The Book Club

A Lapse in Taste?

Dear Jodi,

The assignment of this “Book Club” is to work our way through the new, 734-page Harry Potter novel over the course of the week. But for true mimeticism, we ought to admit that we’re also doing what every other Potter fan is doing–reading the critics reviewing the book and the journalists profiling its author, J.K. Rowling. Plus, since we’re writing criticism ourselves, we’re sneaking cheaters’ peeks at the critics who held forth on past volumes in the series. Add to this the fact (let’s come completely clean here) that we only finished the first three Potter books last week, and what we really need is a new adjective, something like knackered, to describe the addled mental condition that results from intense exposure to a mass cultural phenomenon in a short period of time. I don’t know about you, Jodi, but I’m pottered.

I don’t object. For once in my life as a consumer of pop-cultural hype, I find myself in pleasant agreement with just about everything I come across. Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review, pinpointed what I found most enchanting about the books: truly brilliant inventions such as the Pensieve, which holds thoughts you don’t have time to think right now. (Actually, now that we’ve both committed the crime, I think we ought to ban all magical metaphors, such as “enchanting” and “bewitched.”) A.O. Scott and Polly Shulman, in their wonderful exchange in Slate last year, named my two other favorite creations: muggle studies (muggles are us, plodding non-wizard humans) and dementors (prison guards who terrorize by feeding off their wards’ happy thoughts, leaving them in the thrall of their most fearful imaginings). I’m also fond of the diary that writes back to you and was a little disappointed that it turned out to be a tool of the arch-villain, Lord Voldemort himself.

You say you like narrative better than moralism, and that sounds more or less right to me. My psychoanalyst, who reads the books to her sons, says she’s thrilled by their moral realism, and I know just what she means about that. What gives Potter’s world its depth, the sense that it’s drawn with the emotional equivalent of linear perspective, is that on the whole (though with exceptions, which we’ll get to in a minute) Rowling doesn’t preach. Instead, she steeps her storytelling in moral ambiguity. When it comes to evil, she’s fond of shadings, all the way from the sneering, but essentially harmless, teacher Snape to the sublimely chilly narcissist Voldemort. She’s good at reversals too, as in the twist at the end of Book 3 in which Harry must trust his intuitions about character against reason and evidence in order to adjudicate conflicting accounts of how his parents were betrayed and killed. The wizard convicted of their murder, Sirius Black, muddies things by being menacing and intemperate (as well as, half the time, a biting dog); the only person who can back his story up is a man-eating werewolf. But Rowling doesn’t micromanage. She allows Harry’s protector, the kindly headmaster Albus Dumbledore, to be infuriatingly remote. You could argue that a responsible administrator ought to be more vigilant about monitoring a sadist like Snape and the maliciously disruptive student Draco Malfoy. But the wizard world is complicated and uncertain, and Harry’s got to grow up on his own.

Where Rowling does get explicit about morals, I tend to think she’s spoofing–putting muggle concerns in wizard terms, to hilarious effect. A possible exception is Book 2, where she grows quite earnest about racism. Draco Malfoy and his father, Lucius, are at the center of a Nazi-like conspiracy to rid Hogwarts of “mudbloods,” wizards of partial-muggle descent, and though I’m sympathetic to the impulse to turn all sarcastic bullies into pale blond fascists with weak chins, it did make that one volume much more Manichean than the others.

This leads us to your house-elves, the capital-I Issue of the book. So far, this is a comic subplot, and I like anything that makes Hermione more Hermione-like, nerdier and bossier and sweeter, which her elf liberation movement certainly does. (How about that acronym–Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, or SPEW?) But I can’t help feeling a tiny bit uncomfortable at the way the elves speak, which sounds like it was lifted directly from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Actually, there’s a more likely source for the elves’ habit of marrying the first-person pronoun with the third-person conjugation of “to be,” and their excessive use of the progressive tense (“I is not sure you did Dobby a favor, sir, when you is setting him free”)–to say nothing of their cringing, wincing, self-flagellating behavior and their conflicted feelings about freedom. That source is grotesquely racist movie portrayals of house servants, black and subcontinental Indian. What exactly is Rowling doing here? Had she suddenly had a lapse in taste? Or will the elf narrative suddenly change in tone, and go from jokey to serious?

I’m only on Page 442: Two hundred and ninety-two to go before I can answer that question. Can you–without giving the ending away? The other cliffhanger of the morning is, when will Harry stop procrastinating and get to work figuring out his second task? It’s unlike him to dither, and I can’t help suspecting that he’s going to have to pay. Can Rowling administer his punishment without delivering too obvious a lesson about the dangers of dilatoriness? I can’t decide whether I want the answer to that. Probably not.