Sunday, July 13, 2003

On Jerry Springer: "I'm Pregnant Because My House Elf Lover Is Using Flobberworms as Condoms!"


So, sometime in the past 48 hours, I finished JK Rowling's latest volume of hospital erotica, Harry Potter and the Orderly from Phoenix. No, wait-- ah, hell, YOU know the title. The damn book was ranked #1 on the booklist even before it came out, thanks to the miracle of pre-ordering, so EVERYONE knows the title.

What can I say? Fan-damn-tastic. It was easily the most emotionally compelling of all the Potter books. I think Rowling's improving with age. She knows how to weave multiple subplots together, and keeps close track of issues that need resolving, as well as issues that need to remain unresolved. Hats off to Rowling for making me lose sleep and neglect Korean study.

I'm left with some nagging questions, though. Here's one. How do you fry a fire-breathing chicken? Is it self-frying if you can make it suicidally depressed?

Book 5 is not entirely for kids. Rowling has been toying with the theme of child abuse since the first Potter book, but here we have an actual scene of Harry being tortured (cf. the skin-flaying quill). The scene is carried off gracefully and, uh, tastefully, but it still left me unsettled (friends of mine agree on this point). And there are more important reasons why Book 5 is for an older crowd. First, I don't think 9-year-old newbies are going to understand the significance of all the plotting and politicking. Harry is beginning to face a wide world of adult realities, and is discovering that his role models (including his father) aren't always what he thought they were. Second, Harry's relationships with his loved ones, friends, teachers, and acquaintances all take a turn for the complex, which is only natural when you're fifteen. From the Book 5 American edition's cover art to the contents within, the world of Harry Potter is now being painted in subtle colors.

So Harry's growing up. Rowling doesn't deal with a lot of the phenomena afflicting 15-year-old boys, like armpit odor, mustaches, pubic thatch maintenance, random and uncontrollable boners while fantasizing about the cute girl three seats down, or any of the other juicy changes that make being 15 simultaneously heavenly and hellish (it might have been interesting to depict wizard porn, since photographs move in the wizarding world... hee hee). Instead, Rowling's focus is on Harry's mounting anger and resentment.

Harry shouts a lot. He throws stuff. Many of these tantrums are directed at the people he loves. In the meantime, he's got Ordinary Wizarding Level exams to worry about, as well as the prospect of getting it on-- platonically, I mean-- with Cho Chang, the possibly-Korean cutie from Books 3 and 4 (shout-out to mah PEEPS!, but that's a weird name for a Korean, JK) who provides Harry with a glorious moment he describes to his friends as "wet." Heh. We don't find out whether Harry's voice is changing and whether puberty-related vocal tremors can affect your spellcasting ability, but I found that I didn't mind not knowing.

Harry's closest friends, Ron and Hermione, get some golden moments in this book as well-- Hermione perhaps more than Ron. Poor Ron, who decides to try out for the Quidditch team as Keeper (i.e., goalie to you Muggles), quickly discovers that he may have made a mistake, but has a personal victory of sorts near the end. Hermione, the trio's Voice of Reason, gets some of the most delicious scenes involving Hogwarts School's newest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Yes, the new teacher. This year, the Hogwarts students have to face Dolores Umbridge, a high-voiced, falsely cheerful, hideously ugly woman who obviously keeps a large array of charmed dildos in her faculty office drawer ("Stay away from those! Bad Dobby!"). Dolores is a functionary from the Ministry of Magic, an organization that, as you'll recall from the previous books, has been trying to give Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts' Headmaster and resident Jedi Master, a magic wand enema. In Book 5, the Ministry comes to the fore. Umbridge is installed at Hogwarts as the new DADA teacher, but she will teach only the Ministry-approved theory course-- no actual magic is to be practiced in class. Along with the relentless articles from the wizard rag called The Daily Prophet and the pronouncements emanating from the Ministry, Umbridge (who we are told resembles a toad) is given the task of discrediting Harry, Dumbledore, and anyone else who believes that Lord Voldemort, a.k.a. "He Who Must Not Be Named" or "You Know Who," has come back. Harry will have none of it, and says so. He knows from bitter experience that Voldemort is alive and well, even if the evil wizard looks a bit like a deathly pale, hairless, glowing-red-eyed version of Mick Jagger now. This resistance leads to Harry's detentions-cum-torture sessions, and eventually to Hermione's creative solutions to Umbridge's Animal Farm-like assault on Hogwarts School's integrity. Dolores's comeuppance at the hands of Hermione is a pleasure to read.

Magical ass-kicking is the order of the day. Banned from practicing DADA in class, Harry and Friends form an organization they name Dumbledore's Army, because they know how such a name will irk Cornelius Fudge, the plump and insecure Minister of Magic, who has somehow convinced himself that Dumbledore wants his job. So, in secret, Harry himself becomes the "real" DADA teacher, and his club, which numbers around 25 or so members, begins to show some actual skill as time passes. Harry and his closest friends end up confronting a coven of Death Eaters in the well-choreographed, well-paced action finale... but for my money, the real showpiece is our first taste of combat between the two great masters, Dumbledore and Voldemort. Much like the rip-roaring lightsaber fight between Yoda and Count Dooku in "Attack of the Clones" (the best damn scene in that movie, and the only memorable one), this fight is furious and all too brief, but it's still satisfying, because it reveals that both Voldemort and Dumbledore are susceptible to fear.

Rowling's book weighs in at nearly 900 pages in the American edition, giving her plenty of room to flesh out her world. The New and Improved Dudley Dursley is more menacing this time around, because he's 15 and has become, of all things, a boxing champion (albeit a blubberous one, like that guy Butterbean featured in the Jackass movie). Interactions between familiar characters produce some interesting moments, such as Mrs. Weasley's constant disagreements with Sirius regarding Harry. Dumbledore's Speech Clarifying Everything is far longer than any of the other speeches he's given Harry (maybe this is why Harry keeps throwing things and shouting). Snape is allowed a moment of bizarre heroism when he has to lie to Draco Malfoy, his favorite student, to protect Harry-- but it's a moment that curdles when Harry, initially unbeknownst to Snape, views one of Snape's most painful memories and learns some not-so-flattering facts about his own father. And Rowling has the luxury of taking her time in building the suffocating ambience of menace and paranoia, as Hogwarts descends into Ministry-approved darkness... with no help from the chaos-loving Weasley twins or Peeves, of course.

Order of the Phoenix is a worthy successor to the previous four Harry Potter novels. It's never dull (at least for those of us forced to read the likes of Hans Georg Gadamer, Juergen Habermas, Bernard Lonergan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Karl Rahner), and the hardcover book is large and sturdy enough to use as a chair or dinner table if your studio apartment lacks furniture. It's also full of themes that would make a Freudian psychologist cream his pants (father issues, anyone?), as well as the usual feminism-unfriendly depictions of women (let's face it: most of the female characters in this series, aside from Hermione, Professor McGonagall, and a handful of others, don't come off looking all that intelligent, capable, or positively empowered).

One final thing: you can't help noticing that Harry's being shepherded into a Christ-figure role, not so different from Neo's in the "Matrix" series. Note there's a prophecy. Note that the wizarding world is experiencing a lull between two great wars. Note that Harry's role in the prophecy will probably end that war for good or ill, and Harry has begun to contemplate just what his role is in the greater scheme. Rowling's done a great job of keeping things unpredictable so far (some of us were thinking that, based on events in Book 4, Ron and Hermione would've gotten together by now); I'm curious how she plans to handle the events of Books 6 and 7.

Thumbs up, JK. I'm an addict, a Potter-head, thanks to you.

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