Category Archives: friction

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (5 of 5)

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

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Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (4 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: four different types of world-building have been identified – the “nuts and bolts” without any underlying message, the “numinous”, the “parasitic” (political/satirical/utopian/etc) and #4, “bits of all of the above”. On further reflection some type #4 worlds have been found to be asking numinous questions, suggesting it’s not the world-building itself that matters so much as what the world-building is about. What of Potter?

What are the Harry Potter books about? The apparent thematic unity and continuity of the seven books seems to mask a whole series of overlapping stories, introduced, developed, suspended and resumed at different stages. In order of appearance:

  1. The Cinderella Factor. A mistreated orphan turns out to have magical powers beyond the comprehension of his surrogate parents, who can never hurt him again (although they do go on annoying him for quite a while). Book 1 (mostly)
  2. The Power Of Love. He survived because of his mother’s death! She died because of love – and her death gave him the power of love! His killer couldn’t kill him – but by trying to kill him, he put the power of evil in him! But he in turn put the power of love (which he had because of his mother’s sacrifice) in his killer, which means that if he dies (properly) then his killer will be killed too! But the power of love will actually keep him alive (again), because… well, anyway. That. Love, sacrifice, death; love, sacrifice, death… love. Books 1, 2 and 7 (mostly set up by the end of book 2)
  3. Handsome Devil. She was an ordinary girl – with a talent that could turn heads! Soon there were two guys interested in her, both with aristocratic backgrounds; one was a shy intellectual whose family had fallen on hard times, the other a popular athlete. The athlete was wealthy and well-connected as well as being popular, but he was also an arrogant bully – could they really be happy together? There was only one way to find out! Later, she heard that the shy intellectual guy had gone to the bad, but she always thought he had a good heart. She wondered if he ever thought about her. Books 3-7
  4. Noblesse Oblige. Their position had been sadly misunderstood. They didn’t bear anyone any malice; they simply wanted things to be the way they used to be, and a little respect for the position they rightfully occupied. These new campaigners had seemed to have the interests of people like them at heart. How were they to know that they were signing up for hatred, violence, thuggery and all round bad manners? One really did find it all quite regrettable. Books 4-7
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (incorporating Harry Potter In The Penal Colony). Who can our hero trust? His friends – perhaps – but nobody else: not the government, not the authorities which do the government’s bidding, not the press which dances to the government’s tune, not the elites who pull the government’s strings behind the scenes, and definitely not the government. Everyone (literally everyone, even his so-called friends) is out to stop him doing what he has to do – sometimes because they’re evil, sometimes because they’re stupid, but mostly because they still trust the government. Wake up, people! Books 5-6
  6. We Could Rule The World. They were young! They ran green! They kept their t… sorry, I’ll start again. They were young! They were powerful! They were finding out new things about themselves and the world – and each other! If they realised their capabilities, what could stand in their way? Not the law, not the rules made to bind inferior people, not death itself! How could it go wrong? Book 7

##2 and 3 are the main plot lines here; #1, #5 and #6 are mostly localised to one book each, and #4 is very much a sub-plot. #1 is a fine plot for a kids’ book (specifically, this one), but it was never going to sustain a seven-book series. Neither was #2 – as (by all accounts) Rowling discovered herself towards the end of the second book, when she realised that she’d basically set the scene for the final confrontation. (It’s worth mentioning here that the initial working title for book 2 was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.) An awful lot of the plotting of the rest of the books is driven by #3, the past-tense Lily/James/Snape plot, together with its satellite Snape/Lupin, Snape/Sirius and Snape/Dumbledore sub-plots; these plots are remarkable in that almost every event in them is told in flashback, including several events that had taken place within the time of the books. The same goes for most of #6, the Young Dumbledore plot, which is further reduced in intensity by being told mostly in hints and asides – but then, its overtones of gay fascist occultism would probably have overbalanced the book if it had been built up more. (That said, the pay-off of the entire series comes with the climactic collision of plots ##2 and 6 – and it is nicely done and genuinely powerful.)

As for the other two, plot #4 – the Malfoys’ sub-plot – is interesting but under-powered and woefully under-developed. From the moment that the school house of Slytherin was introduced – fairly early in the first book – Rowling was faced with a series of questions about “Slytherins”:

  • Are they all devious, self-centred law-breakers? (Not like Harry and his friends, eh readers?)
  • Are they all personally arrogant and cruel?
  • Are they all from ‘old wizarding families’ and proud of it?
  • In fact, are they all massive snobs and (wizarding-equivalent-of-)racists?
  • More specifically, are they all enemies to Harry and Dumbledore?
  • Crucially, are they all going to abandon Hogwarts when push comes to shove?

Given the plot mechanics set up in the first book, the answer to the first question pretty much had to be Yes, but the answers to the next three didn’t need to be as uniform as they are (viz. “yeah, pretty much”) – and the answers to the last two certainly didn’t need to be a resounding Yes. (Or “Yes, with one solitary exception, who may (in the words of Dumbledore himself) have been Sorted too early”.)

Plot #4 – “aristocrats belatedly regret involvement with reactionary thugs” – enlivens the seventh book in particular, and it’s certainly believable; it has a nice Third Reich quality to it, if that’s not too odd a phrase. But glimpses of human sentiment and human weakness at Malfoy Manor are thin gruel as far as addressing the Problem of Slytherin goes. After all, the Problem of Slytherin is ultimately the Problem of Good and Evil – if you’re born with an inclination to arrogance and selfishness, are you bound to go to the bad, or can you become a good person by doing the right things? To put it another way, if you have evil within you, can you save yourself through deeds, or will your own actions inevitably drag you further down? The books tend to suggest that bad people do bad things and good people good things, and that’s that; Slytherins are pretty much damned, while Dumbledore’s Army represents the Elect (hi Ken!). But the theology of Potter doesn’t bear too much examining, if only because the books’ uneasily post-Christian framing (“God rest ye merry hippogriffs”, indeed) has given us a world in which evil is definitely real but divine grace isn’t. The books’ only firm suggestion is that you can save yourself through an act of will, at the age of eleven, by talking to a hat. (Yes, I know it’s a special hat.)

Plot #5, lastly, is just weird, particularly from an author with Rowling’s background and politics. When Half-Blood Prince came out, an American legal academic wrote what purported to be a review of the book; the article’s titled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”, and it traces a right-Libertarian critique of government through the series. It can be argued, using positions deriving from “public choice” theory and/or the Law and Economics school, that the main function of government in contemporary society is the perpetuation of a caste of government bureaucrats, parasitic on the real productive forces in society; that these bureaucrats’ main aim in life is to preserve their role and their importance; and that interacting with government bureaucracy in any way is likely to be a negative experience, with outcomes ranging from time-wasting up to licensed theft, imprisonment and murder. The “Half-Crazed Bureaucracy” article shows how well these criticisms map onto Rowling’s portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and its representatives; it then goes through the defences that are put up against such a negative view of government, showing that Rowling’s narrative demolishes every one of them. Is government bureaucracy just a thin layer of professionals implementing democratically-decided policy? Plainly not: Dolores Umbridge has all but unlimited power and exercises it as she pleases. Can bureaucracy be reined in by democratic political accountability? by judicial oversight? by the press and public opinion? No on all counts: there is no democracy in the wizarding world (Fudge and Scrimgeour are appointed, not elected, although it’s far from clear who did the appointing). The courts are represented by the blatantly rigged Wizengamot – and wizarding public opinion, despite all the magical fact-finding resources that its members might be expected to have at their command, is routinely whipped in whichever direction the government chooses by the hopelessly untrustworthy Daily Prophet. The Ministry of Magic is judge (Fudge), jury (Wizengamot) and executioner (Umbridge), all in one. If all else fails – as, in book 5, all evidently has – will the dedication and professionalism of individual government servants enable them to resist the corruption of office and protect the public from their less scrupulous colleagues? Hardly: with only one exception, every Ministry of Magic employee we meet is a sycophantic careerist, an amoral hack or an outright fascist, and the exception is the likeable but ineffectual Arthur Weasley.

In short, by the time Harry has met – and been disappointed by – Rufus Scrimgeour, the Ministry of Magic has been utterly discredited, and discredited quite specifically by subjecting it to the narrative equivalent of a thoroughgoing right-Libertarian critique. Which, as I say, is a bit weird, knowing what we know about Rowling. The author of the article – who didn’t – notes that Rowling (a) lived on benefits for a while before (b) becoming mind-bogglingly successful by her own efforts, and concludes that she probably believes in individual self-help and hates the government bureaucracy which mistreated her and other welfare claimants; he further suggests that a Libertarian, anti-government mood was on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic at the time of writing (viz. the mid-2000s), citing in evidence an article suggesting that Tony Blair’s government was declining in popularity. The fact that it wasn’t government in general that was unpopular in Britain, but quite specifically that government, escapes him – as does the even more inconvenient fact that Rowling was and remains one of that government’s more prominent supporters. But that just makes this plotline, and the passion which appears to have gone into it, all the more baffling.

NEXT: so what is it all about, then?

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (3 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the Potter books has led to a typology of world-building, including a frankly undisciplined digression into the mechanics of the Discworld series. Back to Potter…

Rowling’s world-building in the Potter books isn’t a weak form of nuts-and-bolts world-building, or of numinous, alt-religious world-building, or of satirical or polemical world-building. It’s type #4: a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them – snatches of magical history or supernatural zoology here, mystical invocations of Love and Courage and Sacrifice there, broad satire of bureaucracy and the press over yonder. Hence also the continual revelation of new plot-mechanical devices throughout the seven books – and beyond. By the time you’ve finished the series, it seems a miracle that anyone ever gets anything done in the Potterverse: the combination of Apparating, the Floo network, the Imperius curse, Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis and Time Turners would seem to create endless opportunities for common-or-garden crime, never mind more elaborate shenanigans involving conspiracies to corrupt and subvert. On the other hand, most of those things would make life a lot easier for the police – who would also find it very useful to be able to invade other people’s minds and extract their memories for permanent, world-readable storage – so I suppose it would all balance out.

If the magic is over-cranked, everything that isn’t magic is underpowered, dimly-lit, thin. The main currency is common-or-garden gold (arbitrage much?); children are educated from the age of eleven without any exposure to science, mathematics, English literature or foreign languages; and the very language of magic itself is… Latin. But not just Latin; it’s Latin with errors.

Brief digression on Latin with errors
David Langford suggested that the innermost sanctum of the Department of Mysteries is given over to the book of ultimate power in the Potterverse: a Latin dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but in fact Latin on its own wouldn’t get you very far. It’s true that “crucio” means, precisely, “I torture”, while “confringo” and “impero” [without an i] are close to their ‘wizard’ equivalents, translating as “I shatter [something]” and “I command [someone]” respectively. Similarly, “exspecto patronum” means “I await a protector”, while “sectum semper” roughly translates as “[something that’s been] permanently cut”. I remember a character in a kids’ book explaining his sudden fluency in Italian by saying that he already spoke Spanish, and “if you relax your shoulders and think about spaghetti Spanish sort of turns into Italian”. Speaking as a part-time Italianist may I just say, No, it really doesn’t – but if you don’t look anything up and stop stressing about the details, Latin does sort of turn into spell-language. But only ‘sort of’. “Expellimus” [without the ar] has nothing to do with one person disarming another, as it means “we drive [something] out” – and I can’t do anything at all with “wingardium leviosa”. Never mind the W (or the word ‘wing’ for that matter); never mind that ‘leviosa’ seems to be formed by bolting an adjectival suffix (-osus) onto another adjective (“levis” = “light”); just look at the word-endings. Is that -ium a neuter singular or a non-standard genitive plural? Either way, what’s it doing with that -a? Similarly, “prior incantato” is Latin, and a possible sentence fragment, although it doesn’t quite mean what Rowling wants it to – “the previous person [who did something] with the enchanted thing [is doing something]”? – but “priori incantatem” just… isn’t. The lack of grammatical agreement is painful once you notice it. Rowling’s recent announcement that not every person in animal form was an Animagus – that there was another, hitherto unsuspected form of theromorph, the Maledictus (“maledictus” = “cursed man”) – was irksome enough for anyone who dislikes the smell of wet paint; her subsequent observation that “Maledictuses are always female” was the grammatical icing on the cake.

It’s bodged, it’s slapdash, it’s thrown-together, it’s (perhaps surprisingly) not where the author’s heart is.

Compare A Wizard of Earthsea: everything in that book is about the journey of the young man at its centre, a man discovering his power, overestimating his strength and finding wisdom by coming face to face with his own death. It’s numinous world-building, a world built around the humming magic of a single big story. There is a nuts-and-bolts element to it, but it’s reined in; there are maps (and what maps!) but you only really care about the islands for the part they play in Ged’s story – and for the sneaking sense that other islands are the setting for other stories, just as meaningful and compelling as the one you’re reading. The message of the book pervades its world-building; the whole book sings.

The Potter books are nothing like that. They aren’t even very much like the Narnia books, which seem to offer a closer parallel: the evolving Narnia series exhibits a similar kind of wild fertility and reckless pluralism, and a similar tendency to veer between all three of the main types of world-building. (Even the books set in Narnia itself might as well be set in different countries, so different is the use they make of their shared setting.) And yet, and yet. Put it this way: do the Narnia books sing? Are there resonant characters, themes, images, scenes that seem to sum up an entire book, justify an entire book’s existence? In reply, may I simply refer you to the golden chesspieces in the long grass, in what turn out to be the ruins of Cair Paravel; or to Jill and Edmund trudging through the oddly laid-out stone passageways in the land of the giants (‘UNDER ME’) – or Prince Rilian with the madness upon him; or to the shabby apocalyptic double-act of Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s pelt; or to Edmund’s dragon skin, or the Island of Dreams, or Reepicheep in his coracle; or to the Wood Between The Worlds… or to as many examples again from the first book alone. (I’m reining myself in now, but I can’t forbear to mention the mice and the ropes. The mice! The ropes! Blimey Charley.)

Ahem. The world-building of Narnia is clunky and full of register-hopping – here a stab at in-world history and geography, there a heavily signposted swerve into contemporary social satire, and always an unsystematic sprawl of mythical beasts and characters – but there’s something about Narnia itself that outweighs all that. It’s a numinous world, almost despite itself: it’s shot through with Lewis’s intimations of Heaven as a “land beyond“. Imagine a state of being that would encapsulate the most real and true experiences one could have in this world and make them more real still; imagine a state that one could only hope to reach through trust in the loving power of something immeasurably greater than oneself. And imagine Narnia – not as that place or that power itself, but just a bit closer to them… Further up and further in!

Potter, on the other hand… well, what is Potter about?

NEXT: OK, chief, what is it about? You tell us.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (2 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a meditation on the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’, non-metaphorical readings of the Potter books has led to the suggestion that the world-building of the ‘Potterverse’ may be at fault.

There are, I think, four main approaches to world-building in fantasy:

1. Nuts and bolts
A troll’s stolen your blanket. Where are you going to get a new one? Fortunately it’s Thirdday, and market day in Cedar Lake is Fourthday – and Cedar Lake is only twenty thryms away, so if you saddle up your quaghorn and ride all day and all night you’ll be there in good time. Unfortunately the road to Cedar Lake passes through the Merry Green Wood, which – despite its name – is dark and treacherous at night, so you’ll have to find another route… And so on. Nuts and bolts world-builders really do build a world – not only can they show you Cedar Lake on the map, they can tell you when and how it was founded, and about its longstanding rivalry with Willow Bank a thrym and a half up the river Hak. None of this need have anything to do – perhaps, should have anything to do – with anything we’re familiar with in our own world; there is no focus-pulling, no shock of recognition as the metaphorical import of a local detail hits home.

What’s interesting about this approach is that, although constructed worlds certainly don’t have to make sense, once you’ve accumulated a certain level of detail they do – at least to the extent that the edges all join up, and the world-builder can answer any question that may arise. (The real world isn’t that different: ‘Why Maundy Thursday’ is actually a perfectly good question, with an answer that makes sense on at least one level. (Latin, apparently.)) And there’s a certain satisfaction in that, even if after a while filling in the blanks gets to feel a bit like, well, filling in the blanks. Moreover, beyond a certain point what you have is, basically, a whole world, which in itself is asking to be compared with our own: here are the kind of things that people can do in this setting… Elaborate and painstaking though this type of world-building typically is (arguably has to be, if it is to be successful), in another sense it’s the most basic; it’s certainly the most undirected. You focus-pull the whole world or none of it.

Then there are two approaches to world-building that do relate to, or reflect on, our experiences in the world we know.

2. Spilt religion
We don’t have any experience of magic in this world, but we do – collectively – have experience of the supernatural, in the form of religion. Hence the second approach to world-building, which is light on geography and heavy on numinousness (is it numinousness, numinescence or numinosity?). This is the approach Mark Kermode is fond of lampooning in sword-and-sorcery films – “Lord Biddly-Bong armed with the Sword of Fiddly-Flop,” and so on. The grammar of a world like this isn’t religious, but it is religiose: it’s filtered through some combination of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Latin Mass. So if there’s a lot of kneeling in reverence, with people being addressed as supreme high lords and kings; if you’re dealing with a lot of hierarchies and/or family trees; if a lot of characters and things have Big Important Names; and if spells and incantations in incomprehensible languages are a big deal – then it’s a fair bet that the magic that’s ultimately holding up this particular world is the magic that’s practised in church on Sundays. (This isn’t a dig at Tolkien – he knew perfectly well what he was doing.)

3. Spock’s beard
A second kind of reflected world is the parasitic world, a world whose roots in our own aren’t hidden. Satires and political parables obviously come under this heading, but it also covers utopias, near-future projections, what-if’s and alternative histories told in the form of fantasy (Star Trek was a mine of those). The mark of a world like this is that you don’t have to ask how it would all work, because you already know: it works just the way it does in our world. Either that, or it works on the basis of rules and mechanisms that are hidden or disavowed in our world, but brought into the open in the fantasy; or else it doesn’t really work at all, thanks to the exaggeration of trends which, again, exist in the world we know. There aren’t so many titles of nobility or neologisms in a world like this, and there are a lot more jokes.

Some worlds in this category are parasitic on fictional worlds; Discworld is an unusually well-developed example of this approach. Or rather, it began that way and then changed. Or rather, it began that way and in one sense developed in that way, although… hold on, let’s do this properly.

Brief digression on Discworld
The first couple of Discworld books set out to be a kind of Tough Guide to Fantasy Land in fictional form; we see the tropes of post-Tolkien, post-Conan fantasy through the eyes of a literal tourist, accompanied by a local informant who is also an amoral, self-centred cynic. As a result, ironic distance between the narrative voice and the world-building is built in; the world is constantly having to be explained, and it’s explained very much in terms of which bits will hurt you and which will let you stay out of trouble and mind your own business, preferably while getting drunk.

[Author’s note: Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land was in fact published in 1996, thirteen years and approximately 28 books after The Colour of Magic, so perhaps she was setting out to write TCOM/TLF in encyclopaedia form. Or perhaps this analogy doesn’t really work.]

[Author’s note to the author’s note: if 28 sounds like an awful lot of books, that’s partly because I’m counting books other than the Discworld novels, of which only(!) 17 were published in that period. It’s also because, once you start looking at Pratchett’s complete bibliography, it’s really hard to arrive at a definitive number of books (do you include the Maps? the graphic novels? the Josh Kirby art books? The Annotated Cat?). But fundamentally, the reason why 28 sounds like an awful lot of books to complete in 13 years is that it is. The man just wrote.]

Discworld stays parasitic – right to the end, it’s always in some sense ‘about’ this world – but it doesn’t stay put. The first major development is when other characters, in addition to the rather one-note Rincewind – whose emotional repertoire doesn’t run to much beyond cynicism and panic – start to act like people rather than fantasy characters. Specifically, they start to look beyond the plot and think about the world they’re in, and in particular about what this world is like to run. Granny Weatherwax is the first, followed by Vetinari and then Pratchett’s greatest (and favourite?) creation, Vimes. The invention of politics, in other words, is what keeps the Discworld series fresh, after that first volcanic surge of creativity had died down. (Bear in mind that there wasn’t a ‘Death series’, a ‘witches series’ or a ‘Watch series’ when Pratchett wrote Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!; they were just the fourth, sixth and eighth Discworld books, all of which appeared within three years of the second.) I remember an Interzone article from around the time of Guards! Guards!; the author cited one of Vetinari’s more jaded observations, on the difficulties of governing a city full of thieves, idiots and idiotic thieves, and expressed concern for Pratchett’s state of mind – might it be time for him to give Discworld a bit of a rest? He had no idea – but then, neither did any of us.

Pratchett always seems to have been on the lookout for different ways in which Discworld could reflect our world; the first ‘political’ books were rapidly followed by a cluster of books (not the most successful) in which elements of our reality literally leaked into Discworld (e.g. Moving Pictures), and a series (e.g. Hogfather) in which Pratchett’s borrowings from myth and legend were explained as free-floating story elements, drifting through the multiverse and spontaneously instantiating themselves. Finally, Discworld seemed to embark on a process of convergence with the Industrial Revolution, from The Truth (the press) to Raising Steam (the railways). However many details were filled in, though, the edges never quite met; the contours of the map were always shifting as new stories emerged and needed to be told – driven ultimately by what Pratchett had to say about our world.

Hail and farewell, Discworld; what an amazing achievement that world was. (But always – as I was saying – a parasitic world.)

4. Wet paint
So there are nuts-and-bolts worlds, numinous worlds, parasitic worlds; lastly, there are (in the immortal words of Helga Hufflepuff) “the rest”. These are worlds where somebody’s set out to achieve something quite specific – a religious parable in which the humblest are elevated through unmediated communion with Jesus Christ; a satirical wish-fulfilment fantasy in which an orphan is hideously mistreated by grotesque parent-substitutes but discovers he is vastly more powerful than they are – and then lost interest in the necessary world-building, but ploughed on with it anyway. These are bodged-up worlds, without any consistent register; the local effects often work brilliantly, but the whole doesn’t even try to hang together. It’s not a world reflecting and meditating on the religion and wonder that we know; it’s not a world reflecting and lampooning the society and politics we know; and it’s not a world existing independently, an island entire of itself. It’s just… well, here’s a world, and here’s a story, and here’s another one. The telltale sign of a world like this is the continual discovery of new wonders, mysteries and other plot mechanisms, as the developing stories require. The Queen proverbially thinks the world smells of fresh paint; characters in worlds like this have a similar experience, as the sets are continually dressed and re-dressed around them.

NEXT: …and we’re back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (1 of 5)

Attention conservation notice: five-part series on world-building in fantasy fiction, focusing on Potter, Discworld, Narnia, Earthsea and Middle Earth in descending order. Nothing obscure. Not entirely uncritical of JKR. May contain Moomins.

Adam:

One thing that sometimes surprises me … is how wedded [sf/fantasy] fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of the resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world … That Harry Potter and his friends don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we’re on solider ground with brass tacks. We’re not, of course; but we often think we are.

I’ll also pull in an interesting comment from Greg Sanders on Adam’s post:

I think your coda does a good job of explaining the fairly short half life of many series and worlds for me. The longer series go that take their representations seriously, the more they often become about their conceits, their world building, past volumes, and less about the representation and metaphor that made the original so exciting.

As some series progress, author as well as fans succumb to brass-tacks-ism, investing less in what’s supposed to be going on in the imagined world than in the puzzle-solving challenge of filling in the map – as if to say, “we’re ‘ere because… it’s there because it’s there… because we’re ‘ere…”. As time goes on the map has fewer and fewer blank spaces – despite having been more powerful when it was half blank. Remember Discworld, and Pterry’s successive statements on the question of maps – that the Discworld was unmappable, then that the Discworld was unmappable but a map of Ankh-Morpork was a different question, and finally very well, there you go, here’s your map. But Discworld, despite some similarities, is very different from the Potterverse – particularly on the ‘brass tacks’ question – as I hope to show later on.

But back to Potter and brass tacks. To borrow Adam’s term, there’s something slippery (or perhaps, something insufficiently slippery) in the assertion that Harry & co “don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels“. It’s certainly true that when we read about Harry’s courage and agility (with magic), Hermione’s resourcefulness and ingenuity (with magic) or Ron’s dogged persistence (with magic), the clause in brackets is the least important part; the magic isn’t what the books are about, any more than Hamlet is about a poisoning in an orchard. But Harry Potter does literally have magical powers (in the world of the books) – just as it’s crucially important to Hamlet (and to Hamlet) that Hamlet’s father has literally been killed (in the world of the play), despite the resemblance which Adam points out between the killer’s supposed M.O. and a well-known metaphor for giving bad advice.

That said, there’s a crucial distinction between those two worlds. Poison isn’t commonly administered aurally, but the reality of poisoning – and of assassination generally – was known to Shakespeare’s audiences as it is to us. (Nor does the ghost of Hamlet’s father make a better dividing line: our breezy confidence that apparitions of the dead aren’t part of the natural order wasn’t universally shared by Hamlet‘s original audiences, any more than it is by the characters in the play.) By contrast, Harry Potter’s magical powers, in and of themselves, correspond to nothing in our world: there’s a suspension of disbelief involved, and once you’ve made it different criteria apply. Boggling at the amazing things that can be done with the flick of a wand is no more appropriate than Arthur Weasley marvelling at the Muggles and their elec-trickery. This in turn means that nothing which happens through the medium of magic has to rhyme thematically or make any kind of poetic sense, any more than the details of diurnal contemporary reality make poetic sense in mainstream fiction. Sectumsempra is a curse which magically inflicts a deep flesh wound, incurable by non-magical means. Why ‘Sectumsempra’? In that world, it just is – you might as well ask why Maundy Thursday, or why Armitage Shanks. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. The same goes for Rowling’s world-building more generally: it’s just the furniture for the story arc, and within that for the characters and their relationships. As teenagers with fairly limited life experience, Harry and Ron wouldn’t understand, or need to understand, the Ministry of Magic – any more than Jennings and Darbishire need to understand the Home Office – so we don’t need to understand it either.

In short, the outlandish elements in the Potter books don’t have the same focus-pulling doubleness (“now you see metaphor, now you don’t”) as the outlandish elements in Hamlet. Moreover, this isn’t despite the fact that Potter’s magic is even more outlandish than what happens in Hamlet, but because of it. Hamlet is a densely textured story studded with weird and unworldly details, set in our world; watching Hamlet you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing something else, something that tells you about your own world. The Potter books tell a fairly straight story, set in a world which isn’t like ours; reading Potter, you’re reading what you’re reading. In that world, everything is brass tacks, magic included.

The mundane case for the mundane defence rests, in a mundane sort of way. I don’t think it’s satisfactory, though – in fact, I sense that the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’ readings of Potter has something to do with a weakness in the work, and in particular in the world-building.

Next: nuts and bolts – do we need them?

And I must agree

I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

1. The girl on the train

First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

2. The narrative voice(s)

The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

Here are our three narrators:

My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

3. The present tense

As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

4. Women and men

All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

And then there’s

5. The plot

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

(Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

7. Tales with a twist

I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

Soft enough for you

Anne:

Is it reasonable to have to learn to ride a bike but expect a computer to be as simple to figure out as a toaster? (Not the perfect analogy I know, but you know what I’m getting at…) Some days I think that user-friendliness was/is a really bad idea, not least because it’s obdurate, so hard to change.

If you have to work at using a technology, in other words, you necessarily end up working with it and through it. You work to adapt it to your needs – and you adapt it. Technologies which offer ease of use, by contrast, make it easy to work in certain pre-defined ways – and resist adaptation by the individual user. (There are, of course, technologies which are both easy to use and flexible – ask any Flickr user. But I think the ‘user-friendliness’ Anne is talking about here is more like the comment a tutor of mine once made on the BBC and ‘open access’ broadcasting: “They say they’ll come and help you, show you how to do it. They don’t, of course – what they do is show you how to do what you do because that’s how you do it.” User-friendliness is very often a matter of HTDWYDBTHYDI.)

But there’s more to it than that. What is this thing called obduracy? Anne again:

[Anique Hommels] argues that one way to emphasise the material aspects [of technologies in society] is to focus on their obduracy or resistance to change. (Imagine what it would *actually* take to replace the infrastructure that currently provides our electricity with something more sustainable.) The notion of obduracy is inextricably connected to embeddedness – a matter of interest to any kind of computing that seeks to become part of something else, be it an event, a habit, a skirt, a chair, a building, a street, a city. As Hommels reminds us, obduracy (or embeddedness) is a relational concept: “Because the elements of a network are closely interrelated, the changing of one element requires the adaptation of other elements. The extent to which an artifact has become embedded determines its resistance to efforts aimed at changing it.”

An embedded technology, then, would be one which has behind it a community of people who do a certain thing in a certain way. Becoming a user entails enrolment in that community. In short, the technology adapts you.

Where does this leave user-friendliness? Perhaps we could think of the embedding of a new technology as a process, which can continue to the point of the collapse of the possible ends and uses inherent in the technology and its reduction to the status of tool: a toaster, not a bicycle. And perhaps a ‘user-friendly’ technology – at least in the HTDWYD sense – is one designed to enlist a tool-using community and collapse its own potential into instrumentality.

(Relatedly, from Dan Hills’ essential critique of digital music: “there is a powerful necessity to think long term; to not take such short cuts which may inadvertently delete possible outcomes; to enable the flexibility and endless modifications seen in previous generations of music devices”. Dan has a lovely quote from William Gibson: “That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.”)

More broadly, what all this highlights is the value of difficulty, incompatibility, misunderstanding. Dan also led me (indirectly) to this quote from the late Derek Bailey:

There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing.

One of the great frustrations in my work with ontologies and e-social science is the recurrent assumption that the concepts used in social science data can be documented cleanly and consistently – or, conversely, that if they can’t be documented cleanly and consistently they’re not worth documenting. The point, surely, is to find ways of recording both the logic of individual classifications and the incompatibilities between them – and the (qualified, partial) correspondences between them. And, of course, to make this documentation changeable over time, without effacing the historical traces which contribute to its meaning. Parenthetically, it’s worth noting here that preservation of historical data has nothing to do with obduracy. History is not obdurate, having no power to resist and (by and large) no enrolled community; the erasure of history can facilitate embeddedness and instrumentality, while the preservation of an artifact’s history may actually preserve resources of flexibility. (That’s enough abstractions – Ed.)

We are your friends

I recently attended an “e-Government Question Time” session, organised in connection with this conference. There were some good points made: one speaker stressed the importance of engaging with the narratives which people build rather than assuming that the important facts can be read off from an accumulation of data; one questioner called the whole concept of ‘e-government’ into question, pointing out that the stress seemed to be entirely on using the Web/email/digital TV/texting/etc as a mechanism for delivering services rather than as a medium for democratic exchanges. Much more typical, though, was the spin which the mediator put on this question as he passed it on to the panel:

That’s a very good question – what about democracy? And conversely, if it’s all democracy where does that leave leadership?

The evening was much less about democracy than it was about leadership – or rather, management. This starting-point produced some strikingly fallacious arguments, particularly in the field of privacy. The following statements were all made by one panellist; I won’t single him out, as they were all endorsed by other panellists – and, in some cases, members of the audience. (And no, identifying him as male doesn’t narrow it down a great deal. The people in the hall were 3:1 male to female (approximately), the people on stage 6:1 (precisely).)

I like to protect my own privacy, but I’m in the privileged position of having assets to protect. When you’re looking at people who have got nothing, and in many cases aren’t claiming benefits to which they’re entitled, I don’t think safeguarding their privacy should be our main concern.

At first blush this argument echoes the classic Marxist critique of the bourgeois definition of human rights – if we have the right to privacy, what about the right to a living wage? But instead of going from universalism to a broader (and hence more genuine) universalism, we’ve ended up with the opposite of universalism: you and I can worry about privacy, but it doesn’t apply to them. Superficially radical, or at least populist – you can just hear David Blunkett coming out with something similar – this is actually a deeply reactionary argument: it treats the managed as a different breed from the people who manage them (I like to protect my own privacy, but…). Management Fallacy 1: ‘they’re not like us’.

We’re talking about improving people’s life chances. We need to make personal information more accessible – to put more access to personal information in the hands of the people who can change people’s lives for the better.

Management Fallacy 2: ‘we mean well’. If every intervention by a public servant were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, safeguards against improper intervention would not be required. And if police officers never stepped out of line, there’d be no need for a Police Complaints Commission. In reality, good intentions cannot be assumed: partly because the possibility of a corrupt or malicious individual getting at your data cannot be ruled out; partly because government agencies have other functions as well as safeguarding the citizen’s interests, and those priorities may occasionally come into conflict; and partly because a government agency’s idea of your best interests may not be the same as yours (see Fallacy 3). All of which means that the problem needs to be addressed at the other end, by protecting your data from people who don’t have a specific reason to use it – however well-intentioned those people may be. One questioner spoke wistfully of the Data Protection Act getting in the way of creative, innovative uses of data. It’s true that data mining technology now makes it possible to join the dots in some very creative and innovative ways. But if it’s data about me, I don’t think prior consent is too much to ask – and I don’t think other people are all that different (see Fallacy 1).

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called

Have to stop you there. Management Fallacy 3: ‘it looks all right to me’. The speaker was a local government employee: a private individual. His policy for handling his own private data doesn’t concern me. But I would hope that, before he came to apply that policy more generally, he would reflect on how the people who would be affected might feel about surrendering their civil liberties, so-called. (Perhaps he could consult them, even.)

Carry on:

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called, if it’s going to prevent another Victoria Climbie case.

Management Fallacy 4: ‘numbers don’t lie’. (Or: ‘Everything is measurable and what can be measured can be managed’.) This specific example is a common error with statistics, which can be illustrated with the example of a hypothetical test for the AIDS virus. Let’s say that you’ve got an HIV test which is 95% accurate – that is, out of every 100 people with HIV it will correctly identify 95 and mis-identify 5, and similarly for people who do not carry the virus. And let’s say that you believe, from other sources, that 1,000 people in a town of 100,000 carry the virus. You administer the test to the entire town. If your initial assumption is correct, how many positive results will you get? And how confident can you be, in percentage terms, that someone who tests positive is actually HIV-positive?

The answers are 5900 and 16.1%. The test would identify 950 of the 1000 people with the virus, but it would also misidentify 4950 people who did not have it: consequently, anyone receiving a positive test result would have a five in six chance of actually being HIV-negative. What this points to is a fundamental problem with any attempt to identify rare phenomena in large volumes of data. If the frequency of the phenomenon you’re looking for is, in effect, lower than the predictable rate of error, any positive result is more likely to be an error than not.

Contra McKinsey, I would argue that not everything can or should be measured, let alone managed on the basis of measurement. (If the data-driven approach to preventing another Climbie case sounds bad, imagine it with the addition of performance targets.) Some phenomena – particularly social phenomena – are not amenable to being captured through the collection of quantitative data, and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

What all these fallacies have in common is a self-enclosed, almost solipsistic conception of the task of management. With few exceptions, the speakers (and the questioners) talked in terms of meeting people’s needs by delivering a pre-defined service with pre-defined goals, pre-defined techniques, pre-defined identities (me service provider, you service recipient). There were only occasional references to the exploratory, dialogic approach of asking people what their needs were and how they would like them to be met – despite the possibilities for work in this area which new technologies have created. But then, management is not dialogue.

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

Know what I mean

Back here, I wrote:

Tagging, I’m suggesting, isn’t there to tell us about stuff: it’s there to tell us about what people say about stuff. As such, it performs rather poorly when you’re asking “where is X?” or “what is X?”, and it comes into its own when you’re asking “what are people saying about X?”

This relates back to my earlier argument that all knowledge is cloud-shaped, and that tagging is simply giving us a live demonstration of how the social mind works. In other words, all there is is “what people are saying about X” – but some conversations have been going on longer than others. Some conversations, in fact, have developed assumptions, artefacts, structures and systems within and around which the conversation has to take place. The conversation carried on in the medium of tagging isn’t at that stage yet, perhaps, but it will be – the interesting question is about the nature of those artefacts and structures.

Now (with thanks to Anne Galloway) over to Dan Sperber.

When say, vervet monkeys communicate among themselves, one vervet monkey might spot a leopard and emit an alarm cry that indicates to the other monkeys in his group that there’s a leopard around. The other vervet monkeys are informed by this alarm cry of the presence of a leopard, but they’re not particularly informed of the mental state of the communicator, and they don’t give a damn about it. The signal puts them in a cognitive state of knowledge about the presence of a leopard, similar to that of the communicating monkey — here you really have a smooth coding-decoding system.In the case of humans, when we speak we’re not interested per se in the meaning of the words, we register what the word means as a way to find out what the speaker means. Speaker’s meaning is what’s involved. Speaker’s meaning is a mental state of the speaker, an intention he or she has to share with us some content. Human communication is based on the ability we have to attribute mental state to others, to want to change the mental states of others, and to accept that others change ours.

When I communicate with you I am trying to change your mind. I am trying to act on your mental state. I’m not just putting out a kind of signal for you to decode. And I do that by providing you with evidence of a mental state in which I want to put you in and evidence of my intention to do so. The role of what is often known in cognitive science as “theory of mind,” that is the uniquely human ability to attribute complex mental states to others, is as much a basis of human communication as is language itself.

I am full of admiration for the mathematical theory of information and communication, the work of Shannon, Weaver, and others, and it does give a kind of very general conceptual framework which we might take advantage of. But if you apply it directly to human communication, what you get is a mistaken picture, because the general model of communication you find is a coding-decoding model of communication, as opposed to this more constructive and inferential form of communication which involves inferring the mental state of others, and that’s really characteristic of humans.
[…]
For Dawkins, you can take the Darwinian model of selection and apply it almost as is to culture. Why? Because the basic idea is that, just as genes are replicators, bits of culture that Dawkins called “memes” are replicators too. If you take the case of population genetics, the causal mechanisms involved split into two subsets. You have the genes, which are extremely reliable mechanisms of replication. On the other hand, you have a great variety of environmental factors — including organisms which are both expression of genes and part of their environment — environmental factors that affect the relative reproductive success of the genes. You have then on one side this extremely robust replication mechanism, and on the other side a huge variety of other factors that make these competing replication devices more or less successful. Translate this into the cultural domain, and you’ll view memes, bits of culture, as again very strong replication devices, and all the other factors, historical, ecological, and so on, as contributing to the relative success of the memes.

What I’m denying, and I’ve mentioned this before, is that there is a basis for a strong replication mechanism either in cognition or in communication. It’s much weaker than that. As I said, preservative processes are always partly constructive processes. When they don’t replicate, this does not mean that they make an error of copying. Their goal is not to copy. There are transformation in the process of transmission all the time, and also in the process of remembering and retrieving past, stored information, and these transformations are part of the efficient working of these mechanisms. In the case of cultural evolution, this yields a kind of paradox. On the one hand, of course, we have macro cultural stability — we do see the same dish being cooked, the same ideologies being adopted, the same words being used, the same song being sung. Without some relatively high degree of cultural stability — which was even exaggerated in classical anthropology — the very notion of culture wouldn’t make sense.

How then do we reconcile this relative macro stability at the cultural level, with a lack of fidelity at the micro level? … The answer, I believe, is linked precisely to the fact that in human, transmission is achieved not just by replication, but also by construction. … Although indeed when things get transmitted they tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend to gravitate around what I call “cultural attractors”, which are, if you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust mechanism of replication. It’s given in part, yes, by a mechanism of preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful (and it’s not its goal to be so). And it’s given in part by a strong tendency for the construction — in every mind at every moment — of new ideas, new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural attractors themselves have a history.

There’s more – much more – but what I’ve quoted brings out two key points. Firstly, communication is not replication: in conversation, there is no smooth transmission of information from speaker to listener, but a continuing collaborative effort to present, construct, re-present and reconstruct shared mental models. The overlap between this and the ‘knowledge cloud’ model is evident. Secondly, construction has a context: the process of model-building (or ‘thinking’ as we scientists sometimes call it) is always creative, always innovative, and always framed by pre-existing cultural ‘attractors’. And these cultural attractors themselves have a history – you could say that people make their own mental history, but they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing…

This is tremendously powerful stuff – from my (admittedly idiosyncratic) philosophical standpoint it suggests a bridge between Schutz, Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu (and I’ve been looking for one of those for ages). My only reservation relates to Sperber’s stress on speaker’s meaning … a mental state of the speaker. I think it would enhance Sperber’s model, rather than marring it, to focus on mental models as they are constructed within communication rather than as they exist within the speaker’s skull – in other words, to bracket the existence of mental states external to communicative social experience. On this point Schutz converges, oddly, with Wittgenstein.

Sperber’s argument tends to underpin my intuition on tagging and knowledge clouds: if all communication is constructive – if there is no simple transmission or replication of information – then conversation really is where knowledge develops, or more precisely where knowledge resides. Sperber also helps explain the process by which some conversations become better-established than others; we can see this as a feedback process, involving the development of a domain-specific set of ‘attractors’. These would perhaps serve as a version of Rorty’s ‘final vocabulary’: a shared and unquestionable set of assumptions, a domain-specific backdrop without which the conversation would make no sense.

One final thought from Sperber:

The idea of God isn’t a supernatural idea. If the idea of God were supernatural, then religion would be true.

Well, I liked it.

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