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Troubled Harry

Harry Potter's appeal isn't the cutesy magic but his struggle with the anxieties of pubescence; adults struggle with a childhood without innocence.

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Potter's field: Adults are reading J. K. Rowling's books even if they don't offer the challenges of adult fiction.  

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
BY J. K. ROWLING
Scholastic Press; 734 pages; $25.95

What We Don't Know About Children
BY SIMONA VINCI
Alfred A. Knopf; 160 pages; $21

Murderous rages and uncontrollable furies; paranoiac oscillations between fantasies of total power and feelings of complete, humiliating impotence; sly manipulativeness and numbing, sluglike helplessness; endless, obscure, confusing guilt; uncritical adoration of family members alternating with the not-infrequent impulse to slaughter them.

Aren't children the cutest things?

Well, no. Despite our incessant efforts to sentimentalize them, children have dark inner lives filled with wildly, confusingly divergent feelings based on the wildly, confusingly divergent signals they get from the world: Total love (with any luck) from their parents feeds fantasies of security and power, yet growing desires for independence fuel "murderous" fantasies of eliminating Mommy and Daddy altogether. (Symbolically, of course, although no one seems to have remembered to mention this to the characters in a lot of Greek plays.)

It's no accident that these dark feelings are the ones we gain access to through the greatest children's literature. Think of how many fairy tales begin with violence to -- or at least assume the elimination of -- the parents, especially the mother: "Snow White," "Cinderella," "Bambi"; the list goes on. I don't know a single person my age who wasn't traumatized by the killing of Mrs. Bambi, and who doesn't still get worked up about it; just mention that scene in a crowded room of boomers and see what happens. But maybe there was more to the trauma than grief over the parent's death -- a child's greatest fear, naturally . . . but perhaps also a child's greatest fantasy? For so many people, it's the first distinct memory of popular entertainment because it's also the first distinct memory of guilt.

I couldn't help thinking these bleak thoughts last week as I read through the first three Harry Potter books and -- after waiting in line at Barnes & Noble for two hours starting at midnight, along with about a thousand other people and at least three other book critics I know -- the latest one too. A review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that appeared in The-Paper-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (this is the manner in which one refers to the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry's nemesis, in the series), offered as reasons for the novels' phenomenal success the material's "enchanting innocence" and "the radically simple fact that they're so good." The books are indeed really good, and the new one is by far the best: Despite its girth, it's the most skillfully plotted and structured of the four. But after reading the series thus far, I'm not so sure that innocence, goodness, and simplicity are the point here. They're just words we like to use when we talk about children.

As anyone who's read the books -- or read about them -- knows, Harry's story begins with the double murder of his parents by Lord Voldemort and as it's progressed has gone on to include the usual innocent, good, simple childhood stuff: alienation (Harry's, not only from his horrible game-show-watching adoptive family but also from the other witch-students), loneliness, fear of rejection (by a cute girl who actually does reject him in the new novel), competitiveness (with his best friend, the always-overshadowed Ron), betrayal (in each novel, a trusted older person turns out to be working for Voldemort), civil strife, and many deaths. Don't be fooled: The enchanting witchy stuff is just the spoonful of sugar, the whimsically alluring package that makes it safe to explore the darker stuff, to experience it while at the same time containing it. Reality and imagination are the two principles that young children must struggle to understand and reconcile; no wonder the best children's literature provides moral darkness and imaginative fantasy in equal measure.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is rich in both; it's wonderful. Harry's now in his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where students have to help raise creatures like the Blast-Ended Skrewts and take classes in "Potions" and "Defense Against the Dark Arts." (Why didn't they offer that at Kennedy Senior High?) As before, the author reunites all the familiar students -- Harry; Ron; the brainy and bucktoothed (but soon to be beautiful and orthodontically enhanced) Hermione Granger; the hoodlum Draco Malfoy -- with the endearingly eccentric faculty and staff members. (To say nothing of the campus: The departed Hogwartians in the portraits that line the school's corridors leave their frames and visit one another.) And as before, the author provides a lot of excellent fantasy set pieces: Although not much of a sports person myself, I must say I found the Quidditch World Cup at the beginning particularly gripping. Quidditch, for those of you who haven't read a paper in three weeks, is a kind of witch polo played on broomsticks; unlike certain athletes from Atlanta, here it's the balls that have ugly minds of their own.

But the familiar dazzle is well balanced by emotional gloom. Rumors of Harry's incipient adolescence have, I'm relieved to say, been grossly exaggerated; aside from a few longing looks directed by Harry at a cute girl named Cho, this story is as chaste as a Hardy Boys mystery. What distinguishes this installment from the others is not incipient underarm hair but a surprisingly complex plot that never loses any of the several strands, which are aimed, in fact, at the anxieties of a prepubescent audience: Harry's un-self-confident participation in a pan-European wizardry tournament called the Triwizard, in which he represents Hogwarts against French and Bulgarian schools; Hermione's failed campaign to raise awareness about the ill-treatment of house elves (who knew?); and another of Voldemort's plots to return to power. It ends, spectacularly, in a grisly confrontation between He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and Harry, who causes the death of another student. The 12-year-old who can handle this sprawling, multilayered narrative will be ready to move on to Dickens in the not-too-distant future. (Any child who likes Harry will want to get to know Pip or David Copperfield.)

I was surprised to find myself a bit winded by the death of Harry's friend. (Rowling promises more deaths to come.) No, I thought to myself, that can't be; they'll think of a way to bring him back. It was the hard, adult reality of death -- the fact that the author doesn't, in fact, "magic" the boy back to life -- that suggested to me, at last, the reason why these books are so popular. After a Sesame Street-influenced generation of earnest p.c. children's stories -- Heather Has Two Mommies; the loathsome picture book called The Rainbow Fish, in which a beautiful fish gives all its glittering scales away in order to appease its envious, mud-colored companions -- the Potter books offer children the old-fashioned satisfactions of being children: creatures, themselves, of confused darkness as well as brilliant light. With their frank emphasis on real-life pain as well as narrative pleasure, the Potter books, more than many others in recent memory, offer kids an opportunity to explore all their age-appropriate fears and anxieties in an imaginative world as fully and delightfully realized as those in the great children's series -- the Oz books, the Lord of the Rings cycle -- without being asked to act, or think, like miniature adults.

Age-appropriate is the key word here. I don't think much of the adults who are, apparently, reading Harry Potter for themselves in such great numbers. When all is said and done, it's kid stuff. Great kid stuff, yes, but kid stuff nonetheless: simplistic, psychologically untextured, obvious in ways that serious adult novels shouldn't be. For the kids who are snapping up Harry Potter, on the other hand, I have nothing but admiration -- and sympathy. A couple of weeks ago, The-Paper-That-Must-Not-Be-Named ran a story about Potter-mania on its front page; the adjacent column featured a story about sixth-graders who wake up in the middle of the night suffering from anxiety about SAT scores and college-entrance requirements. In an era in which children and grown-ups seem, dismayingly, to be trading places with alarming frequency, it's the kids who need a break.

I can't help thinking that the grown-ups who are reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won't be lining up to buy Simona Vinci's slender first novel, What We Don't Know About Children, which reads with the deceptive limpidity of a fairy tale but is as morally black as pitch. What don't we know? That kids have "bad and ugly thoughts." Led by a disturbed 15-year-old named Mirko, a group of small children in an Italian village start having sex with one another, blandly acting out what they see in the porno magazines Mirko provides, without, of course, feeling the desires that normally generate those acts; the magazines get more violent, and eventually one of the children gets killed. I'm not sure the author knows, in the end, what to make of her story -- it just ends, without fully grappling with the issues it so harrowingly raises. But the stark, morally disturbing contrast that fuels this narrative -- the tension between what the children do and what they know -- will haunt you for a long time. If, that is, you're grown-up enough to pick it up in the first place.


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