4.29.2006

Harry Potter and the Rest Area

I’m over three hundred pages into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I seem to have spotted something of an issue.

Let me state for the record that I don’t think Ms. Rowling can write a bad sentence. Her gift for characterization, dialogue and the telling detail are unmatched, and reading this book is a nice smooth trip with a lot of fun.

But there doesn’t seem to be much story, here. There’s a lot of plot, but not much story.

Now, those two words—plot and story—may sound like the same thing, but for me, they’re very different. Plot is a blow-by-blow listing of the events that happen during the course of a narrative. Story, on the other hand, is a series of events that amount to a narrative—a beginning, a middle, and an end.

If you’re telling a story about a detective solving a murder mystery, the story part involves finding clues, piecing together the crime, and chasing (and subduing) the villain. All of those things are also part of the plot, but the plot also includes stuff like the detective getting drunk, romancing the beautiful daughter (when she isn’t the murderer), talking to his drunk friends (when they don’t have clues) or going to the horse race or laundromat. These things are all part of the plot, but not of the story.

With a little luck, what I’ve written above makes a bit of sense. If you’ve read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, perhaps it will make a bit more sense if, like me, you’ve only read to page three hundred or so.

In this book (spoilers follow), Harry gets in trouble for using magic in the Muggle world. He goes to a hearing where he might be expelled and forced to give up magic—but nothing comes of this, the hearing is decided in Harry's favor. That counts as plot, not story. Given the amount of effort focused on this hearing, it’s somewhat disturbing to find out it really has no relevance at all. (So far, I add.)

After being attacked, Harry is taken from his usual suburban environs and brought to an old house, where he is protected by the Order of the Phoenix—but we learn nothing about them, other than the names of some members. We’re deliberately kept out of their closed-door meetings. Will these meetings be relevant? Somehow at this stage I kind of doubt it, which means that this is more plot, and not story. Again, there is a lot of work put into these sequences; this isn’t some trivial tossed-off detail, like Harry going to the post office or eating a candy bar.

Once Harry gets back to school, there’s a new teacher there—who seems to be an avatar for the Ministry of Magic, and embodies the Ministry’s agenda for the wizarding world, which is opposed to that of the regular teachers. This is probably part of the story, and not merely plot. At page three hundred out of eight hundred, it’s too early to tell, but it seems to be the only real story element to emerge so far.

Again, I must point out that I remain in awe of Ms. Rowling’s abilities, and it is possible that all these elements will become part of the story, and not just lovingly detailed chunks of distraction.

Ron and Hermione become prefects. So far, plot, not story. Hermione leaves out clothes for the elves. I’m betting this is plot, and not story. (I must pause to give kudos to the makers of the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for eliminating the entire house-elf subplot. What is truly extraordinary is that they did so by bypassing the convoluted nature of the book’s plot, and thereby concentrating on the story.) Harry and Cho seem to be mutually attracted. Other students are introduced. Many people think Harry is a grandstander (it is nicely pointed out that most, if not all of Harry’s adventures were only witnessed by himself or with Ron and Hermione. In fact, some of his most public displays—his knowing of snake language, for example—are the kind that make people suspicious of Harry).

The one really solid revelation I can see in terms of story is this: Harry cannot, under even the most dire of circumstances, keep his stupid mouth shut. While I suppose this is designed to show his passionate, fervid nature, it doesn’t really register a lot of sympathy in this reader. Nearly every time he would stand up to shout at a teacher, my thought wasn’t Right on, Harry, but more like Shut up, you fool.

I’m sure that as the book progresses, a story will emerge, perhaps incorporating most of the first three hundred pages as necessary elements. But for right now, over three hundred pages in, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems less like the next chapter in Harry’s saga, and more like a holding pattern, a pause on the way. Something so Ms. Rowling can recharge her creative batteries before continuing, while still deepening our view of the wizarding world.

As noted, that’s how it looks three hundred pages in. (It's instructive that the two major forces of good and evil in the series--Dumbledore and Voldemort--have barely appeared, the latter in fact entirely absent. So far.)

Perhaps the story will kick in soon, at page three hundred and one; but boy, talk about a long overture.

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