Friday, February 19, 2010

The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (the third one)

OK, let’s just get this out of the way right up front: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, like the Harry Potters before it and presumably the Harry Potters after it, an engaging children’s book that is fun for adults to read as well. And as several of you have energetically argued in recent history, it is perhaps not – shall we say – symmetrical to subject it to the M5K style of vaguely analytical review.

But, my friends, we are in the midst of a project here: I’m reading a list of books and talking about them the way I talk about books. And Harry is on that list. He is fictional, so I can do him no harm. If J.K. Rowling even became aware of my existence, I suppose it’s possible that she might shed a tear on the way to the bank. Or she could just have me killed. Perhaps by having someone drop a bag of her daily royalties checks on me. My point is, I can't hurt Harry Potter. He is invulnerable to the likes of me. So don't fret.

More of the Same

Occasional L&TM5K commenter ChuckDaddy has suggested that the repeated story arc of the Harry Potter series is among its strengths, and I am inclined to agree. Each of the three books so far, and as I understand it the remaining four as well, have the same essential structure. Harry undergoes unpleasant tribulations with his foster family before leaving for his singular “public school.” At school, there are a few minor personal entanglements involving him and his two best chums, and also an attempt – or a perceived attempt – by the powerful Dark Lord to kill Harry and, presumably, to lay waste to all humanity. Harry acts in foolish ways that expose everyone to horrible danger – although this is not really highlighted – and then performs a brave exploit to save the day. Also, there is Quiddich. And then the school year ends.

Now, this is a nice setup. Within this framework, the books function essentially as detective stories. There is always a central mystery, often involving one or more reversals of What We Thought Was Happening. As in a good mystery, we are given all sorts of little clues and strange incidents along the way, all of which turn out in the end to have been symptoms of whatever was really going on. Unlike in the best mysteries, the clues we are provided are never nearly enough so that we can intelligently speculate in advance. The revelations, when they come, are always a bit arbitrary. They don’t so much clear up the mystery as make us realize that incidents earlier in the book had more significance than they seemed to at the time.

Onward and Upward

Reading HP1 & HP2, I greatly admired Rowling’s prose style but complained of a lack of emotional variation. The latter did not register on me this time; either this aspect of her writing got better or I got into the groove of things a little better. Nor was I bothered by the thinness of the characterization any more; having established her central trio over two previous books, Rowling seemed to invest them with a touch more subtlety of behavior this time around.

One problem is still very much present, though. The plot of HP2, I wrote, “relies on the principal characters showing an almost pathological refusal to discuss obvious crises with the adults who have the power to make things better.” Same thing this time around. For much of the book, our friends have reason to believe that a powerful, malevolent figure is trying to get into their school in order to kill at least Harry and possibly the entire student body. Harry possesses a map that shows how this person would be able to pull it off. Yet he declines to tell any trusted adults – he has, by the way, excellent rapport with several benevolent and powerful grown-ups – because to do so would mean he could no longer sneak off to a candy shop. Are you kidding me? Dude is 13, not 5.

Other than this fairly glaring detail, the plotting continues to improve as the series ages. Sure, the revelations are still arbitrary, but what the heck. Prisoner of Azkaban ends well. There’s a neat little play on the time-loop gambit that brings things around to a satisfying conclusion and reestablishes the status quo. And then Harry goes home for the summer.

I Get It Already

So, yeah, like I said up top, the Harry Potter books are fun to read. I enjoyed Prisoner of Azkahban more than I enjoyed The Quiet American. I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoyed The Brothers Karamazov. But then, I enjoy popcorn more than salad. To notice the things that separate the Harry Potter books from great literature is not to damn them, although it is perhaps to put things in perspective.

All else notwithstanding, there are two specific aspects of the Harry Potter books that I personally find grating and that will continue to put an upper limit on my enthusiasm. The first is the character of Hagrid, a big blubberin’ sack o’ sentimental 'n' stupid. The second is quiddich, which is to the Harry Potter books what the history and practice of whaling are to Moby-Dick: long, boring, unnecessarily technical chapters that the books would be better off without. One man’s opinion.

The Reading List Continues

On Deck: Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

In the Hole: Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent


Rebel said...

I don't know what you were like as a teenager, but Harry's behavior is very much in line with my experience as a pre-teen / teenager.

And you say he has a "pathological refusal" to ask adults for help. But A. in book 1 the kids DO tell McGonagall, and Hagrid about their concerns and in each case they get a little pat on the head and told not to worry their heads about it. Their concerns are not addressed in any serious manner. It's understandable that they wouldn't be especially eager to go to adults again.
And B. Harry's upbringing doesn't exactly build any kind of trust towards adults.

So I don't see how you can call this issue 'problematic'... I mean, are you saying you don't *like* this aspect of the kids... or are you saying that it's unrealistic? Because if you just don't like it - fine... but it's a character trait that's well supported/explained by the overall plot & character development.

Ben said...

Good timing on your book review. We're playing the symphonic suite from this movie in our concert this weekend.

Kritkrat said...

Sniff... I wish I was reading HP for the first time.

sister jen said...

I missed the reviews of the first two HP books, so I was taken aback by this line: "Reading HP1 & HP2, I greatly admired Rowling’s prose style ..." You clearly did not have to read them out loud to someone. I sometimes couldn't get a grip on the damn sentences. I've always thought the books charming despite the pedestrian (and often clunky) writing--which improved for me by this one, book 3 (my favorite of all of them).

Yankee in England said...

I have to agree with Rebel's comments as well as point out that if you main adult figures up until the age of 11 had kept you in a broom cupboard under the stairs how willing would you be to trust adults. Couple this with the fact that Snape pretty much hates you for reasons I can't remember if they have come to light by the third book, and the fact that the wizarding population on a whole would like to belive that "He Who Must Not Be Named" is dead in the style of an osterich bearing its head in the sand and you too would question if it was worth bring up to an adult.

Jenners said...

I'm reading Interpreter of Maladies now too!!!

And I love the imagination of the Harry Potter books more than anything else. The little details and things she comes up with just made me love these books.

And I read that Rowling wrote each book to get progressively more grown-up as Harry grows up ... and I think that is probably true.