are never really disclosed to us. So as we read along, of course we get lots of rather obvious red herring characters to hate and suspect (but they almost always turn out to be secretly lovely, don't they?), which is moderately fun, but after four or five books we know it's never one of these that's (deliberately) doing Voldemort's dirty work, so the fun of suspecting them is pretty hollow, and it does no good to read deeper if the villain du jour has not even been mentioned yet, or if we don't know how something is happening in any more detail than "by magic." Anything is possible if you are a wizard, want something to happen, and can invent a vaguely Latin-sounding word for it, apparently? Yeah, we get a neat and tidy explanation for all of the malefactions at book's end, always, but it's almost never something we could have anticipated, no matter how closely we've been reading -- I guess because we're meant to just passively take it in as poor, dumb Muggles, rather than actively trying to figure stuff out as we go along.

A bit shaggy dog-ish, that.

But I'll say this for Dame Rowling, she's a hell of a lot better than certain screenwriterly types at resolving plots. At least her Chekov's gun looks like a gun and fires like a gun; Prometheus employed Chekov's shoelace and forced it to try to drown a pistachio.

So there's that.

On to The Half-Blood Prince, which sources tell me is as good as, perhaps even better than, The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has been my favorite so far.

*And yes, he is provoked. Rowling loves to torture this guy. It's not enough that he has to fight the most evil wizard ever, every book; every book he also has to be majorly misunderstood, abused, set to impossible tasks, threatened with expulsion, and loaded with too much homework. And this book is no exception and is the worst yet, because the evil wizard understands the power of the press and has managed to convince everyone that Harry is a self-aggrandizing liar and his protectors are all senile or crazy. I'd probably get shouty, too. I'm not sure I'd subject readers of my chronicles to such a minute, blow-by-blow account of every single blow-out, at such great length. Sigh. This one almost lost me, you guys. It was only my multitudes of friends who love these books cheering me on to the better books (6 and 7) that kept me struggling through all the screaming matches of the first third of this volume.

**Many were the moments when I could not help but laugh at my mental image of Hermione in aviator shades whaling on people with a nightstick and yelling "RESPECT MA AUTHORITAH"

***Seriously, Remusly, how does Harry not wind up with complete anemia by the end of this book? Yeeouch!

****Goblet of Fire, I'm looking at you. We readers hadn't even known of the episode-villain (as in, not Voldemort, but his tool-of-the-year)'s existence until we were mostly through the book. He was pretty much just dropped in at the end as a spindle around which to wrap the plot threads. Boo!

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