Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Anti-Climactic Ending

The following post contains a brief review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. Thus it contains a number of what the kids like to call "spoilers". If you have not read the book and still plan to do so with as little foreknowledge of the plot as possible, you may wish to do that before reading this post. It is also possible that you do not wish to read this post at all regardless of your plans to read the book. I certainly understand that sentiment.

We managed to endure the unseemly midnight release of the book at the Garden District Book Shop with minimal difficulty. It's a small store and the crowd was manageable (about 70 or so folks). Many of the pitiable souls in attendance chose to costume as their favorite character. I was expecting this so I was not too put out by it. I felt a bit sorry, though, for the dog who was compelled to serve as an accessory to someone's Hagrid costume and also for the one kid who was inexplicably dressed as Yoda. After an hour of milling about, complimentary snacks and beer and wine, some arts and crafts and then more milling about, we lined up, received our books and got the hell out of there. The sight of Potter fans with their new books, many of them grown men and women, unable to resist reading the book as they hurry downstairs, squeeze through the front door of the Rink, and sprint to their cars is.. comical to say the least.. and well worth the price of the book. As is the case with most inexcusably stupid events, I was overjoyed to have been there to see it.

Once home, I claimed the comfortable couch and settled in for what I expected to be a long night of reading when the phone rang. It was Daisy calling from California on her way to the release party for the book at her library.

Me: Harry's gonna die!

Yeah, hey dude. Look. It's like 10:30 here and I'm not gonna get my book until 12.

I have mine. It says Harry dies.

Daisy: Listen. I'm on my way to the library right now.. but...

Me: I got mine at a bookstore full of costumed weirdos.

Daisy: Look, can you read some of it to me?

There was a big dog there. And free Abita. And they had a "Sorting Hat"

Daisy: Did you hear me?

Me: Turns out I'm a Slytherin.

Will you just read me some of the fucking book? I'm serious!

Me: Okay okay... um.. alright, here we go. The first chapter is called, "How Harry Dies"

And so it was with some prodding that I was made to read the first seven pages or so to Daisy over the phone until she arrived at her event and left me to begin reading for myself in earnest.

This is not to say that the rest of the night went uninterrupted, however. In addition to the head start granted her by my ministering to Daisy's impatience, Menckles reads faster than I do. So throughout the night, I was repeatedly made to stop and contemplate Menckles's various gasps and indignant screams as harbingers of as yet undiscovered (by me) horrors. I think this may have slowed my progress through the narrative further as I subconsciously determined that I might keep characters from dying by not turning pages. This phenomenon was compounded after Daisy acquired her copy.

Daisy reads faster than most humans so it wasn't long before I began receiving her indignant screams and gasps from the pages ahead of me via text message. Daisy's messages had the added feature of citing page numbers. So throughout the night and on into the weekend I received messages like, "WTF p. 134" or (my eventual favorite) "unexpected hilarity p. 736".

Because of the decided bloodiness of this book, Daisy's messages began to take on the aspect of a running body count (with page numbers cited). As each death notice arrived, my return message invariably speculated that the latest victim was Harry. "Harry's dead again?" was a text I remember sending more than once. Eventually this developed into a collection of alternate titles. Harry Potter and the Unmitigated Carnage which later became Harry Potter and the Eventually Ameliorated, Although Unmistakably Massive Carnage

Finally, after reading the epilogue.. and Daisy's commentary on the book, I have decided on the alternate title indicated in the post below this one. While Deathly Hallows does have its satisfying moments, and while it does tie up most of the series's loose ends, it disappoints in that it fails to tell the story Rowling wants it to.

Geeky fantasy meme aside, the enduring appeal of this series has been its value as a children's coming-of-age saga. In this, the final installment, Rowling intends for her main characters to learn about the consequences, compromises, and sacrifices that come with adulthood. She has made these ideas evident to the reader but has clumsily thrown them onto the page in such a way that blunts their intended emotional impact.

One possible explanation for this has to do with Rowling's decision to abandon her paint-by-numbers plotting scheme. The timing of the previous books has generally progressed around the school year. Rowling is used to moving Harry from the Dursley's to the Burrow to the Fall term at school to the Christmas Holidays to the Spring term and then to the.. part where Dumbledore explains everything. In this final book, Harry is no longer in school. Once he leaves the Burrow, he and Rowling enter unfamiliar territory and things slow down... a lot. She has tried to compensate by adding more action scenes.. but these start to feel aimless and repetitive after a while. (How many times can Voldemort scream "Nooooo!"?) By the time we've reached the final confrontation, there really isn't anything left to do or say... although Rowling manages to make it awfully talky anyway.

The Potter series is about growing up and Deathy Hallows is supposed to be about the ambiguity, fallibility, and loneliness of adulthood. The ideas are there... but poorly navigated by the author. The mystery of the Hallows is intended to serve as an exploration of Dumbledore's faults and regrets, but it is so poorly woven into the main storyline that it, as Daisy observes, could have been left out altogether.

Even Rowling's most compelling character, Severus Snape is mistreated by her clumsiness. Snape, motivated by the pain of an unrequited love, chooses a life of isolation, lies and facades. Although it is revealed that he is lying for the right people, such lies serve to perpetuate the state of loneliness which bore them. Should he have let his crush go at some point? Do the risks he takes make him brave? Or does his decision to hide his broken heart with a false face make him a coward? Snape's sacrifices should ask Rowling's readers to contemplate some very adult ideas but the manner in which she presents this is forced, unemotional, and unsatisfying.

Of course, she's trying to get it right. We like her and we like her characters which is why we tend to give her a pass on this stuff. Rowling wants her young readers to come away from this series having learned the following:
  • Love and trust those close to you

  • Question authority

  • Do not be defeated by sadness

  • Do not fear death

It says something about Rowling's writing, however, that the character in Deathly Hallows who best embodies these virtues is also the most one dimensional. But then Dobby does get a very satisfying moment in the book so we can forgive Rowling for that as well.

The clumsiness with which Rowling handles her themes combined with the out and out awfulness of the epilogue has me wondering if she reached a point with this book where she just wanted to get it over with. I'd like to say that this is because Rowling herself doesn't want to be an adult (a virtue in any good children's author) but I think instead that she just hasn't learned to be anything other than a mediocre writer. Like her famous protagonist, Rowling has made the most of her ordinary talent, and a bit of luck, to do some great things. And like I imagine she is, I'm just glad to have it over with.

Note: Re-posted this several times to correct minor spelling and format errors

Update: Also this was cute last night.

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