The day after the Brexit referendum, British writer Bim Adewunmi wrote a beautiful piece in Buzzfeed about her pain, her frustration, and her fear. It took in the scope of British history — “Am I being dramatic? This feels like a dramatic moment” — and her upbringing in East London; the child of Nigerian immigrants, Adewunmi wrote that the result confirmed things she had long suspected about her home country. The line that stuck with me, that day and all the other days of 2016 that followed, was, “Can you be unsurprised but still quite shocked at the same time?”
Shocked but not surprised. This is the 2016 that I’ve struggled to reconcile with. In my reading life, it wasn’t a year of discovery; it was a long, protracted struggle to find clarity in things I knew — or things I thought I knew. As an American recently booted out of England by the Home Office, the consecutive earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump are invariably my two pillars of this garbage fire of a year. But even the smaller points in my life needed reorientation. Sometimes books show me new worlds; this year, I needed books to expose parts of the worlds I already knew.
It started with Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, which I finished in the earliest, bleakest days of the year. I am from a place that gets extra bleak in January, and Hunt’s novel is set near my hometown, across the broad stretch of New York state from Albany to Buffalo. Mr. Splitfoot, partly about a foster child raised in an abusive, fundamentalist family, is exquisite, both literally and physically haunting, and it tapped into my long-held fascination with the “burned-over district,” that broad stretch of central and western New York that saw wave after wave of religious fervor in the 19th century. As I read it, I thought about those endless drives to see my family in Buffalo growing up, vast stretches of flat brown land, ripe for true belief.
In the spring, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book that was incredibly meaningful to me, but one I know has been fairly controversial in the past few years, so I won’t discuss it at length here. (I’m a bit gun-shy after last year’s YiR, when I dove into a list of books I loved and a man asked why I hadn’t read any Thomas Hardy.) If you’ve read it, you’ll be unsurprised to know it left me regularly weeping on the R train — luckily the best possible train for weeping. I was knocked off my axis, but I found my bearings again not in any published novels, but in fanfiction, my oldest and most well-documented love.
I haven’t read much fic the past few years, despite building a career writing about it, but I fell back in over the final weeks of 2015, and this big, complicated, highly emotional book pushed me deeper into fanfiction, a realm where emotionality — affect, scholars call it — is king. I’ve long held a rule that I won’t recommend fic in the context of being a literary critic — one could argue it violates the contract between largely amateur writers and the assumed audience — but that’s a shame, because I read stories this year, many of them novel-length, that were as good as anything I encountered that was traditionally published. (I said something similar in a previous YiR, but I’m doubling down, because some of the stuff I found this year was extraordinary.) If you’re curious, there’s my fanfiction newsletter, co-authored with Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. It was born in January 2016, and it remains one of the small and steady joys of the year.
I spent the first few months of the year listening to various David Bowie albums on repeat, a response to his death that was part maudlin, part joyful, part “when I start listening to a certain album I just play it over and over again for longer than is probably healthy.” If everyone had a celebrity death that hit them hardest this year, this was mine. Even within the legions of Bowie-ites, the stuff people wallowed in served as an interesting Rorschach to see where or how they came to David Bowie, or which of his many personas spoke to them. I lingered with Ziggy, and in the final days of spring, I purchased a pair of books to try to get a little context. The first was the one I intended to buy after a bit of research, The Man Who Sold the World by Peter Doggett. The second was the one I stumbled upon, Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust by Simon Goddard. The former was grounding, but the latter shot me off into the stars.
But in late June, earthquake number one. I haven’t written much about Brexit, even though as someone who was stymied by Britain’s increasingly hostile immigration policies — and as someone who spent college studying British imperial history — I, unsurprisingly, have fairly strong feelings about what went down. (Though it’s always worth mentioning that while I was a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, I was a white, well-educated American; I didn’t face the discrimination most foreigners battle in the country.) To process the results, I found comfort in looking backwards rather than trying to wrap my head around an extraordinarily uncertain future. I spent the summer steadily working my way through When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett, and I watched Britain join the EEC — and all the conflict that surrounded the move — to try to understand its departure.
In August I got a concussion; all reading was put on hold save slogging through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I had some…strong feelings about. But by September, it was impossible to think about anything other than November 8th. I envied friends who could compartmentalize, who weren’t consumed by the uncertainty hanging over us. I campaigned for Hillary Clinton within my own sphere — reaching out to millennials in fannish spaces, trying to push past the apathy and disillusionment. (Yeah, I’ve seen the numbers, definitely feels like we failed on this front.) And in the final days before the election, I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, one of a long list of extraordinary books I really should have read by now. I read it on the train on my way to the Javits Center on election day, where I would wait with a few friends for hours, amongst a vast, diverse crowd of nervous but hopeful people. And then.
I am still envious of those compartmentalizing friends, of the people who take comfort in fictional worlds during times of strife. Books have never helped to distract me; in the darkest moments of my life, they are absent. The trouble with using reading to help focus on the things we’re seeing around us is we have to keep looking, eyes wide open, and it’s a brutal task as every day unveils fresh horrors. In the weeks after the election, multiple people in my feed were posting passages of Hannah Arendt, so I looked back to a little cluster of books on the very top shelf in my apartment, stuff from school I thought I might revisit some day. My freshman year of college, I took a very liberal artsy course called “Evil,” which straddled philosophy and political science. We spent about a week talking about how the image of the devil changed over the centuries, and I remember I did my final paper on the dearth of female serial killers, but the bulk of the course was about the Second World War — not about the Nazis, but about the German people. Up on my top shelf, I realized I’d kept most of the syllabus. Friedrich Nietzsche, W.G. Sebald, Arendt.
I’m desperate to understand, as I have been all year. That desperation is obviously about control, feeling like you’ve lost something that, in all honesty, you probably never even had. I’m trying to keep a hold on a world that feels like it’s made up of a mass of delicate threads, this close to snapping. So that’s me, reading Eichmann in Jerusalem on the subway in the days following the election of Donald Trump. In the dark corners of the R train, I’m not weeping anymore. People look up at my book and do a double-take. It feels hyperbolic, but like, maybe not? And also, it helps.
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In late July, a kind of spell fell over London’s West End as the latest iteration of the Harry Potter saga opened: a play that even the New York Times’ imperious theatre critic Ben Brantley deemed magical. “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later,” as the tagline goes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 picks up where the last film left off, as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, and their receding hairlines drop their Hogwarts-bound offspring at Platform 9 ¾. Subsequently released as a script, The Cursed Child almost immediately broke book sales records, consumed, like the “Hamiltome,” by hundreds of thousands of fans who have no hope of ever finding their way inside the theater.
Whether you consider Harry Potter and The Cursed Child exhilarating fan service or terrible fanfic, its purpose is less to give us a “where are they now?” than to exhume the original series and examine the workings of the plot. The discovery of a contraband Time Turner by Albus Potter and Scorpio Malfoy — the sons of Harry and Draco — allows us to consider a Ronmione-free future; a scenario in which Potter and Malfoy offspring are sorted into Slytherin and develop a close, Drarry-like bond; and the cosmic importance of that gif of Neville Longbottom slaying Nagini. But beyond the threads of parental legacies and the heroism of friendship, going back in time to fiddle with the knobs teaches us one thing above all: the formative properties of humiliation.
[SPOILERS] When Scorpio Malfoy and Albus Potter travel back to 1995 to save Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Cup, they disarm him, tweaking the events of the Yule Ball such that Hermione believes Viktor Krum played a part in sabotaging Cedric, and attends the Yule Ball with platonic friend Roonil instead. Without the Hermione-Krum pairing, Ron is never humiliated into admitting his feelings for his buddy (in the original story, “Ron got jealous and behaved like a prat”); without the catalyst of the crying on the stairs and ginger angst, Ron marries Padma Patil, and has a naughty son, Pradu. (Won’t someone think of Pradu?) Our lamb Cedric is still killed.
On a second trip back to 1995, Scorpio and Albus inadvertently humiliate Cedric with an engorgement spell that puts him out of the running for the cup. This ripples into a future in which the spiteful Cedric is a Death Eater (so un-Hufflepuff!), Harry is killed and Voldemort lives on as lord: “SCORPIUS: Humiliating Cedric turns him into a very angry young man, and then he became a Death Eater and—and—it all went wrong. Really wrong… He killed Professor Longbottom.” Yes, patron saint of awkward adolescence, the late-blooming Neville Longbottom, is another victim of this alternate future in which people greet each other with the humorless “For Voldemort and Valor.”
Worse, perhaps, killing off Harry in a more efficient manner (fewer books) robs us of perhaps the greatest gif of all time; that of the infamous Draco-Voldey hug that comes to mind any time I find myself in a conspicuous social situation.
The Draco we see in a meddled-with future in which Voldemort lives is the same knob we know from the original book series, sans-humiliating clinch, rather than the soft, aggrieved “Sorry about your floor, Minerva” Draco introduced at the beginning of The Cursed Child — a character who appears to be a better father than Harry.
The common theme with all of these toggles is humiliation. To even get the Time Turner, located inside Minister of Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley’s office, young Albus Potter takes polyjuice to disguise himself as his Uncle Ron, and winds up kissing his aunt (“Let’s have another baby!”), as his disgusted friend Scorpio watches on.
Make no mistake, bollocksing things up in front of your peers and suffering a metaphysical death from embarrassment is a fundamental part of the British human condition, if one that is downplayed in the fan worship abroad. The parts of Harry Potter most glommed onto by Americans are patriotic concerns like honorable sacrifice, bravery in the face of an existential threat, unabashed declarations of love, and a fierce work ethic. But the heart of Harry Potter is really the Weasley’s burrow, that den of poor, gangly, knit-sweatered gingers, and perhaps most emphatically in the character of the endlessly put-upon Won-Won.
You can feel the difference of tone in the recently announced American wizarding houses, which lack the whimsy and ironic pride of their British counterparts: where the name Gryffindor is linguistically silly enough to give its position as the Hero House a self-deprecating vibe, “Thunderbird” sounds just a bit too into itself. My American husband was recently sorted into Hufflepuff and covered his head with a pillow, misunderstanding the hidden honor in being deemed a badger. Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard; in the U.S., there isn’t the offsetting pride in being the slightly silly underdog.
Contrast Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: both are flame-haired buffoons, but Trump is virtually incapable of admitting his own stupidity, where Johnson will at least give us a self-effacing photo op in a climbing harness. Britons are, as ever, on the watch for numpties.
Back to literature, Evelyn Waugh’s hero Paul Pennyfeather kicks off Decline and Fall with a drunk, trouserless jog through Scone College that gets him booted from Oxford and installed as a teacher at a boarding school. From there, things generally get more and more degrading (“‘We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr. Levy, ‘School is pretty bad.’”), until he fakes his own death and starts again. It’s the penultimate British tale!
Or consider Lucky Jim, whose hapless Dixon exists in a world of imbeciles, each stupider than the last. The dramatic high point of the novel comes when Dixon gets up to deliver a lecture and prove himself to the gallery shortly after taking a couple of “tonics” to calm his nerves. The result is a mash of hysterical incoherence, accents, and impersonations that sends the hall into disarray and gave me such an exhilarating sense of spiritual shame on Dixon’s behalf that I needed four crumpets to overcome my emotions.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice is really just “well-to-do people desperately trying to stave off public embarrassment” — which is why the moment where Mr. Bennet ushers Mary off the pianoforte is one of the most cringe-worthy for me — and adapted nicely into the reindeer sweater and sundry indignities of Bridget Jones’s Diary, while one of the worst single details in 1984 is the humiliating way that husband and wife engage in sexual relations (“She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating, but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and, after a while, horrifying.”). Even Thomas Hardy understood how generally embarrassing it was to be a woman in Victorian England. More recently, Caitlin Moran turned adolescent awkwardness into a roaring tale with her YA novel How to Build a Girl.
The promise of English literature, and YA lit most especially, is that we shall rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our latest mortification.
Several years ago on a ski-date, I tumbled down a cliff face after an attempt to gracefully execute a jump turn failed, and I found myself leaning out into space. My skis were plucked from my feet as I somersaulted over and over, beaming off my back, head, shoulders. Certain that this was my last, sublime mistake in this world, the only thought that crossed my mind was, “How embarrassing this is, the hot guy from ski school watching me die.” That is how deep my instinct to shame runs; that is the legacy the British bequeathed my homeland, Australia.
But is it heroic? I think the opposite; being cut down a peg or two stops the metastasizing of narcissistic personalities, the ultimate example of which is Voldemort, with his various attempts to stow his soul in different places. In The Cursed Child, the most sympathetic character is the sweet Scorpius Malfoy, who grows up dogged with the rumors that he was the product of some freaky time-travel IVF with Voldey.
Embarrassment allows a concession, a change of heart, a level of empathy, where the earnestness of someone who knows they are right does not. People aren’t crazy to feel like the atmosphere amid the election is a little Wizarding War-ish; the problem is that everyone is so entrenched in their positions, so coddled in self-righteousness, that compromise and conversation have become impossible.
J.K. Rowling, who didn’t write The Cursed Child (though she conceived the story with John Tiffany and the playwright Jack Thorne), has been the flashpoint for any criticism, most commonly for creating plot holes in the original story, and for allowing its weaknesses to be re-examined in this speculative trip back. I’m all aboard the bandwagon though, because a willingness to sift the contents of her masterpiece before an audience of millions, and even allow us to second-guess her choices, has to be unprecedented among authors. It’s almost as though she’s letting us go through her old wardrobe, where we are guaranteed to pull out her parachute pants and tiny backpacks and squeal “What is this?!!!” And that’s a bit heroic.