I was a teenage grown-up

The bookstore in our neighborhood has been counting down to the release of the final Harry Potter book since January. We have stickers pasted all over our house proclaiming Snape to be either “a friend” or “a foe.” The hubbub will reach its apex today when the mall adjoining the bookstore will transform into “Harry Potter World” featuring a wand store, a leaky cauldron fast food court and ongoing tournaments of wizard chess. It has all been rather charming fun until this week when machinations appeared on the internet far more insidious than these rampant displays of coattail marketing.    

Someone uploaded all 800 pages of the new novel and a host of minions have been leaving spoiler breadcrumbs on popular sites where unsuspecting readers can stumble on key plot points. When questioned about his motives, one of the culprits, a 17-year-old Pittsburgh boy, boasted in an interview with USA TODAY: “I am a bored, sadistic loser who doesn’t play sports, have a job or have a girlfriend, so I posted Harry Potter spoilers. It was fun for myself at the expense of others.”

This is not a nice boy. He has audaciously cast himself as a villain to offset the arrival of a hero, acting out a drama of his own devising. He is the guy who dashes into the snapshot, ruining the picture for a “hey mom” fifteen minutes of notoriety. He isn’t even the original pirate; he just grabbed a few lines and made trouble.  

The only way to diffuse Bratty Pittsburgh Boy is to wrest back control of the story, making him a pawn instead of an actor, inadvertently heightening the hype he was trying to sabotage. He assumes originality in riling the masses, but by divulging secrets, he is performing on cue. This makes him a dark reflection of Harry Potter who was also reviled by his society for revealing information that they are not quite ready to hear. But whereas Harry Potter is right and noble, Spoiler Teen is a death eater.

Am I carried away? Am I weaving a narrative where there is just a bunch of media whores and craven retailers? Sure. I defend all things Potter—the good, the bad, the overexposed. 

I love the Harry Potter books for two reasons. One is the rich, magical world with a layered plot that sometimes races and sometimes meanders on an epic scale. The second reason is Harry: “The Boy Who Lived” becomes the teen who survives and who may or may not (I have not read the spoilers) become the man who conquers. I especially relate to Harry in the fifth year at Hogwarts School, angst-ridden-whiney-angry-annoying Harry who finds himself in situations that are like every teen and no other teen at the same time. I love Harry’s coming-of-age story because I love coming-of-age stories and his evolves into a whopper.

Last week as I waited to see the midnight premiere of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in one of the eight sold-out theatres at a local multiplex, I was surrounded by thousands of teenagers. It must have been too late for little kids as there were almost none, just high schoolers, a handful of parents and a few lone adults who looked as if they had surfaced from dank basements. I tried to align myself with the resigned chaperons rather than the freaky types such as the two women dressed in silver stretchy tops under black bathrobes who kept shouting at the movie screen: “Harry! Just blast her!” in odd Scottish accents. But my fascination is probably no less creepy. I leaned toward clusters of kids, their bright T-shirts like tropical plumage, and listened. I speculated on their relationships, catalogued the hot topics and winced pleasantly at endless loops of slang. I was as intent on hearing their stories as the one I was about to see.

What makes a great coming-of-age story is not just that it stars teenagers, not just that it features love and pain and isolation. A great coming-of-age story is synonymous with the hero’s journey; an archetypal passage from child to adult, from dependent to powerful, from simple to complex, from safe order to dangerous mystery. In the most affecting coming-of-age stories there are sweeping changes in the protagonist’s life that explode their comfortable identity and then recast the shards into ways they do not expect. We discover that life gets no better as we get older, but we may get better at coping. Sometimes the catalyst is a moment (Gene and Phineas on the branch), a relationship (Huck and Jim), a societal conundrum (Jem and Scout and Boo) or a grand enemy (Voldemort). There are as many beginnings to the story as there are writers and books, but at some point, as the character perseveres, we recognize the struggle and imagine what we might have done in their place.

My own adolescence made no literary sense. There was home and school and jigs and jags of jumbled experience that had no overarching theme. I tried to anchor confusing emotions to language. I would lie on my bed for hours and listen to the same Simon and Garfunkel album, writing poetry steeped in injustice and profound loneliness. I wrote about the duality of having messy girl guts in a good girl skin and how no one understood they were the same. But then I would have to “snap out of it” and do mundane chores like set the table or babysit my sisters. There was plenty going on but not with the orchestrated excitement of events falling out of place and then back into place with a dollop of insightful resolution—the plot wasn’t linear, the action wasn’t predictable, and the characters were not sympathetic. I would never have read a book about teenage me. One day I woke up as an adult and the denouement seemed more of shrug; I did not feel as “cooked” as my father often said I was.

I looked back and worried that I went through the fun house with my eyes closed. What if my coming-of-age was too boring? What do we miss when we never fight dragons or Nazis or even scary British school teachers with evil quills? I determined that there was always time to reinvent my identity. I wasn’t cooked like an egg. When I read books like Harry Potter, I vicariously grow up all over again, closing the cover and feeling more flexible, ready to stretch and change. It is obvious that I would choose a brave boy wizard to be my proxy. If I can learn something this time around that I didn’t the first time, I want it to be as magical as possible. 

Two years ago I was camped out in front of the local bookstore at 11:55 p.m. wearing a colored wrist band that indicated when I could enter and buy my preordered sixth book. I watched with the crowd as the first small group was allowed in. Afterwards, the employees shut the front doors and for a few minutes nothing happened. Then the doors opened again and a family marched out single file—in stair-step height order: smallest girl, then next boy, then older boy, then mom, then dad. All in full costume, each holding his or her own individual copy of the book above their heads, the crowd parted and cheered as they walked in formation to their car. The moment matched the hype. A celebration that transcended age—even blurred the boundaries between parent and child—as we clapped: we were all sixteen, we were all Harry, and we were all going to beat the Dark Lord.

Ironically, Spoiler Boy is simply a nasty version of everyone else who loves a good coming-of-age story. Though he may believe he is living the adventure in real time, by his own admission of dullness, some day he is going to be reading the rest of the 800 pages just like the rest of us. This blip of naughtiness will not compensate for what seems a sad lack of character development. Perhaps the perfect teenage novel cannot be fully appreciated by anyone under twenty, true revelation coming long after the age when it might be most relevant.

17 responses to “I was a teenage grown-up”

  1. Last year there was a group of kids behind us in Slytherin robes, hoping out loud that Harry would get his ass whooped in the new book. They sang Slytherin songs and chanted Slytherin chants. Your teen villain spoiler boy was playing the same script — still very much part of the story.

    We’re going to be at the Harvard Coop tonight watching Harry and the Potters along with Draco and the Malfoys while we wait …

  2. Scotty says:

    When there’s a big phenom like this I always wonder where all the people came from that care so much about something like a new video game, movie, or book. My guess is that many are the same people who move from being swept-up by the new X-Box to the new Star Wars installment. I would love to hear a professional’s opinion about the drive that pushes some into the perpetual cycle of excitement over such things as to bring them into camping in front of Circuit Cities, movie theaters, and bookstores.

    I understand the excitement, but I don’t understand the need to be a part of the first wave. For many, I presume it has to do with bragging rights, or maybe just the good time associated with hanging out all night with like-minded people (I did sleep out for Rush tickets once, and despite the frost bite on my toes, had a great time).

    To me it seems that your spoiler villain is the logical next step for someone who prides himself on being the first to buy, read, or see something.

    I do understand the anxiety that must come with wanting to read the new HP before the deluge of spoiler articles and over-heard conversations (I spent a couple of weeks in radio-isolation after the final Sopranos episode, which I still have yet to see).

    Anyway, I very much enjoyed your post, and I sincerely hope the final installment lives up to your expectations.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Each morning, I wake up (WCT), hoping to be the first comment of the day on The Great Whatsit. But, by the time I get the eye-boogers cleared, I notice that some Easterner has already beat me to the punch.

    First is the worst, Seconds the best, Third is the one with the treasure chest!

  4. Scotty says:

    And I’m not even an Easterner; I’m all the way out here in California.

  5. lisa t. says:

    Scott, if you like the song “The Trees” by Rush, then you can definitely understand the Harry Potter phenomena.

    Loved this post, PB. Keep fighting the good fight.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    NWCT- North West Coast Time (everything happens in California before it happens in Washington)…

  7. PB says:

    Scotty – I love your question: who are these people who need to be the first in line? In all my millions of ideas for this post (hence the rather scattershot flow), that was one I discarded because I have sort of written about it before. Honestly if it was just the book, I could wait a day. I really love the gathering of people all excited and passionate about something. They get all hyped about the event and I get all hyped watching them get hyped. It feels like communal ritual (see Bryan’s dance post) and since leaving religion I seek it out in the oddest places.

    Marlyfan, you may be third but you are first in my heart (next to Harry and the Brewer boys)

    And I have a question for all GW folks – especially our Lit people. MB says that the coming-of-age novel is a 20th century phenom – that except for Huck Finn, he can’t think of one before the 1900’s. It has something to do with the definition of childhood and the invention of teenagedom. Any thoughts?

    BTW – my wristband color is blue!

  8. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Earlier coming-of-age novels: How about Jane Eyre?

  9. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Also: perhaps Oliver Twist?

  10. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Also: I enjoyed the post, PB. (I’m a secret Potter fan. Shhh.)

  11. lisa t. says:

    Anna Karenina!

  12. Scotty says:

    If I’m not mistaken, childhood as we understand it is an invention of the early-to-mid nineteenth century. The story goes that as education became somewhat of a requirement for adulthood (at least the ability to read the bible), the transformation from children as little adults to children as pupils took place. Therefore, you’d be hard-pressed to find any novels dealing with the transformation from childhood to adulthood before this time.

    Also, this is around the same time that children’s games were being widely invented.

  13. PB says:

    Brilliant! Thank you West Coast Scholars!

    (8.5 hrs to go – as you can see, I am so totally focused on work today)

  14. Scotty says:

    Okay, the following is extremely childish — I apologize:

    NPR just reported that while the president undergoes a colonoscopy, the vice president will handle his duties.

  15. PB says:

    #14 – damn, more spoilers.

  16. I suppose _Pamela_ might be considered a coming-of-age novel, but it’s not like later books more closely tied to the Bildungsroman form, Jane Eyre maybe being the best example. I assume one characteristic is that the protagonist eventually has to enter society? (or run away, as in Huck’s case?) The question is to what degree problems peculiar to our concept of adolescence need to come into play: Pamela or Clarissa or Rousseau’s Julie all face sexual initiation &/or marriage (in Clarissa’s case, rape) as part of the transition to adult womanhood, and so maybe they are closer fits to what we mean by coming-of-age than something like Franklin’s autobiography or novels with male protagonists, which really don’t dwell, before the late 19c, on the perils of a liminal phase between childhood and adulthood. That’s just off the top of my head. I probably haven’t given the question enough thought. Charles Brockden Brown’s _Arthur Mervyn_ (1799) might be considered a coming of age novel of sorts, I suppose: country kid comes to the city, virtue on trial, etc., eventually comes into his own both as narrator and, we assume, a member of society, right at the novel’s close.

    Jeremy — I’ve not read most of Dickens (including Twist): do his characters really “grow up”? What constitute their rites of passage (other than eventually receiving an inheritance)? I can’t remember.

    This sounds like a good question for A White Bear. I don’t suppose she’s lurking on this thread?

  17. Marleyfan says:

    My 16 year old son, said he wasn’t overly interested this time, to get the newest book. He did go get it at midnight, and stayed up all night reading it…