Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

I interrupted my reading of current bestseller The Historian to spend twenty-four hours with the new Harry Potter, and the difference between the two was immediately striking. Both fit under the category of popular, but my level of fun and investment in The Historian is almost none, it is merely a suspenseful plot in legible sentences, while I ended Half-Blood Prince with a desperate desire for the next book so that I could spend more time with the characters. (my mother called me periodically during this 24 hour period to say "You're not still reading, are you?" She once watched a tv movie about a kid who got so obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons that he started living in the sewers and killing people, so, you know, she worries.)

One of the things I find interesting about the Potter books is Rowling claims to have plotted them--all seven of them--before writing any of them. A lot of writers are wary of over-planning their novels; they have a legitimate concern that if they know where the book is headed readers will too and also that they will get bored with a writing a book they've already thought out. But the Potter books are incredibly clever in the way they make use of what has come before--seeds planted in earlier books are just now bearing fruit--and either Rowling is very very good at figuring out how to use these seeds as she goes or she really did do a tremendous amount of planning before writing. John Irving is another author who claims to plan everything before he drafts--and in a novel like A Prayer for Owen Meany (which is on my fiction all-time top ten list) a reader can see how that was necessary. I suspect the end of Catch 22 also had to be plotted near to the start of the writing (though I don't know what Heller has said about it). Certain kinds of novels---where complex pieces need to fit together in the end--really do bear plotting out in advance. But what's interesting is that in the abstract such novels--which on first reading depend on surprising the reader with how the pieces come together--seem like they wouldn't stand up to rereading. Once the reader knows the surprise, then why read the books again? But because Rowling, Irving, and Heller, are also so good with character, these are books that I have reread not just once, but regularly. So character-driven does not preclude plot-driven and vice versa. And planning isn't necessarily a bad thing.

7 comments:

Oliver de la Paz said...

I believe I'm one of the only people on the planet who has not read one of the Harry Potter books. Now I want to read all of them. I was at a retreat where one of the participants had brought her eight-year-old daughter who had the new book. She read the whole thing in a day.

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Oliver--I realize that you are moving, starting a great new job, and getting married. BUT you must stop all of those things at once until you have read at least the first three Harry Potters. --P.

Mark Scroggins said...

Hey Papatya--

yes, tho I've more than enough to do otherwise, I spent a number of hours over the past couple of days on HP & HBP -- with great enjoyment. I was struck by exactly what you notice: the plotting. And I was thinking about how JKR uses a bunch of devices that I'm most familiar with from detective novels, in particular the "false lead," where the writer convinces you that a given character is the perp, only to reveal otherwise ultimately. This can be done with great subtlety, making the reader believe that s/he's smarter even than the detective character.

In this case -- & those of you who haven't read the novel better skip this paragraph -- JKR does a kind of double "false lead," setting it up in the early chapter with Snape & the binding oath, which the canny reader will inevitably assume implies that D'dore's faith in SS is well-grounded, & that SS is playing some sort of complex triple game. The great emotional impact of the final chapters in part comes out of one's letdown at finding out that there's after all no triple game being played at all, that SS really is a baddie. (I'll bet my teeth -- tho on very slim evidence -- that the last volume of the series will reveal that SS really is in some complex way on the right side. JKR has made him too prominent a character, too complex and many-sided, to end up simply as a villain. And the last couple books of the series have all been about blurring the distinctions between simple good and bad.)

Best line in the book: the American President as "that wretched man."

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Mark--I'm absolutely with you on Snape. I'm in some pretty deep denial about certain events in the book, and am holding onto the it's- a-book-for-children theory, which posits that there will be lessons in the end, and surely one of them will be that Dumbledore's trust was rightfully placed.

Susan Allspaw Pomeroy said...

Marc and I read it in a week, out loud. The shock on both our faces as we read the last few chapters was evident in our voices raising pitch.

Papatya, you mention your Top Ten of Favorite Fiction here--I think it's time to post that list.

A. Papatya Bucak said...

If I actually made that list it would probably have fifty books on it. Can a top ten list contain fifty books?

zimdog said...

Maybe, but you'll probably have to tinker with the base-ten system first, or perhaps string the remainder off into another dimension.