Two weekends ago, I found myself accidentally proving the old theory that Harry Potter is a gateway drug to the wider world of serious literature. Standing in the very back of a gigantic horde at my local bookstore at midnight, wedged into a knot of adolescents reading People magazine through oversize black plastic glasses, I picked up and nearly finished a great American superclassic that I’d somehow managed to avoid for my entire life: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Under normal circumstances I would have been perfectly happy to go on ignoring it—the paperback had an unmistakable high-school-syllabus stench about it—but I was bored to death and the aisles were clogged with potbellied wizards and it was the only readable book within arm’s reach. A few pages in, I found myself hooked. By the time I got to the register, I was three-quarters of the way through (just after—spoiler alert!—Lennie the man-child mangles the bully Curley’s hand) and all I really wanted to do was finish it. But the employees were all clapping because I was the last customer, so I closed Steinbeck right on the brink of what felt like an impending tragic climax, took my Potter, and left. Ironically, this meant that Of Mice and Men was now suspended at roughly the same point in its dramatic arc as Rowling had suspended the Potter series before Deathly Hallows. So I went home and conducted a curious experiment in parallel reading: a two-day blitz of 860 pages, with a pair of nested climaxes—one hot off the presses, one 70 years old.
I started with Potter. Not since 1841, when New Yorkers swarmed the docks to ask incoming Brits whether Little Nell died in the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop (spoiler alert! She totally did), have readers been so simultaneously poised on the brink of a collective climax. My gut, along with the new book’s scary epigraphs, kept telling me that—like Little Nell—Harry had to go. For a children’s series, Potter has been unusually death-obsessed—Harry’s heroism, remember, sprang from the gruesome murder of his parents—and in recent books, the body count has risen quickly: In the previous book, even Harry’s untouchable mentor Dumbledore died. Also, in a larger narrative sense, Rowling owed us. Harry had been too outrageously lucky for too long: He lived for six books in a big bland protective bubble of innocence and nobility and love. As minor characters dropped around him like cursed broomsticks, he lucked his way through unsurvivable encounters with dragons, basilisks, dementors, Death Eaters, and about 34 different manifestations of Voldemort. Now it was time to pop the bubble. We all felt it. Rowling knew it. One of the big reasons we all read Potter so devotedly was that, unlike most kids’ series, there was something serious at stake. And she practically promised us Harry’s death with Book Six’s prophecy about him and Voldemort—“Neither can live while the other survives.”
By now, the book’s final events have been spoiled as thoroughly as a pint of six-month-old cottage cheese in the trunk of a flaming car. And yet I still feel compelled to issue a warning. If you don’t want to know how Harry Potter ends, you need to fling this magazine, very hard and very fast, out of your window or into the nearest vacant horse carriage. Fling it! There’s no time to think! Gaaaaa!
I approached the book with some fear. For one thing, despite the charm and immersive power of Rowling’s magical world, despite her solid instinct for broad, mythic narrative strokes, she’s always had trouble with the basic mechanics of plot. Even by pulp standards, her storytelling is ridiculous. Exposition happens almost exclusively via overheard conversations. Narrative logic falls apart at crucial moments. Every book ends in an orgy of coincidence and revelations and arbitrary switcheroos. (As George Orwell once wrote about Dickens: “rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles.”) Since Deathly Hallows was the series-capping megaclimax, I expected to find it ponderous, overactive, dangerously clotted with characters, and confusing. This was pretty much exactly right. All the Rowling signatures are here: She’s still addicted to adverbs and (oddly) the word “bemused,” her caps lock gets stuck at critical moments, foreigners speak in intolerable accents, and everyone stutters uncontrollably at the slightest hint of stress. When the action gets heavy, she cranks the “coincidence” dial up to eleven and flagrantly abuses her imminent-death-thwarted-at-the-last-possible-moment privileges. (In an MSNBC survey of fan reactions to Deathly Hallows, a 10-year-old who claims to have read the entire series eight times observed that, for his taste, the final book leaned a little too heavily on coincidence. I believe this tells us something important.) As for plot, there’s a Mission Impossible–style break-in at the Ministry of Magic and a never-ending camping trip featuring some heavy Lord of the Rings plagiarism and innumerable action sequences in which everyone screams, “No! No! NO! NOOOOOOO!” A few minor characters die; most movingly, Dobby the house-elf. (“And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still, and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.”) Much of the book, however, was strangely forgettable.