Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Warning: Contains Spoilers

 Spoiler: When someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own.

*discussions of art media such as video games, movies, etc. especially vulnerable.

It turns out that my wife (who blogs about food here) has not been reading Hourman. She is worried that I have given away the end of The Hunger Games, which has been collecting dust on her nightstand for two weeks.

Yet is it really possible to give away the end of The Hunger Games?  Once you read the back cover, or see a commercial for the movie, or have any idea what it’s about (hunger; also, games; possibly vice versa), and once you know that it’s part of a trilogy (see: inside cover) it seems impossible to give too much away, since it’s highly unlikely that Katniss can possibly be killed in the book.  What do you think this is [Spoiler alert!], Game of Thrones?

But thanks to the Internet, we live in a perpetual No Spoiler culture, where the worst thing a website, blog, critic, or writer can do is reveal an important plot detail or, God forbid, the ending.

The issue, for me, is twofold.

First, time does not exist online.  Not in the timesuck sense of murdering an hour on Facebook or, for me, looking longingly at lovely Les Pauls on Ebay, but rather in the contextless void of cyberspace, where all people, living or dead, and all music and video simultaneously coexist. Abba to Zappa, Beatles and Bach and Beck, are all just keywords, timeless—in the not necessarily classic sense. 

Music doesn’t have spoilers, though.  Yet with movies, there is no longer a statute of limitations for how long someone is supposed to wait before you’re Allowed to Talk about Fight Club, since it will always be brand new, eternally, online, to someone, somewhere.  In other words, online writing, in its perpetual present, is expected to maintain the rhetoric of old media newspaper movie reviews, which essentially summarize the premise, or roughly the first act of a movie, with a little subjective commentary about whether the reader should see the movie or not, preferably with 1-5 stars as an EZ guideline.

This is very different from critical writing, college writing, and academic writing, where the presumed audience is someone who has (likely) read the book or seen the film in question and is interested in analysis, not a recommendation—and who already knows the twists and details.  ‘Cause the thing is, I need to be able to discuss the work in its entirety to discuss it at all.  The difference between The Lion King and Hamlet is the difference between the wayward Prince reclaiming his betrothed and kingdom, vs. everybody dying horribly.  Possibly also: singing animals and fart jokes.

But this ethos contradicts the internet rule of No Spoilers, as seen here by one Amazon.com review, about—surprise!—a collection of critical essays on Fight Club:

 This review is from: You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection (Smart Pop series) (Paperback)

I love Fight Club in both book and movie form and I love the fact that the story makes you think. So picking this book up seemed like a must for any Fight Club/Chuck Palahniuk fan.

I’m only two essays into it and my interest is already losing traction. The first essay was painfully overwritten considering the context of the book and the audience who will probably be reading it. If you don’t have your dictionary and a good understanding of philosophy both basic and advanced, you’ll probably struggle through it hoping the book gets better as I did (it does). Long, complex sentence structures, insane words and hybrid words I recognized but didn’t know the meaning of and philosophy references that I had never heard before all conspired to ruin this first essay for me rather quickly.

Another major complaint I have–again with the first essay since I’ve only read two so far–is that there is no spoiler alert at the start of the essay. Well let me just warn you now, the first contributing essay will ruin a good majority of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels if you haven’t already read them. The author goes off endlessly and in detail about his theories on Chuck’s other books, describing in detail certain aspects of the story and the book’s overall outcome. So annoying trying to skip over stuff that seemed spoiler in nature. I haven’t read Chuck’s other books yet and now I don’t need to; the surprise is ruined.

The “first essay” in question was written by me.  And I didn’t realize the possibility that what I was writing was “spoiler in nature.” I thought I was writing about books.

Leaving aside that this reviewer thinks it’s a problem to read an essay that uses words and philosophical references that he has “never heard of before” (JFGI, kid), I turn to the second issue: the No Spoiler fetish overemphasizes the importance of plot. 

OK, maybe in fairness to my Amazon detractor, with a Chuck Palahniuk or an M. Night Shyamalan or a Quentin Tarantino—people who traffic specifically in the twist ending—you don’t want to know that at the end of Fight Club oirjrnjnriwbecbwqhjbediuwrenrfnewroin. Or at the end of The Sixth Sense it turns out that Bruce Willis’s character wfnwenfrewijgtmhoiweb, or at the end of Unbreakable, Bruce Willis’s character learns that lkjsfrohjdeoifhqwiuewqnbe, or at the chronological end but narrative middle of Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis’s character oiewhfiunewicnbewfndekjwncen. These movies, like Bruce Willis, have been out for decades. 

At what point is it safe to declare a Spoiler moratorium? 

The thing is, there are many, many reasons to read or watch a story aside from the stuff that happens.  If anything, Palahniuk’s, Shymalan’s, and Tarantino’s best work transcend plot entirely and enter into the much more interesting realms of style, voice, and narrative structure, aspects of storytelling that, like sweet, sweet honey, naturally resist spoilage.  If all anyone wants is plot summary, go read Cliff’s Notes.  Or if that’s too long, the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes, Wikipedia.  If someone likes an author, even the most egregious spoilers shouldn’t actually ruin (the word used twice in the review) much of anything.      

I’m a fun guy, so, let’s play mold to film’s gentle bread and spoil some endings, shall we?

Harry Potter series: the good guys win

Lord of the Rings: good guys win

Star Wars: good guys win

Titanic: boat sinks

Now, maybe this is too glib. After all, I suppose it’s the particular details of the plot, not the overall trajectory or ending, that rankles the Spoiler-sports (Alternate names for people who want to stop spoilers: the Refrigerators? The Tupperwares? Or are these just terrible band names?).  For example, in Titanic, it’s not the boat, it’s that [Spoiler alert, despite that it’s the second highest grossing movie of all time] Jack dies; in Harry Potter [Spoiler alert, even though it’s the bestselling book series and third highest grossing movie of all time], the epilogue flashes forward to a future where Harry and Ginny are sending their bully magnet-named son Albus Severus to Hogwarts; in LoTR [Spoiler alert, even though—ah forget it], Frodo destroys the ring but is altered by the experience and can’t go back home; in The Empire Strikes Back [oh no he di’n’t], Luke is revealed to be Darth Vader’s son. 

Once Target shirts have spoilers, the secret's out

I’ll go one further: I don’t like surprises.  Let’s hear two cheers for spoilers.  Once you’re free from the filmic tyranny of What’s Going to Happen?!?, you can actually sit back and enjoy the show. 

As everyone knows, “spoil” can mean ruin.

But it also means “indulge.”

Time: 55 minutes  

 Jesse Kavadlo

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Bedtime Stories After the End of the World (Ages 12 and under)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Liposuction

The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.

Owl

Katniss, please don't shoot and eat me

The fall fascinates me.  Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians.  There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual  closet.  There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream.  The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life.  Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.    

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End.  Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril.  Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Everybody's Dead

But the newer books are different.  They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man,  Mad Max.  Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens.  (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”)  If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order.  But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?

I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies.  It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment.  In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us.  You want to do what you want?  You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.  

The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone.  And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues.  But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is.  There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision.  No accident, no separation.  The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up.  And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia.   It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:

Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:

And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated.  In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize.  Isn’t high school  a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals?   Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well.  Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo.  The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.  

It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark.  But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off.  After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much:  “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).  

 And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker. 

 

Huh. They really do get darker.

But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future.  Adults, not so much.  They’re the problem.

There’s your wish fulfillment.  And your fear.

 

Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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No Gym Lockers to Narnia

Lev Grossman during our Skype session. Forget the wizards of Hogwarts–he’s the Wizard of Oz.

High school gym had a lot of rules.  Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:

“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”    

“If yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot.  If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late.  Yuh late, counts as a cut.  Yuh cut, yuh fail.”

And so on.  Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies.  And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports.  So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.

Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago.  Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth.  The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place.  There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.

This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class.  And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.

If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should.  Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.”  They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that.  Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?”  “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc).  But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity.  Grossman does.  I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely. 

And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.    

For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out.  First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection.  At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .

This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers.  Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations. 

Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth.  All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail.  If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.

In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers.  And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading.  Reading for school can take the fun out of it.  And he’s right.  The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience.  I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform.  Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world.   Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later.  When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced.  (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry).  Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest.  But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it.  At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.

Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love.   Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.

It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books.  Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories.  It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them.  Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning.  You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions.    Literature, like life, is better than that. 

Gym is not.

 

Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.

Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.”  More on why.   

UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/

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