Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (the first one)
Orphan boy from abusive home discovers that he is a powerful wizard and is taken away to a special school for magic, yadda yadda yadda.
I have mentioned before in this series my homegrown concept of “viscosity,” the extent to which writing puts up a fight against the reader. Viscous prose, regardless of its merit, is hard to read. J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and setting are jolly enough, and often rather engaging, but what compels you forward is less a sense of “I must read another chapter!” than “Why not read another chapter?” In Sorcerer’s Stone, reading is so effortless as to require no real investment.
This ultralow viscosity goes a long way toward explaining why the Potter books have been so often lugged about by children who weigh less than they do. What I have not figured out – the most magical aspect of the books, for sure – is how Rowlings does it. I hope that there are teams of applied linguists, rhetoriticians, grammarians, and what? epistomologists? studying her work. Her mastery of language at the sentence level is something to behold.
I would also concur with literary critic Dad5000, however, that “there’s something jumpy about the style.” Rowling’s pacing is in fact all over the map. Critical episodes are often dispensed with in a few short sentences, while kid-friendly banalities (odd candies, quidditch) get a disproportionate share of attention. After the opening chapters – the best written of the book – there is seldom time for anything like suspense or description, as the characters merely careen from crisis to crisis.
Every crisis, moreover, is presented with a uniform emotional weight, regardless of whether it is a matter of jockeying for adolescent social status, a matter of life and death, or part of an epic struggle between good and evil. Doubtless this kid’s-eye-view lack of perspective is part of what has made the series so popular among children. But is it writing that is well crafted for its intended audience, or is it just pandering? You be the judge.
The Characters (such as they are)
Characterization is easily the greatest weakness in Sorcerer’s Stone, to the extent that it exists at all. There are basically five characters who are anything more than scenery or plot machinery. We are shown very little about any of them through their decisions or dialogue, and what we are shown often contradicts what we are told about them.
Malfoy : A petty bully, Malfoy is a child who makes mocking comments to his schoolfellows, may or may not indulge in petty theft, and occasionally shoves someone. You are familiar with the type – indeed, you may well have been the type, as this is the profile of an extremely common sort of unhappy child. The text, however, treats the lad as an embodiment of malice and evil. Rowlings is, moreover, at pains that we should dislike him because of his family background: he is, unforgivably, well off.
Hermione: What we are shown in Hermione is a child who is hard-working, intelligent, outgoing, respectful, and charitable. What we are told, for the first half of the book anyway, is that she is an insufferable prig. The other characters treat her with unabashed resentment. Then they stop. It’s weird.
Hagrid: We are meant to see Hagrid, a employee of the school of magic, as a bumbling but essentially virtuous and trustworthy adult who is especially good with kids. He is certainly bumbling. He is in fact so guileless around children, whose lives he routinely jeopardizes through egregiously foolish actions and by spouting highly sensitive information to them, as to suggest a fairly serious IQ deficit. He seems oblivious to the need for even the most basic rules in an institution entrusted with the lives of children. Parents: if your local school employs a warm, avuncular figure of Hagrid’s type, have your attorney contact the school board and keep the kids home until everyone connected with the hiring decision has been sacked.
Ron/Harry: Certainly the weirdest thing about this first “Harry Potter” book is the lack of any meaningful Harry Potter. He is the cipher at the center of the story, a boy with no apparent personality whatsoever. Again, I don’t know if this is an intentional aspect of this piece of children’s literature – a point-of-view character left essentially blank so that the child reader can project him or herself into the void? If so, it’s nicely done. If not, it’s a rather glaring missing piece of the story.
In so much as he exists at all, Harry is crafted of the same basic stuff as his pal Ron. A great deal of emphasis is put on their poverty and humble home lives, which is clearly meant to ennoble them. They also frequently exhibit the virtues of cleverness and bravery. On the other hand, they are also shown to have the emotional self-control of toddlers. Prideful and subject to hair-trigger sensitivity, they let Malfoy play them like a pair of fiddles, frequently returning words with blows like the worst kind of fool. They have a casual contempt for the rules of their school and the instructions of their elders that borders on the pathological. They are, finally, indifferent students, wanting the power and pleasure of magic but sullen about having to work for it. It is in a sense fortunate that these young men are not better realized as characters, as the little we are shown about them is far from flattering.
Everything negative that I have pointed out above could be said to come from the same source: the need to set up an alternative reality and set a complex plot in motion, all in a shorthand form that renders it compact enough for a child reader. A simpler plot would have left room for better pacing and characterization. The alternative, a longer book, would not have been realistic for a children’s book by a first time author at the time Sorcerer’s Stone was written. What I am curious to see, as I venture towards the thicker books of the series, is this: do the chapter-level elements of the writing improve as Rowling is given more room to work with and is relieved of the need to establish first principles? Or, does she expand the complexity of the plot to fit the available real estate? No doubt you, gentle reader, already know the answer to this question. I, eventually, will find out.