"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Editor’s Note:This review discusses plot developments in the newest Harry Potter novel. Care has been taken not to reveal crucial details — but if you don’t want to know anything about the story, please don’t read it.
The penultimate book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was always destined to be the trickiest of all seven novels. The books are a clever mixture of two hallowed genres — the British boarding school adventure and epic fantasy — with the earlier installments being more of the former and less of the latter. With each new volume, the balance edges more toward what we all know is coming at the very end: a major confrontation between good and evil, when Harry will face off against his nemesis, Lord Voldemort. The sixth novel, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” has the unenviable job of preparing the field for the final showdown, and for the first time, Rowling wobbles just a bit in pulling off the task she’s set for herself. In the end, though, she regains her footing and “Half-Blood Prince” comes together, making it not quite the most graceful novel in the series, but perhaps the most impressive.
You’ll read elsewhere that this book is “darker” or “the darkest yet,” which is as big a revelation as saying it is printed on paper and bound between two pieces of cardboard; Rowling has been announcing exactly this intention for the past six years. In the fourth novel, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” a likeable minor character died; in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” a more likeable and more significant character was killed. So it’s no surprise that a downright agonizing loss occurs in “Half-Blood Prince.” (Expect an unusual number of tearful children this week.) In fact, any reader who’s at all sensitive to the larger narrative arc Rowling is plotting will probably be able to guess where this book’s blow will land.
What’s even more interesting for an adult reader is that “Half-Blood Prince” is the book in which Rowling breaks her formula. By “The Order of the Phoenix,” the basic devices of a Harry Potter plot had become set. It includes an indistinct but growing menace, misguided suspicions entertained by Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione, overlooked details that end up being crucial and a denouement revealing the disguises, deceptions and other tricks by which Harry and company have been threatened from an unexpected quarter. The first few times around, this was great fun; by the sixth book, the prospect of one more lap on the same course had grown less exciting.
But one more lap is not what we get. I won’t elaborate further, except to say that “Half-Blood Prince” relies far less on complicated surprises and twists than any previous Harry Potter book. You could say that this novel is more concerned with difficult truths. By the end of “Half-Blood Prince” most of the coziness has been suctioned out of the series and a much more precarious state of affairs prevails. Rowling has always said that the seven novels — substantially planned out from the very beginning — correspond to the seven years of Harry’s education at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Perhaps more than any actual character, Hogwarts could be the single most beloved element of the Harry Potter books, an institution that — the real-world grimness of boarding schools notwithstanding — children all over the world yearn to enter. By the end of “Half-Blood Prince,” even the future of Hogwarts is in peril.
What Rowling clearly didn’t plan out in advance are the novels’ alternately amusing and somber reflections of current events. While there’s nothing in “Half-Blood Prince” to match the superbly chilling Dolores Umbridge, an acid satire on Britain’s educational reformers from “Order of the Phoenix,” here the echoes show an eerie sense of timing. Now that even the bureaucratic Ministry of Magic has finally admitted that Voldemort is back and can strike anywhere at any time, a rash of mysterious deaths and acts of violence have the wizard community spooked.
In the wizard world’s version of the War on Terror, friends, neighbors, even relatives, might be under an “Imperius Curse,” forced to secretly aid the schemes of Voldemort and his underlings, the Death Eaters. The newspapers are full of stories of unexpected and untimely deaths, the Leaky Cauldron tavern is deserted because people are afraid to leave their homes, and half the shops in Diagon Alley are shuttered, their windows plastered with posters listing the “simple security guidelines” that will “help protect you, your family and your home from attack.” The Ministry of Magic hasn’t really got a handle on the situation, but it has managed to arrest three harmless people, including the friendly driver of the Knight Bus, in order to convince citizens that it’s doing something.
Harry, who was widely reviled at the beginning of “Order of the Phoenix” as a result of a snarky smear campaign in the Daily Prophet, is now heralded as the “Chosen One” who’ll save the wizard world from its enemy. Girls fuss and giggle over him in the Hogwarts hallways, and the school’s new teacher, a name-dropping networker par excellence, keeps inviting him to tea parties for the school’s movers and shakers. (Ron Weasley, in case you’re wondering, never gets asked.) Rowling parodied tabloid reporters with the Rita Skeeter character in “Goblet of Fire;” this time she shows us how alienating it can be when the people around you suddenly decide you’re a celebrity.
This is also the year that Harry and his friends, now 16, graduate from awkward, abortive flirtations to something more like actual dating. Granted, the progress is bumpy and consummation is limited to snogging (these are still children’s’ books, after all). But Harry, recovered from his crush on Cho, experiences the first real stirrings of romantic love, an ordeal (when he witnesses the young lady in the arms of another) that feels like “something large and scaly erupted into life in his stomach, clawing at his insides.” Perhaps even more troubling, what effect will the intrusions of love have on the once-invincible bond uniting Harry, Ron and Hermione?
Most of the middle section of the book deals with the agonies and ecstasies of adolescent social life. There’s no mysterious magical menace stalking the halls of Hogwarts (at least, not according to anyone but Harry, who’s obsessed with spying on his nasty fellow student, Draco Malfoy) and this makes “Half-Blood Prince” less suspenseful than the previous five books. The fantasy thread in this book is mostly taken up with Harry’s private lessons with Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, who at the end of “Order of the Phoenix,” promised to stop treating Harry like a child and tell his student more about the anti-Voldemort campaign.
Dumbledore’s lessons all concern the history of Tom Riddle (Voldemort’s real name), which the two investigate via the Pensieve, a basin through which other peoples’ memories can be entered. This fleshes out the back-story of the whole series, and answers a lot of questions that have no doubt been nagging hardcore fans. But it’s exposition all the same, especially since Dumbledore is called upon to spell out the finer points to Harry. “He preferred to operate alone,” he explains, dropping heavy hints about the qualities that will ultimately save Harry. “Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one.” Later, Dumbledore observes that even back in his Tom Riddle days, Voldemort liked to keep souvenirs of his bad deeds, a bit of analysis that makes the headmaster sound like a profiler describing a serial killer on a cop show.
What Voldemort’s story will remind most readers of, however, is the Darth Vader bio-pics that are the most recent “Star Wars” films. Rowling’s dark lord has gotten scarier since the days when nearly all her characters referred to him by such campy sobriquets as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and You-Know-Who. Exploring his past is one way to increase his gravitas. Another, in the later books, is Voldemort’s power to violate the emotional connections that mean so much to Rowling’s heroes. The more serious the Voldemort story line grows, the less smoothly it blends with the farcical school-daze scrapes Harry and his friends get into, the teapot tempests over homework, sweethearts, exams and Quidditch tournaments.
So it’s no wonder that the middle of “Half-Blood Prince” seems a bit leisurely, all Dumbledore-directed flashbacks and Harry mediating in the jealous spats between Ron and Hermione. This is a transitional book, the one in which Rowling’s readers are gently shown that much of what made them fall in love with her world — the sheltered adventure that is life at Hogwarts — has got to go. Negotiating it seems to have given her some trouble (how, for example, has Harry so thoroughly recovered from the teenage attitude problems that plagued him only a year ago in “Order of the Phoenix”?), but negotiate it she does.
What finally makes “Half-Blood Prince” work is Rowling’s commitment to going beyond all the wildly popular and genuinely charming trademarks that no doubt make her feel safe as an author. There are relatively few fanciful new magical tricks or creatures introduced, and no wacky new characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that with “Half-Blood Prince” Rowling has written a grown-up’s novel, with all the refusal of easy comforts the label implies, but she’s moving in that direction. And she’s moving with absolute conviction, a force that can be just about irresistible in the hands of a talented writer. Like it or not, adulthood is the next stop for the Hogwarts Express.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)