“Can 35 million book buyers be wrong?” the notorious literary critic Harold Bloom asked in July 2000 in an article in the Wall Street Journal. When it came to JK Rowling, his answer was an unequivocal “yes”. “They have been, and will continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter,” he wrote, dripping condescension on the writer whose writing style he felt was “heavy on cliche,″ made “no demands upon her readers” and was contributing to the “dumbing down” of literature. Of course, by the time Bloom died in October this year at the age of 89, the extent of this grouse had expanded to a significantly higher number of half a billion book buyers.
Bloom’s infamous takedown is gleefully recommended to one of the protagonists of Keshava Guha’s Accidental Magic early on in the novel, with the hope that her newfound regard for Rowling will be sufficiently dampened. Later, during a visit to see her parents, the 23-year-old Rebecca is told by her father, a professor of political philosophy, that she needs to read an “antidote” instead – JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – books that would “repair” her relationship to reality, and to put aside the infantilizing Harry Potter books. “Since when do you read children’s books instead of literature?” he asks incredulously.
Now famously age-agnostic, the frenzied popularity of the Harry Potter books among adults in the early years of the series took publishers, critics, and even Rowling entirely by surprise. The novelist AS Byatt – with less hand wringing than Bloom about the tragedy of it all – attempted to explain why the books had so many grown-ups in their thrall in an essay in 2003. “Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery,” she wrote. “They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.”
Guha’s preferred urban jungle in his debut novel is Boston, where he went to university, with quick forays into Bangalore and Chennai. Set mostly during 1999-2001, around the time of the publication of the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Accidental Magic switches back and forth between the perspectives – although told in the third person – of four adults whose lives become connected through Rowling’s novels.
Kannan, a socially awkward engineering student from Bangalore, lives in the shadow of a much more accomplished brother and moves to Boston to study, experiencing “aloneness” for the first time instead of the loneliness he had anticipated. Curtis, a liberal 54-year-old American public radio show host moderates a Harry Potter fan site and befriends the young Kannan in the queue of a bookstore as they wait for the release of the fourth book. Rebecca, the daughter of academics and a Harvard graduate herself, is left floundering and questioning her life decisions when she’s abruptly dumped by her boyfriend, turning to Harry Potter quite by accident. And then there’s Malathi, a young woman from Chennai arranged to be married to Kannan, and whose love for Rowling’s books and reading in general forms one of the more endearing parts of the novel.
This eclectic cast of characters, we are led to believe, would not have had much to do with each other were it not for Rowling’s books. But even more than her fiction, it’s the online fandom surrounding it that draws them in.
In 1999-2000, as the internet proliferated, reimagined as a space of sociability rather than mere functionality, die-hard fans of Harry Potter were going through a crisis of their own. There was a three-year gap between the fourth and fifth books, and desperate to know what happened next, many readers just decided to make it up themselves.
Now dubbed the “Three-Year-Summer” it was a period of fertile creation, discussion and obsession with all things Potter. Fansites, discussion forums and fan fiction sprouted across the world, taking characters, plots, events and settings from the Harry Potter books and turning them into stories that were entirely their own. Some of these series ran into millions of words, others reimagined queer pairings – there’s a special place in fandom’s heart for a torrid romance between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter – and characters of colour, filling the gaps in Rowling’s predominantly white, normative imaginings of life in contemporary Britain, despite all the witchcraft and wizardry. Rowling’s incessant (and often infuriating) inclusive reframing of her novels in recent years, in fact – Dumbledore having been gay all along, Hermione being black – mostly through controversial social media posts is just a messy form of catch-up to what fan fiction dared to imagine nearly two decades ago.
Despite being tuned into the contours of how race shapes identity in America – Kannan’s Indianness is often on the minds of Curtis (a combination of light exoticisation and white guilt) and Rebecca (to assess compatibility) – Guha chooses to orient the primary fandom concern of his characters along a more divisive slice of that time. “Shipping”, shorthand for relationships, was all about heated debates about who would end up together, Harry and Hermione or Ron and Hermione, and forms the main thread of fandom obsession for Curtis, Kannan and Rebecca.
Like the fan fiction its protagonists read obsessively, Accidental Magic is much more interested in people and their relationships with each other rather than plot. Guha spends a majority of the book narrating the thoughts that propel his characters – lengthy expositions that I often found tedious, not least because the novel, in what frequently ails ambitious debuts, attempts a deeper excavation of big ideas than it is capable of. Guha’s protagonists are occasionally lumped with the performance of grander concerns than they merit, or unfairly forced to think and speak in anodyne truisms. Take “Kannan had no truck with expectations, they were only the preconditions for disappointments”, for instance.
The relationships between some of the characters don’t fare much better, mostly because of a plotline that elevates Kannan, a dull, uninspiring and small-minded character to the level of a central protagonist. The anxieties and shifting hierarchies of the friendship between Kannan and Curtis form one of the central knots of the novel but the older man’s disproportionate interest in the engineer of limited interests and tepid ambition remains largely inexplicable despite his evident loneliness.
Yet Guha possesses an astute ability to create a strong sense of place, and to capture moments of both sharp insight about communication and connections in a time before social media and tenderness, especially when writing about the young Malathi, a character we hear unfortunately little from compared to the others. It’s in an avowed determination to take itself too seriously, to remain emotionally insulated, to forsake the potential for levity, playfulness and the sheer relief and joy of belonging that fandom engenders, that the novel lets itself down.
Martin Amis once said that the style of his fellow novelist JM Coetzee was “predicated on transmitting absolutely no pleasure.” In Accidental Magic, Rebecca, having finally read her father’s recommendations of the South African writer and Philip Roth echoes a similar feeling: “I thought: I don’t want all this self-importance...just no lightness anywhere. Unremitting seriousness.”
I may not have felt quite so completely bereft of pleasure at the end of Guha’s novel, but for a book stemming from a body of literature that celebrates imagination, wonder and heart above all, it’s missing more than anything else, a touch of magic.