Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)
Impression published on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012 | Novel | 3 stars
After two of these books (in half as many weeks), my impression of JK Rowling is that the most remarkable aspect of her writing is its transparency: as something like 600 pages of book have flown by, I cannot recall a single instance where I caught her breaking the fourth wall and inflicting her own personality on the narrative.
And that's a rare thing, isn't it? Especially in a best-selling author.
There's this cliche that great writers1 are like conjurors: through some un-reproducible, secret-sauce synergy of plot, grammar and adjectives they summon up engrossing little worlds to which readers relate on an intense, frequently personal level.
It's an idiotic cliche for a lot of reasons--first of all, if any kind of magic is happening in great writing, it's not conjuring, it's enchantment, and great writers are using magic to beguile their readers--but the main reason that this cliche is idiotic is that calling a great writer a conjuror is a lot like thanking God when a surgeon uses a laser to cut the cancer out of your brain: magical influence has much less to do with success rates in modern surgery than the millions of painstaking man-hours devoted by trained craftsmen to the cultivation of tools and technique.
Which is to say that likening a great writer's work to a magic trick belittles the lifetime of heartbreaking personal failures and false-starts that led to the moment when the guy wrote the words that made your heart sink, when bits of Nancy's skull and hair clung to Bill Sikes' bludgeon or when the kid in The Road asked if the can of Coke is a special treat because there will never be another one like it.
Good writing is most definitely not magic, and none of this shit is as simple as mere sleight of hand.
At any rate, there's this cliche that great writers are conjurors--basically creators of incredibly precise dioramas--and thinking about cases in which the best thing you can say about a writer is that they've written evocatively about a place and a group of people who never existed is a good way to start to understand what I mean when I call JKR "transparent."
If a good writer is a conjuror and good writing is conjuration, most of the famous ones take you by the hand and give you the guided tour of their little Potemkin villages: here is the filthy, hay-strewn intersection, here are the filthy rooms, here is the filthy coat where Raskolnikov hides the axe. The less expert writers draw a lot of attention to themselves as they conjure their worlds: Bret Easton Ellis' agrammatical, Wile-E-Coyote motion blur has the unmistakable self-congratulatory standoffishness of the hipster kid at the party who treats everyone at the party like they're retarded (because they are) and is a constant distraction from the main action of the satire.
I've got this guy--the author--jumping around, chewing on the scenery and grandstanding for the cheap seats and I have no idea what the hell this story is supposed to be about, basically.2
The expert conjurors, on the other hand, lead you to the scene, maybe say a few words, and then disappear behind the curtain to pull the strings and make the characters dance: Nelson Algren's captain has bad dreams, and he is about to sit behind his captain's desk and tell you all about them and then, when he's done, please follow the lighted footpath to the lobby, where Algren will walk you up Clark to the rooms-by-the-hour where Jesus Christ hisself is puttin' in the fix.
Having just finished the second Harry Potter, the thing that stands out the most is how the only times that feel even remotely like direct authorial address--like JKR is using a character to say something that she thinks is impressive or important or stylish or whatever--are the end-of-book wrap-ups from Dumbledore where the book's moral lessons are collected and rearticulated.
But even those don't feel especially heavy-handed. After all, that's...kind of why Dumbledore is there in the first place: to come into your room before bedtime, open the closet door, show you the monsters are gone and be the authority figure who says out loud that it is neither your fault that the sun shines equally on the Just and the Unjust nor that your mother is dead.
So, two books down and I'm still feeling good. Mainly, I have been impressed by Rowling's tasteful, light touch and her ability to tell a story that feels like it's telling itself.
Onward to The Prisoner of Azkaban, then.
- Any artists, really: this whole paragraph applies to great record producers, movie directors, etc.
- The inexpert ones, you catch them showing off a lot; they spend a lot of time preening. I mostly preen, for example.