Escapism seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most of us, I wasn’t handling terrorism especially well. I was wholly unqualified to search through rubble or soothe the relatives of the missing. I hadn’t prayed for 21 years. My skills as a fashion-magazine editor were pointless; there were no hot lines for lively puns about amoral mass destruction. Wit vanished; irony offended. Every wall in my Manhattan neighborhood near the armory was papered with “lost human” posters.
People on TV kept assuring me that “life, as we know it, will never be the same,” and though this reminded me of the melodramatic piffle that high-school seniors write in each other’s yearbooks, it also led me to eat five grilled-cheese sandwiches in under an hour.
Why die dieting?
What I needed-more than CNN, more than the latest civilian video of the World Trade Center imploding (“see it from an acute 78-degree angle!”)-was comfort and, I can admit it, distraction.
So I turned to Harry Potter.
The feverishly anticipated movie about the boy wizard, which opens next week and has been widely hailed as just-what-this-country-needs, wasn’t available yet. So, pulling the four Harry books by J.K. Rowling from my shelf, I took to my bed with a bucket of fried chicken, set my white-noise machine to “birds”-no, too Tippi Hedren … let’s try “sea waves”-and burrowed in to reread them all. What, I reckoned, could transport me further from hourly corpse updates than a mixture of synthetic ocean sounds and magic?
My comfort strategy worked at first. I again met young Harry Potter, an orphan with a tendency to make strange things happen and one of literature’s best examples of the alienated genius-boy. Unloved, he lives with paranoid, miserly relatives who force him to sleep in a Nintendo-less cupboard. Then-and it’s a big then-his life explodes when it’s revealed that he’s actually the son of legendary magical folk, and is whisked off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to fulfill his destiny.
Harry’s new life at the school is nothing like mine, past or present. (The only thing magical about my high-school days was the way Sandra Kaminsky, a hopeless pothead, got 98 percent on the chemistry final.) However, if you’ve ever secretly suspected you have a “destiny,” even a ho-hum one, it’s impossible to stop at this point. I chose a meaty-looking drumstick from my bucket and, newly indifferent to Vice President Cheney’s secret location, read on.
Harry thrives at Hogwarts: Friendships bloom, rivalries simmer, broomstick-based sports are mastered. It’s a funny, cool world of sardine-flavored jelly beans and mirrors that reveal your “deepest, desperate desires”-as if a boarding-school novel much juicier than Tom Brown’s Schooldays is taking place in Narnia. Given that, at the time, my own world held the not-very-enchanting possibility that I could be crop-dusted to death, it seemed like a safe haven.
By mid-September, I had zipped through the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone , and plowed into the second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets . I carted it with me as I walked to the falafel place through streets clogged with missing-person posters, wind-strewn and pigeon-fouled, and limp floral tributes. I read it while I bobbed up and down on the dubious Ellipse machine at the New York Sports Club. (Why die fat?) But then something disturbing happened.
It all began to seem impossibly familiar.
Despite myself, I started to see these seemingly innocent books as an extended analogy for the terrorist attacks on the W.T.C. and their aftermath. And it was not good.
As the series progresses, it grows darker. Harry’s nemesis, the universally feared Lord Voldemort, becomes an ever-present threat to Harry’s life at Hogwarts. Incidentally, Hogwarts is a vast, glittering, multi-towered castle that, like Manhattan, can only be reached by water or underground tunnels. Even without a Bloomingdale’s, it’s a bustling, demanding, iconic place: If a boy wizard can make it there, he can make it anywhere.
Lord Voldemort, who has a taste for turbans, delivers such pronouncements as: “There is no such thing as good and evil. There is only power, and those too fearful to seek it.” He is introduced as a shadowy presence, living far away in hiding, rebuilding his network of blindly loyal followers who are willing to die in order to destroy Harry and the school. While it’s not specified whether Voldemort has promised these followers 70 black-eyed virgins when they arrive in heaven, he was clearly a metaphor for Osama bin Laden. My sense of comfort plummeted.
Nevertheless, I began the third book as September ebbed away, dismissing my analogy theory as bunkum, the rantings of an MSNBC-addled man.
But further parallels began to stack up. After the initial attempt on Harry’s life in the first book, a siege mentality takes hold of the castle. There’s an increased police presence, in the form of ominous hooded figures called Dementors who guard Hogwarts 24/7. Major sporting events are canceled. Old gray-haired men huddle and strategize. Personal freedoms are curtailed, and a hysteria for racial profiling sweeps the school, targeting “Muggles” (the half-breed students with only one magical parent). When Harry receives a mysterious gift, a state-of-the-art Firebolt broomstick, it is viewed with extreme suspicion and snatched from his hands so it can be “de-jinxed” by the Hogwarts’ equivalent of a bomb expert.
Once-charming details like the “Howlers”-angry letters that literally yell bloody murder at the recipient and then explode-lost their charm once CNN began reporting the threat of bloodless anthrax attacks. As I moved deeper into the third book, the students at Hogwarts deal with the growing fear of Voldemort’s dark magic: invisible, unpredictable and deadly.
Meanwhile, Americans were dealing with the growing fear of terrorist chemical warfare: invisible, unpredictable, deadly and for real.
I didn’t make it to the fourth book. I didn’t even finish the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban . Despite its cheerful, pastel-illustrated cover, it began to seem rather menacing. (National Guardsmen at the Philadelphia International Airport seemed to agree; in a bizarre coincidence, they seized this same book from a traveler trying to board a flight on Oct. 10, spent 20 minutes studying it, and ultimately denied him the right to fly.)
After the failure of Harry, I tried hot baths. I saw Zoolander . I found new ways to rationalize grilled-cheese sandwiches as “homeland defense” and set my white-noise machine permanently on “rain.” I pawed hopelessly at other books. But nothing delivered any real escape until I came upon Goodbye, Columbus at the Kip’s Bay library. I’d never read Philip Roth’s 1959 novella about a young, working-class Jewish-American who becomes enthralled by a richer, and very casually wicked, Jewish-American princess in New Jersey. There’s nothing magical about the plot: Boy meets girl, boy idolizes girl, boy bullies girl into buying a diaphragm. Owls play no role in this sexually charged summer courtship. But even at a stingy 138 pages, it allowed me to travel a million miles from our messed-up planet for a lovely while. And as I read this eloquently mundane story, I didn’t think once about jihads.
Or sardine-flavored jelly beans.