Monday, July 18, 2005

There's a hundred million HP6 reviews out there by now, and I never really planned to contribute to them, although it was fascinating to hear just how global a phenomenon the books have become, putting literature firmly in the 'entertainment industry' in terms of revenue, reach, celebrity, and media coverage. This site is supposed to be dedicated to the lost and the obscure - but also to the delirious madness of reading, and Pottermania counts. Especially if - like me - you work in a bookstore. A bookstore that decided to have its annual Customer Appreciation bbq (yes, we really rock) on the day that HP6 launched. Harry Potter even graced us with his presence. There was a short reading (not by Harry Potter, but by emerging local fantasy author Daniel Justice). And there were the customers, all with their own Potter stories, Potter tics, Potter plans. Me? I reckoned I'd wait until a sick day in November, and then lie in bed and read the whole thing over some boiled eggs or soup. The books are like comfort food to me - heavy, not bad for you but maybe not so great, familiar, and satisfying without ever being incredibly delicious. I think Rowling has an amazing fund of inventiveness when it comes to detail (names, magic gags, buildings, character quirks - like Mr. Weazley's fascination with all things Muggle) but she sweats the big stuff (prose style, character development, narrative clarity). Not everyone has to be Henry James - although fantasy shares James' preoccupation with the minutiae of what characters eat and what the furniture looks like. World-building. All good. After selling so many of the damn bricks, I got caught up in the fever (also, I'd been working for nine hours and it was very hot, so I may have had heatstroke), and decided to buy it and read straight through. Five hours later I was wearier, warmer, and slightly teary from a well-managed climax (hardly an ending) that had the Chinese food effect: satisfied but hungry for more.
Except there's something very weird in the magic world on the other side of The Leaky Cauldron. Many reviewers have noted that HP6 'develops' its now-adolescent characters by having them engage in snogging. Fair enough, it's a main constituent of being a teenager (along with drinking weird potions, obviously), but Rowling's descriptions of both the physical and emotional relationship between Ron and (look away, spoiler) Lavender - as well as between Ron's older brother Bill and Fleur Delacour - are full of queasy images of disgust and violence. Harry's desire for (look away) Ginny is figured as a monster that lives in his chest - which makes his feelings less, rather than more, convincing. I think back to the faraway days of HP5, in which Harry stared moodily into fireplaces and tossed and turned in his sleep waiting for a message from Sirius... who always seemed to be on the verge of telling Harry something, every time they were together, and then - someone else would burst in.
The passion of Harry's feelings for Sirius was unmistakable (to me, anyhow), and fitted in with the curious evolving backstory about Harry's father and his gang of male chums, who liked to turn into animals and sneak off for all-night carousing. One of them, Remus Lupin, becomes a teacher at Hogwarts and... disappears every so often, returning with the signs of a hell-raising night out all over his face. As played by David Thewlis in the tremendous film version of HP3, Lupin is Harry's first grown-up friend, someone who understands Harry's isolation, the special challenges he faces. At the same time, in the film, romance is burgeoning between Ron and Hermione. And then - after an unfortunate night in a house of ill-repute - Lupin's cover is blown, parents are horrified, threats are made. It's a resonant conclusion for anyone who knows schools, and the precarious position of teachers who have to juggle a private life with a medley of restrictions such as... oh, say, don't be gay. Mrs. Thatcher's fear of queers legislation, Section 28, which banned any teaching that addressed homosexuality, lies behind Rowling's gentle werewolf and his fate, to my mind.
And then there's the rest of the Order of the Phoenix - Tonks, in particular. Now, not every tomboy who doesn't want to be called Nymphomaniac and dyes her hair pink and does magic kung-fu is a dyke. Not even every tomboy etc. who names herself after a toy truck. But what the hell is one to make of Tonks' sudden confession of love for Lupin in HP6? (Ooops, spoiler). It has to be the least convincing note in a book that has its share of unconvincing hetero muzak, such as all the girls at Hogwarts suddenly becoming silly gigglers who make eyes at Harry (except Luna, who is mad, and Hermione, who keeps giving him meaningful looks about something). The only sensible XX in the whole thing is Professor McGonagall (the lovely dykey flying teacher appears to have left to set up a coven in Cornwall or something). And she's called Minerva.
So I'm peeved - perhaps unfairly - at the boy-on-girl action that pervades HP6. It's not like it wasn't obviously going to happen. It's just that... a girl can hope. Harry's relationship with Sirius was the best-drawn of the series (as far as his relationship with adults goes), and Hermione suggests that Rowling doesn't think that all girls are eyelash-fluttering spazzes. As for my theory about Voldemort's Dark Side being the sort of loveless self-hating queerness that straight people attribute to serial killers in 1950s movies, while Lupin and Sirius represent a more integrated homosociality (that has brushed the Dark Side)... I think that's waiting for someone else's Ph.D. thesis.

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