The Book Club

Magical Brew

Ah, Polly, you are in an Umbridgian mood. I was startled to read your opening grumps: I breathlessly devoured Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in its entirety over the weekend and thought it the richest of the series. I suppose I felt a little let down by a final revelation meant to be more earthshaking than it was. But when I finally closed that Hagrid-sized tome I was a happy man. At least 800 of those 870 pages thrilled me to pieces.

But while you were shivering in a Barnes & Noble line in the rain, I was sleeping peacefully in lovely Truro on Cape Cod, where, thanks to Amazon, the book was waiting for me in a post office box on the morning of the 20th. As I sat on the deck, listening to the lapping surf, I could hardly imagine a nicer way to begin—except perhaps receiving the book by owl messenger. (My pleasure was dampened slightly by the sight of a front-page New York Times review by Mistress Michiko, the book world’s equivalent of the Hogwarts High Inquisitor, who had magically obtained her copy in advance. But my annoyance about her special treatment dovetailed nicely with Harry’s high dudgeon in the book’s opening chapters.)

Before discussing Order of the Phoenix, let’s get those bland movies out of the way, shall we? This is the first Potter book to appear since the films were released, and, like you, I had a hard time getting the actors and the sets out of my head. I wonder if Rowling had the same problem: I couldn’t shake the thought that she was crafting Snape’s lines to be read in the wearily fey, sneering tones of Alan Rickman. It’s much more fun to visualize your own Potter universe than to have it all pinned down for you by the faces and voices of actors—or, more damagingly, by director Chris Columbus and FX giant Industrial Light & Magic.

Only a page or two into Order of the Phoenix I was reminded why I hated the movies out of all proportion to their badness: The good-natured Columbus had delivered square, twinkly, Christmassy, corporate-smooth entities with little emotional heft. I don’t mean to suggest that Rowling is some kind of Riot Grrrl, but these are angry books, written in a rage against the blueblood fascist Malfoys of England and their clueless allies, the vulgarly fat and snobbish Dursleys. Every book begins with a lonely, friendless, maltreated boy being shut in his room because that is clearly where they hatched in Rowling’s mind—and I suspect she has to return to that state in order to summon up the pagan energy it takes to launch each new adventure.

The first challenge Rowling faces in each Harry book is to make him a lonely underdog all over again. I mean, at this point he’s the headmaster’s pet, a superstar among his own kind, an innately talented wizard, the savior of the universe, and a decent kid to boot.

Yet in Order of the Phoenix he starts from a whopping disadvantage. The Dursleys loathe him more than ever. The New YorkTimes of the wizard world, the Prophet, smears him daily as a fabulist and a crackpot. His friends Hermione and Ron haven’t sent a single owl. His godfather Sirius is in hiding and growing progressively more morbid. His demi-giant protector Hagrid is off on some secret and perilous mission. Headmaster Dumbledore maintains a puzzling distance. After being attacked by the dreaded dementors, Harry’s heroic measures to save himself and his vile Muggle cousin get him hauled into the Ministry and threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Peevish, indignant, depressed, Harry is not back to square one—he’s back to square negative one. The first third of the book at least is nearly unrelieved misery—climaxing in scenes of sadistic punishment by Professor Umbridge that are primordial in their horror. (If these are filmed right, people will be screaming at the screen.) In short, Rowling has you reading in a white-knuckle fury.

By now, the sneers of Draco and daddy Lucius Malfoy should have no effect on us whatsoever: These guys have never won. Ever. And yet they still make our blood boil. On every page, Rowling knows just how to tap into our insecurities and our sense of enraged entitlement. Every slight based on our race, religion, or economic status, every crime for which we’ve ever been falsely accused … You get a sense that the author has many chips on her shoulder—even today, when she’s universally beloved and richer than Queen Elizabeth.

On the whole that’s a good thing. Harry has become more interesting now that he’s paranoid, rash, and ragingly, hormonally adolescent. He’s more interesting now that he resents his friend Ron—whom he’s used to upstaging—for being chosen as a prefect when he wasn’t. He’s more interesting now that he doesn’t just moon over the beauteous Cho but expresses irritation at her girlishly mixed-up emotions. (The scenes between Harry and Cho are gratifyingly messy.) It seems to me that there are more inventive jokes in this book than in the last one, Polly—and even more inventive dissonances. And to have the save the world and pass one’s O-levels …

Now, get reading Order of the Phoenix! I know 12-year-olds who are already on their second go-’round!

Inquisitorially yours,