Plot-strain and exasperation
It had been my best intention to start with a discussion of the (well-known, and also trite) opening of the Harry Potter series this morning, but first a few confessions:
I am reading ahead (or listening ahead), which is to say that, because I conceived the idea of this blog while I was working my way through the audiobook by Stephen Fry, I have been drafting and thinking for some time about the series as I take in progressively more of Harry's story, and have had months to ruminate, while I only began writing entries for this blog in the course of the past week. That's been pleasant work, but I've only now come to the end of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, just as I'm about to begin commentary on the first. So it happened that last night, in what's become a coronavirus isolation routine, I switched off the television sometime past midnight, looking forward to lying in bed for a while and to hearing more about Harry.
This has been a comfort in a troubled time: I escape from the aimless boredom and stress of plague-time house arrest for a chapter or two, as I relax, into the Potterverse, where life is eventful, compelling and morally-centered. Then, mollified, I set Harry and his friends aside and drift off to sleep. (How many millions of children have done the same, I wonder.) Accordingly, I listened attentively last night to several chapters--but found myself frustrated at what I was hearing, my patience tried and my ability to sleep impaired by my consternation at what I'd been hearing.
You see--and this is my second confession--as much as I was taken up by the story, I'm just not much of a fan, at the moment.
While Rowling is a skillful enough writer, equally capable of a graceful paragraph or a clunky string of sentences, her abilities as a stylist generally rise to the task she sets herself in describing the action of her story. But there are other issues: problems with plot and structure that I'd first encountered in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (more--and more in specific--to come later), are magnified in its immediate successor, leaving the reader at the end of the fourth book with several consecutive chapters of prolonged speechifying by newly-introduced (as opposed to familiar and integrated) characters. Further, these speeches, which form the substance of whole chapters, are delivered at a strong emotional pitch reflective of the dramatic weight they carry.
The effect--for me, at least--was overwhelming. As I lay in bed, waiting for the point at which I could turn off my ancient iPod and sleep on what I'd just heard, I was dragged from prose-aria to melodramatic prose-aria, from speech to overheated speech, from revelation taken on faith from figures I'd only just met to revisions of the action thus far that were necessary to accommodate the new information imparted in them. As I pulled out my earphones, I considered that everything I had read so far in this book--more than three-quarters of its bulk and nearly all of its action--had been kept from me, screened away by authorial device and the limitations of character and perspective. Much of what I'd assumed I'd known was false, or at least not completely true, and then suddenly was re-narrated into a different form, one in which meaning and import were now rearranged suddenly--and crudely: all of this new information was poured out immediately and--to at least one character and, as I considered it, to the reader--deceptively.
At times, this strategy, the last-chapter confession (as in the works of Agatha Christie, to whom Rowling owes much, and which will be considered later),is revelatory. But not here. There was no pleasant resolution of inconsistencies and restoration of order. The narrative stakes, including humiliated, tortured, then wounded (and eventually dying) children, during a sort of Witches' Sabbath, delivered a one-two punch. By the time I wandered downstairs to swallow half a Clonopin in search of forgetful rest, I was exercised and enervated, run out by the experience of the narrative.
At least as far as I have read, Rowling doesn't yet have a fluently developed authorial voice. Her descriptions are flat and demonstrative, especially in the beginning of the series, and the quality of her narration is often static and repetitious. Characters and actions are described in the same terms over and over again, and while that may not have been a problem in the fairly well-lit world of the first two books--novels which read simply and plainly, as if written for younger children--the next two volumes in the series cry out for a more subtle, better-managed instrument of revelation. Perhaps she will develop further as the series concludes, but here, in the saga's middle, the quality of the arrangement of the prose (no more than serviceable to get across the characters and their actions), can barely keep pace with a tale that is now growing beyond the adventure story she seemed to have set out to write.
On one hand, this is a problem with plot. Rowling has crammed the fourth book with so much action and incident, from the World Quiddich Cup to the Tri-Wizard Tournament to the return of Voldemort--which ought to take precedence, perhaps, because of its importance overall to the series--that the succession of events crowds out the development of dramatic tension, which then is restored, suddenly and at full throttle, to wrap things up at the end. But this is also, in all sympathy for a well-meaning author, an editorial problem. Someone seems to have needed to say to Rowling "This comes up sounding clotted and preachy just about here, just where you might want it to have the greatest dramatic impact. Let's see what we can do with the manuscript as a whole to see if it can be made to tell a smoother, surer story."
That was also true, to a less disturbing extent, with the previous book--but I'll discuss that later.
There are worse things than evidence of growth in a writer, but if Azkaban was recursive and clumsy in its structure, requiring a recap of several chapters to tie up the loose threads after the mysteries which began the story had been solved, then Goblet of Fire is a tangle: a story that starts with a demonic threat, features a trip to a World Quiddich Cup match that further darkens the sky over us--metaphorically and physically--then detours into an unexpected and often ethically-troubling quasi-athletic competition at Hogwarts, pauses for a Christmas Ball complete with romantic entanglements and complications (wholly appropriate to the action and the characters, but also things far removed from the characters' development in just the previous book), concludes the competition not in a clear-cut victory (which isn't always necessary, granted) but a sudden plunge back into the weightier issues of the overplot about Voldemort, and then--and only then--sorts out the events of the beginning and (the plot screams for mercy at this point) back-fills the story in a series of long, heavy-breathing exultations and confessions, complete with dead and wounded children as a plot devices. By the end of the second-to-last chapter, I was thoroughly exhausted and wondering why, with such stunning inconsistencies--in tone, plot, characterization (demonstrated and revealed), and narrative pace--anyone would hang around for a fifth book. As I said, it drove me to mild sedation.
So specifically with Harry, whom I left last night asleep from the effects of his own bedside sedative, having already that day won the Tri-Wizard Tournament, witnessed a harrowing scene of black magic, battled the Dark Lord, survived several murder attempts, endured the revelation that he'd been betrayed by a trusted professor, listened to a drugged minion 's lengthy confession, been cross-examined by his headmaster and then--and only then--given medical treatment for a grievous wound which had been sustained at the start of this whole farrago. He'd then been awakened unexpectedly by an infirmary-bedside argument among adults over, among other things his moral character, a consideration which set my teeth on edge. It had all the charm and narrative grace of a shouting match after a traffic accident--except that it wasn't about anything minor, but rather about a very major development that had been kept from us, as readers, while we'd been distracted by other events.
I'm wondering, this morning, if it's fair to ask if Rowling deserves our sympathy as she lands an ominously big story and wrestles it to a close for the sake of providing an ending, or our pity for biting off more than she and her editor could chew. There are so many levels of abuse here--of the characters, of authorial and narrative authority, of a well-meaning reader's patience and sympathy--that I stuck it out to the end of the chapter with increasing angst and then reached for the pill-bottle.
So I'm NOT beginning my consideration of the first book today. Instead, I'm going to take a nap, listen to that last chapter (who knows but that a saving grace is somewhere lurking around a corner, just up ahead: this is all about magic, after all), and consider where my interest lies. I will certainly discuss these third and fourth books, and their willfully odd and unsatisfying structures, in the future.
But now, a rest.