Pottermania, Anglophilia, and minimal enchantmentsKeshava Guha’s debut novel, Accidental Magic, attempts to delve into the murky ground between the virtual and the real, literary and literal, the mind in solitude and its transformation within a clique.
Indian emigrant Kannan has read no other book except his course books—until he chances upon the Harry Potter (HP) series. In the US, the mediocre student’s life becomes entangled with Grimmet, an elderly chat show host with a special love for HP and England. Back in Madras, India, young Malathi scours the city for the latest HP book before organising a quiz for children based on the series. Meanwhile, in Boston, a heartbroken Harvard graduate, Rebecca, turns to HP for solace. At an event, she hears 13-year-old Ezra Miller claiming the HP series is “the most important books of our time.” From just reading the books as a distraction, she eventually seeks permission to enter the HP4BK website—Harry Potter for Big Kids—thus stepping squarely into fandom.
Keshava Guha’s debut novel, Accidental Magic, attempts to delve into the murky ground between the virtual and the real, literary and literal, the mind in solitude and its transformation within a clique. For a work of art that circumnutates the fantasy world created by the seven-part HP series (of which only four are published at the time the book is set), the novel (and/or its characters) displays practical and quite routine objectives: (a) To establish HP as the great literature of our time; (b) To debate the pros and cons of fan fiction; (c) To dissect friendships and relationships built around HP; (d) To take forward the Harry/Hermione (H/H) ship; (e) To explore ways to sneakily integrate HP in every life around the earth; (f) To examine and analyse Anglophilia, particularly in the context of the Indian who was previously oppressed by the British, but in an example of Stockholm syndrome, seems obsessed with the race, their productions, and the country; and (g) To demonstrate a love-hate relationship with Harvard and all that the Ivy League stands for.
An interesting start for a thesis or HP 101, certainly, but a novel? The story runs away with itself. It’s quite bizarre and wild and inexplicable—to be lauded for its fresh approach, but eventually a botched experiment. Accidental Magic defies description, which could be an absolute brownie point for a novel, but here it works in the opposite way. The writer commands his words to his will, the novel itself is perceptive and overflowing with knowledge of the human mind in the .com era, yet it does not all come together as a seamless whole.
To base an entire novel on minute details and spin-offs of HP, a kind of breathless and adolescent exaltation that can be dense and incomprehensible to non-HP readers, is a risk. While the author has mentioned time and again that reading (or not reading) HP has nothing to do with the novel, it does have everything to do with the novel. You cannot choose a setting for your work of literature, and then deny its overbearing strands hanging from every corner. For ardent HP-lovers, especially, the work is a puzzle, wrapped up so deeply and completely in its clubs and bonding that a reader may scarcely peep in. Just like Rebecca doesn’t quite ‘get’ Kannan, it is quite a task to ‘get’ this book.
It is easy to love the novel when it starts out. Nostalgia hits you hard, even if you weren’t a 70s kid growing up in India. “Back in Bangalore, in the last year at engineering college, it had been Kannan’s habit of bunking Friday class with his friends Vinay and Ashok in favour of a morning show at the cinema, Tamil or Hindi if they had to , but ideally Hollywood, and to lunch at the Tao Fu Bar and Restaurant, consisting of Chicken Manchurian and rum or whisky with Pepsi, at retail price.” Kannan is a knock-off version of his brother Santhanam (now Santa C. Nam), the imitation “as pitiful as a low-budget Tamil remake of a Hollywood action film.” Endearing as this is, it is quite a challenge for a novel on a migrating Indian to be different—loss, attachment, unbelonging, forgetting, embracing—so much has already been discussed these last many decades.
The novel veers off the emotional path by introducing something quite new—a friendship that starts with a mutual love for Harry Potter, such a telling story of our time. A young adult tumbling precariously into manhood and an eccentric radio presenter old enough to be his father bond over a HP purchase, creating a background for what could be an exciting examination of literary relationships. Alas, it never arrives, instead ending with characters vying to lay themselves at the feet of Kannan. Kannan, whose growth arc does not deserve any of this, who has to be one of the most irritation-inducing and ungrateful characters to exist, who displays no agency except penning a few lines over a relationship in HP. In fact, none of the characters draw you to them except for Malathi, a warm and sensible presence who suffers from the hands of the thoughtless (troubled, some might see him as) Kannan.
There are issues embedded deep into the novel that are certainly on the minds of many, many people: how lonely we are in the midst of a burgeoning crowd, how our virtual friendships rarely translate into fulfilling relationships, how the real and the virtual are so mixed up in our minds we lose context. But there is little coherence or clarity in dealing with any of these. The novel ends up being too preppy, too niche, overflowing with literary references and inside ‘philosophies.’ Rebecca’s father, a professor, treats her thus: “When, as a freshman, she had threatened to concentrate in social anthropology, he sent her a paper by Martha Nusbaum denouncing cultural relativism. The news that she was dating a final-club jock was met with a selection from Heloise’s letters to Abelard, and her decision to join IvyEdge by Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and On the Jewish Question.” The same father also treats us to a sudden and irrelevant sermon on menstrual syncing. We get it, it’s a satire on the extremely pedantic, but it is still quite unnecessary to the plot.
There is also a constant need to validate Harry Potter and ‘protect’ its reads – comparing it to Shakespeare’s work and justifying its ‘mystery’ when Harold Bloom disses it for not being ‘a literary genius in the classical sense.’ This novel, it must be repeated, is not a thesis on the virtues of the HP series, nor need a novel, at regular intervals, harp on the wonderful world created by the HP’s fan fiction.
This is a novel that happens completely in the author’s mind (like all works of fiction), perhaps gives the author a great deal of pleasure for being able to get the HP theme off his chest, but is unable to translate the idea into the actual pages (unlike the lively, enchanting and refreshing fiction it could be).
Author: Keshava Guha
Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher India