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Melville for Preteens

Dissecting the Harry Potter phenomenon

Reviewers and journalists were handed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at midnight on June 22, 2003. Many gobbled truckers’ pills and doused their scalps with black coffee in order to read and review all eight hundred pages by the morning edition. I picked up my copy a day late and only opened it two weeks later, but out of solidarity with my reviewing peers—and to get it over with quickly—I decided to read the book in one sitting and write an account of my progress.

Noon: Full of good intentions, I make tea and read the paper.

1 pm: I can’t put it off any longer—if I don’t start now, I’ll be up until dawn. It begins promisingly enough. Lots of action, a gloomier, angrier Harry. Then good wizards (from the Order of the Phoenix) arrive and spend an entire chapter introducing themselves and discussing how to get Harry to a safe house. Later, Harry meets up with Hermione and Ron and yells at them for the rest of the chapter, all in capital letters. This will be a long haul.

2:30 pm: Lord Voldemort is the wizard-Hitler now, apparently: “they thought Voldemort had the right idea, they were all for the purification of the wizarding race.” This could prove to be an interesting theme, or a stupid one. Certainly ironic, since all you have to do to get into Hogwarts is be born right; even little shits get in. I don’t deserve a break, but take one anyway.

3:30 pm: The kids finally board the train to Hogwarts. I can’t believe it took Rowling 166 pages to set the stage. Does anyone edit these books?

4 pm: I skip ahead and skim the last two chapters. Harry’s godfather, the outlaw wizard Sirius Black, dies in battle. Dumbledore takes an entire chapter to tell Harry that he, Harry, is connected to Lord Voldemort in some mysterious fashion—something we already knew from the second book.

I go back to page 216, which includes a nice bit of satire on new educational philosophies. The new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor (the toadlike Umbridge) will not be teaching students actual spells, but rather “placing the use of defensive magic in a context for practical use.”

5 pm: In Rowling’s world, magic is just a tool, an invisible technology. It has no spiritual dimension. I’d love to see someone use it for something other than, say, setting the table.

5:30 pm: Page 250. There is often a moment, as a reviewer, when I start thinking of all the things I would rather be doing, all the books I would rather be reading. That moment has come. And my back keeps sticking to the couch.

6:30 pm: Rowling has no sense of pacing. Each scene has the same weight, so that only in retrospect can you figure out which were important and which just water-treading. Dialogue is another glaring weakness, which she seems determined to make up for by filling the book with it. On page 373, Hagrid says something “firmly,” then the same thing “repressively.” “Repressively”?

6:45 pm: It wasn’t always like this with Potter: the first two books were a breeze—fun, charming little mysteries with lots of wand-waving and English humour. My Potter-loving five-year-old son’s disturbingly long attention span pushed my wife and I into three- and four-chapter marathons. In the third book, the story got slightly darker, filling in the less savoury parts of Harry’s history. But by the fourth Rowling began to believe she really was the rightful heir to Tolkien—that she hadn’t simply written some cute, lightweight stories, but had created a world.

And so she went long. Six hundred pages long. Instead of tidy plot twists, we had an aimless series of “Harry only” tasks, forcing all of the interesting characters into the background. Everything took forever to happen; and when something did, we got it in excruciating detail. The strength of the first three Potter books was their tight storytelling; in the fourth, Rowling came on like Melville for preteens. I picture Rowling’s editors at Bloomsbury fast asleep beside a series of switches, lulled by her massive sales.

7:30 pm: Page 390—halfway there. I am certain that my son is not going to like this one. I may try The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), recommended by a friend. It’s about a young orphan who goes to stay with his wizard uncle, and who must foil the plan of an evil wizard … wait a minute.

9 pm: Man, there’s a lot of vomiting in this book.

The films have begun to infect Rowling’s writing. Some of the late Richard Harris’ mannerisms are reproduced verbatim in descriptions of Albus Dumbledore, the character he played in the Potter films (Harris’ last two, sadly). The book also has sequel-itis. Ron actually says the dread words, about Hermione, “I hate it when she does that.” The books are becoming self-aware, to no special effect.

I stop for dinner, and call my wife at the cottage where she and my son are staying for the week. She asks why I sound so depressed.

10 pm: Harry becomes Voldemort in a dream, but it’s one of the flattest scenes in the book. Umbridge has taken over Hogwarts, and even has her own band of brownshirts—“New Head, new times,” says Draco Malfoy, Harry’s student nemesis.

Midnight: Page 608. I start to skim ever more intensely. I am now reading about half of each page—less if it’s all dialogue. Somewhere within this bloat, there lurks a perfectly good three-hundred-page story. How Rowling came to believe she needed eight hundred pages to tell it betrays a truly dark curse: vanity.

1 am: The climax of the book: a magic wand shootout involving a half-dozen wizards. The fight takes place in the Ministry of Magic, and one lightning blast overturns the security guard’s desk. The security guard’s desk? This is the best thing a race of wizards and witches could come up with to protect their ministry, a rent-a-cop?

Sirius Black dies, Voldemort is sort of defeated yet again, Umbridge is run off, and the boy-wizard goes back to his uncle’s house.

I feel as if I had just spent the last twelve hours on a bus that stopped in every town and village, whether there were passengers waiting or not. Worse, if I cannot convince my son to wait a few years and read it himself, I am doomed to repeat the experience.