Thursday, August 02, 2007

Harry Potter and the End

Cultural practice suggests that I should open this with a Spoiler Alert, or an assurance that there are no Spoilers, a Spoiler Lack of Alert if you will. Spoiler Alerts are a somewhat useful tool which, like so many things, we’ve managed to take to asinine extremes. I’m not interested in telling you so much about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that you won’t want to read it, but how do I know what you will find too much information? This is a review, not a play by play. Personally, I don’t read reviews of things I’m really anticipating, so if I were me, I wouldn’t read this. Well, I’d read it NOW, because I’ve finished the book, but if you’re still worrying about spoilers, what are you doing here? Go read the book already! Shoo!

It’s hard when you write about Harry Potter not to get swept away into the phenomenon of it, rather than the story. The phenomenon part is wacky. The 17 billion articles about it (of which the world does not need one more but is getting anyway) are wacky. Lead stories on the national news about a fantasy fiction novel are wacky. Treating plot points like secrets vital to national security is wacky. Setting up help lines to offer support and counseling to kids potentially devastated by the end of a book series is wacky.

I went to Florida last weekend, which meant lots of time spent on planes and in airports. Not surprisingly, Harry Potter was everywhere and, in particular, I noticed it being read by lots of men in the publishing industry's most coveted demographic: 18 to 30. Men aged 18 to 30 are like the Holy Grail to booksellers. The industry waffles between shrugging them off with "eh, they don't read" to desperate attempts to woo them. This is how we end up with such unfortunate marketing decisions as "Lad Lit", perhaps because the industry wasn't brave enough to dub it the obvious choice of "Dick Lit", a decision which only proves how out of it they are trying to reach this mysterious tribe. When publishers find a book that even young adult males will stand in line for, it's perhaps understandable that they would lose their heads and go, well, a little wacky.

It’s nice to discover then that the book itself is very fine. It is fine both in and of itself as an adventure, and it is a fine and noble end to the series. Rowling faced some real challenges with this book. She had to wrap up six books worth of details and unanswered questions, encase those answers in a plot that was new and fresh enough to stand on its own, and provide an ending which was both honest to what had come before and also a satisfactory reward to those who have stuck with the series for ten years. In short, she had to nail the dismount.

It’s a long story, the longest of the series so far, and the journey it takes us upon is a winding one. Harry is on his own now, no longer protected by the spell that kept him safe as a child. Before his death, Dumbledore charged Harry with a task which he must now complete with few solid clues or tools with which to do so. Hogwarts is no longer a safe haven for him, or for anyone really, now that Severus Snape is Headmaster. The ministry has been completely infiltrated by Death Eaters. Things are generally crappy.

In each book, Harry’s universe has gradually expanded from Hogwarts to include more and more of the wizard-ing world. In this seventh book, with Hogwarts closed to him, there is now only the wide cold dangerous world. The absence of Hogwarts in Hallows is palpable, emphasising how much of this series has been informed by the school. In previous adventures, long periods of time would pass while Harry and his friends figured out whatever was bedeviling them, while the school itself propelled the narrative forward. Rowling could throw in exams or Quiddich or Hogsmead or detention or Hagrid's latest monster to provide an entertaining detour which allowed the kids time but still moved the plot in the right direction.

In Deathly Hallows, because Harry is on the run, living in hiding while he tries to unravel the last task with which Dumbledore charged him, Rowling must rely on the characters’ choices, luck and the occasional narrative coincidence to propel the plot forward. It’s up to the reader to decide if this is a weakness or not. More than one person has mentioned to me a feeling of the plot dragging in the middle section of the book. After some reflection (and, I admit, reading the book twice) I think Rowling captures the real frustration of what it means to live on the run with nothing but your wits about you. Sometimes it’s about dangerous escapes and sometimes it’s about mind-numbing tedium. As a reader you may think you’re frustrated, but you’ve got nothing on the characters.

As with all her books, Rowling adds new layers of magic and mystery the trio must navigate to discover what they need. There’s plenty of daring-do and skin of the teeth escapes, but there’s emotional complexity as well. A recurring theme, in the series and prominently in this book, is the problem with heroes. Inevitably, one learns that one’s heroes are flawed, sometimes deeply so. Sometimes their motives are questionable, or not in our own best interest. Sometimes people we love lie to us, or fail to tell us the truth, and their reasons for it are lousy. Sometimes people we care about do shitty things, and all we can do is watch.

Although few of us have ever found ourselves the target of a dark wizard, one of the things that has made Harry Potter so appealing is that his struggle to grow up, to become the man he needs to be, is the same as everyone’s struggle. Everyone has learned things about a hero or mentor we really didn’t want to know. Everyone has had to decide if the plans others have for us are or ought to be the same plan we have for ourselves. Throughout the series, Dumbledore in particular has emphasized to Harry the importance of Harry exercizing his own free will; that he decide for himself what he should do. Dumbledore seemed to mean it in relation to Voldemort, but now it is Dumbledore himself whose motives are called into question. In Deathly Hallows, Harry is forced to wonder whether he is, truly, "Dumbledore's man, through and through".

Rowling brings back all of our favorite characters and allows each their own moment to shine, even some of the secondary characters we may not have noticed how integral they’ve become, like Dean Thomas or Seamus Finnigan. Fans of Neville and Luna will not be disappointed. Most importantly, Ron and Hermione are both given their necessary due, particularly Ron who, on his own challenging journey to manhood, has to make his own choice about a hero named Harry.

Rowling has never stinted on allegories and the same is true here. Any similarities to rising fascist states, Big Brother and the Nazis you may have noticed in other books is clearly intentional. The ante is upped now as “Mudbloods” are openly prosecuted and “blood purity” becomes the new mantra. We get to see not only the overt evil of Death Eaters in power, but the covert evil, the true banality of evil in "get along go along" bureaucrats who relish in new power opportunities, a la Dolores Umbridge, or are just too afraid to do anything else, a la Percy Weasley.

The book isn’t perfect. There’s a tangled maze of plot involving wands and wandlore which I had to read twice to fully understand. Upon second reading, it did make sense, but there are times when it feels like a playbook might be in order. Rowling does herself no favors by naming two new key characters involved in this serpentine plot Grindelwald and Gregorovich. Perhaps she thought it poetic symmetry, but mostly it’s confusing.

Rowling promised losses in the book, and she delivers those losses, many of them quite painful. Unfortunately the impact of some of those losses is lost in her pell-mell dash to conclusion. Two of them in particular are disposed of so quickly if you skipped a sentence you’d miss their demise. The result is almost disrespectful, as if their deaths were thrown in for shock rather than emotional impact. The characters she so lovingly crafted deserved much better.

Ultimately though, the book is immensely satisfying, particularly in the final resolution of the mystery of Severus Snape. Voldemort has always been the looming evil on the horizon, but Snape has been Harry’s daily enemy for six years now. Some kind of denouement between the two of them is inevitable and necessary. When it finally comes it is perhaps the most gratifying part of the entire story. It resonates back through the entire series, revealing layers of emotional complexity only hinted at before.

Now it’s time to say good-bye to the denizens of Harry Potter’s world, and the parting is sweet sorrow. J.K. Rowling has created something wonderful in this series, and now she nails the dismount. One of my colleagues said to me yesterday how lucky we are to be in the group of people who got to watch this tale unfold from its beginning. It’s true we’ve had a front row seat on the making of a phenomenon. But I believe that Harry Potter is not going anywhere. After the hysteria and media saturation has faded away, we will be left with a classic adventure which can proudly join the Narnia books, the Wrinkle in Time series, even the Lord of the Rings trilogy as stories new generations will discover with love and joy, over and over again.

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