The Broom of the System

Give 'Em Hell, Harry!

Don't buy it! It fellates! No, actually there's nothing at all wrong with the new, better-tasting, sold-by-weight-not-volume fifth installment of the Greatest Story Ever Sold, but that won't cork up the obligatory grousing you'll hear, amid the otherwise universal scat-nosed adulation, from obstreperous critics reflexively clubbing Dame Rowling's world-gratifying achievement simply because it's, well, world gratifying. A pox on their ancestors! Anyway, the sheer amount of pulped first-printing trees, Amazon pre-orders, ancillary profit, and mass anticipation has become an unprecedented media code red—who needs a review? The hype is its own aversion therapy.

Suffice it to say that Rowling's catalectic narrative system, bristling anew with proto-Oedipal exigencies, scans as an atavistic mythopoeia in which primal signs suggest a Kantian critique of technocratic reason . . . Ha! Havin' you on! Don't buy it! It fellates! Or does it? Defending itself against the dog-pissing of naysayers with a concrete-pyloned electric fence of unshakable adolescent and pre-adolescent ardor, the HP saga is beyond critique, positive or otherwise. Evaluating Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as if it were merely a regular book would not be unlike questioning, simultaneously, the humanity of the Psalms and the efficacy of Legos.

But we all know that, Rowling knows that (even if she had no such notion six long years ago, before the eagle screamed), and certainly the dozens of corporations fielding billions of bucks in her wake know that too. But now that the Potteriad has surpassed Henry Miller's The Rosy Crucifixion in length (but must await Book 6 to surpass War and Peace) and has sold seven times as many books as Gone With the Wind (R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series did that a few years ago, too—passed the 200 million sold mark—but it took him 80 books to get there), shouldn't the lit police be called to duty?

Rough magic: Potterites clutch tomes at the Lincoln Center B&N at midnight on Friday.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Rough magic: Potterites clutch tomes at the Lincoln Center B&N at midnight on Friday.

Or should they? Can hundreds of millions of fiction readers be wrong? Rowling hasn't yet written an ungraceful sentence—call it faint praise you can't hand to Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or Patricia Cornwell—and her often nasty epic has evolved nicely with the growing fuzz on Harry's scrotum. Can you say über-fucking-bildungsroman? (Pull-quote!) The new volume, documenting Harry's fifth year in wizard training, also sees a 15-year-old Harry prone to hormonal anger fits, mad teenage-crush self-pity, and a keen sense of being the whipping post for the universe's every burp of injustice.

That he's largely correct in that view doesn't temper the angst a bit. The tart, Dickensian feeling of an obscurantist adult world that may or may not know what it is doing, and may/may not operate by a reliable moral compass, is familiar and thankfully consistent as Harry ages—as Rowling's grown-up readers know, life gets no more explicable with time. Still spending summers suffering the Dursleys and anticipating the newest manifestation of evil bastard Lord Voldemort, Harry sets a new ball in motion by battling—in the streets of Muggle-ville—a pair of Dementors who've apparently defected from Azkaban, using illegal magic and thereby initiating a Ministry of Magic power struggle that precipitates the organization, by Dumbledore, of the titular ad hoc Order of wizards, dedicated to combating the big V-guy despite the ministry's official disassociation . . .

Non-Potterians will understand they are not welcome in this discussion; go back to the end of the line and fetch a remaindered copy of Book 1. Or don't. (With a much ballyhooed, nearly 9 million-book first print run, can you imagine the used-bookstore glut of Phoenixcopies come 2004?) Initiates will find their very thick loaf of thin bread amply buttered. Rowling's inventiveness shows no sign of waning (Phoenix naturally features a nasty new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, a job as hazard-prone as being Spinal Tap's drummer), and the straight-faced irony of boarding school exams, detention, curfews, etc., intermingled with life-and-death sorcery politics is still remarkably seamless. What isn't so subtle—but who can kvetch?—is the ongoing comment on white-supremacist racism, as the ostensibly purebred and pernicious Malfoy clan endeavors to purge the realm of "mudbloods." For the almost completely Anglo-Saxon denizens of Hogwarts, it remains a matter of discomfiting concern, particularly since wizards are already a secret breed self-disenfranchised from the human world. The muddled subtext depends on who you are and how you read it.

Rowling does fashion some lovely things—the minute-by-minute assault of owl-delivered messages Harry receives in the Dursley kitchen, detailing the Ministry's vacillating stance on his transgressions, or, in the first book, the Mirror of Erised, in which Harry sees his long-dead parents, and which, Dumbledore explains, "shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. . . . This mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it." Television and film have rarely been keelhauled so beautifully; if only Rowling gave as much space and rumination to such resonating ideas as she gives to Quidditch play-by-play and metaphysical exposition.

But that might hurt sales. Lovely literacy phenom or not, Rowling's books are virtually 100 percent cliché and cliché byproducts; even beyond the obvious Grimm and Tolkien gyps, is it petulant to note Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) as a recent source tapped dry? Originality is overrated, it seems, particularly when you're appealing to the madness of crowds. Who can fail to be queased out by our own single-mindedness, marching together with the collective resolve of driver ants to consume units of juvenile distraction culture?

Rowling may be the authoress of these modest tomes, and the marketers may have hawked them, but we are the sole creators of the Harry Potter storm head, whose only equivalent in the last few centuries—remember, hundreds of millions of self-motivated readers—has been religion. We may well ask why, why these books, why this spectacle of mass entrancement: Apprentice wizards? Jeez, on brooms? At a magic school? With centaurs, goblins, elves? Perhaps the fearful, deep-eyed Christian psychos are right after all: The HP wave is best understood as a sincere, easy-reading expression of the essential failure of modern organized faith. Rowling's magic mountain boils down to an isolated narrative path where you don't have to die first to witness or even wield "magic" forces, where palpable pagan innocence is a ruling principle, and where instinct is a virtue. It's as old as the hills of Avalon, but it has unarguably answered a call of collective-unconscious desideration, right now. Resistance to the onslaught isn't futile by any means, but resentment might be. For a generation of children, at least, the brain-branded, self-posing question of the future will be, What Would Harry Do?

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