Friday, January 4, 2008

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

Here is a collection of random thoughts concerning JK Rowling's second Harry Potter novel:

Style: The writing in The Chamber of Secrets is light years ahead of The Sorcerer's Stone, regrettably still light years behind the rest of modern literature. All the complaints I had still, for the most part, hold true, especially the thing about how when people shout Rowling renders it in all caps. Lord, that bugs me. But hey, I know, people are tired of hearing this--"I don't read Harry Potter for the prose," they say, and besides, at least it's not "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery." But moreover, I find that the two Potter books I've read lack something in particular that the films capture quite nicely: a sense of atmosphere. Half the thrill of the Harry Potter films is the long shots of Hogwarts overlooking the moor, or those labyrinthine, half-lit set pieces and chaotic, whimsical shots of Diagon Alley and the Ministry of Magic. I mean, isn't that grandeur what really makes fantasy films so fun? The plot to Lord of the Rings is really kind of stupid, but, my God, Minis Tirith and Helm's Deep look freaking awesome when you put them in a movie. The Potter books, however, are shockingly thin on description and exposition. Much of this, I'm sure, comes from my over-familiarity with the films in relation to the books, but throughout Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I found myself really missing the way the films draw you in to the Hogwarts world.

Plot (warning, contains spoilers): Okay, so a riveting plot is what you really want in a Harry Potter book. But Rowling doesn't exactly overwhelm there, either: All that stuff with Dobby the House Elf? Useless, and ultimately, nonsensical. Exactly when does a de facto slave find the time to go to London and harass a young wizard in the Muggle world? And why, exactly, does he give two shits? And how does he know where Harry lives? And then there's the way the Basilisk freezes people, but can't seem to look them straight in the eye--one time it's spotted in a reflection, another time in a camera, and another in a mirror--what kind of incompetent creature is this, really? This is an awfully contrived plot point, one which I suspect Rowling uses in order to stave off the reality of death at Hogwarts--which, I think, doesn't occur until Cedric Diggery's death in the fourth book. All that's part of the way the books get progressively darker and more mature, which I like, but holy crap the implementation of it is goofy. Oh, and being saved by the phoenix' tears: Come on. Worst deux ex machina device ever. Also: Basilisks and spiders are natural enemies. WTF.

Racism: I don't want you to think that I didn't like this book, in fact, I did--most of the time. One of the things I like best about the book is the idea that the wizard world is pervaded by its own peculiar brand of racism: against Muggles and, worse, "mudbloods." The purist ideals of Lucius Malfoy reflect similar ideas that still exist in our own world, and shaped much of modern history up until the second half of the 20th century (when I think that the Civil Rights Movement didn't happen until the 1950's and 60's, it blows my mind). And of course, it makes a lot of sense that wizards and witches, with their own peculiar abilities, would be susceptible to a sense of entitlement and superiority over Muggles. While much of the way Rowling depicts Wizard-Muggle relations rings fairly false, the struggle with anti-Mugglism is especially effective.

Harry and Voldemort: "We're the same, you and I," says the supervillain to the superhero just as the superhero finally has him on the ropes, making one last psychological attempt at seducing the superhero to join a life of evil. There's a reason this trope is so cliched: One of the things we fear most is seeing ourselves in our enemies. Interpersonal struggles become mental ones; we fight to overcome not only external demons but internal ones. Rowling's explanation for Harry Potter being a parselmouth (another idea I rather liked) and for almost being placed in Slytherin is severely disappointing: A piece of Voldemort's soul was planted in Harry during their confrontation in the crib. Wouldn't it be much better if those things were a part of Harry's natural psyche? (Don't the later books show his father carrying a little bit of a cruel streak?) The element of unsurety still lurks--there is always the possibility that Harry, with all his promise and power, will follow Tom Riddle's path--but this offhand explanation makes it all seem awfully artificial. I do, however, like Dumbledore's explanation to Harry about why he was not put in Slytherin: Because he begged not to be, and it is choice--not necessarily our internal dispositions--that matter in evaluating our character.

Bonus complaint: Why does Hogwarts have one house that clearly produces nothing but evil? Is this necessary? Do they have one at Eton?

Bonus bonus complaint: Why doesn't Harry do something about the dickish way that Dobby rules Russia?


All right, thanks everyone for letting me spoil your fun. Check back in a week or two and I'll ruin the third book for you.

9 comments:

Christopher said...

Please everyone read the alt-text. It took me twenty minutes to figure out how to do that.

Nihil Novum said...

I read it. Does it take longer to read the books or write the reviews?

Christopher said...

In Soviet Russia, book read you!

Carlton said...

What do you mean by "alt-text"?
I was kind of annoyed by the classim/racism exhibited toward the house elves. It seemed like Rowling was kind of beating you over the head with it. I guess it is a kids book.

Carlton said...

Also...more like Harry Pothead and the Chamber of Bong Hits.

Christopher said...

The alt text on the picture of Dobby and Putin. Hover man, hover!

Christopher said...

Also, don't the Weasleys have a house elf? It's strange that the wizard world basically has a form of legal slavery.

Nihil Novum said...

I think the house-elf-as-slave thing sort of goes out the window in book five when we learn that most of the elves resent Hermione's attempts to free them.

Christopher said...

Well, Dobby sure is a dick about it then.