Note: This article contains spoilers for the theatrical production, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
In my recent installment of The End of Endings, I wrote that, for Game of Thrones‘ Jon Snow, “death and life were part of the larger narrative trend that has turned into a narrative law: no one stays dead.” Since then, people have written to let me know all of the resurrected characters I left out. It’s a long list.
Yet, for me, the subject is less the litany of resurrections than their repercussions for stories and, maybe, for life itself. In 2016, two stories illustrated these implications in nearly opposite ways: on one end of the cultural spectrum, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the play written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, based on the story by JK Rowling; on the other, the novel Zero K by Don DeLillo. DeLillo, National Book Award winner, PEN/Faulkner Award winner, American Book Award winner, Jerusalem Prize recipient, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction nominee, represents a writer as synonymous with literary acclaim as Rowling, who has sold over 400 million Harry Potter series books, is for commercial success. Yet in 2016, both seemed insistent on rethinking the nature of endings. Together, they seem to criticize our current state of deathlessness, where characters live and die as many times as the story, or, increasingly, the franchise requires, with each resurrection lowering the narrative stakes but at the same time bringing a peculiar kind of comfort to the reader or viewer.
A sort-of sequel to the previous seven novels, set 19 years later, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reveals Harry as the middle-aged Head of Magical Law Enforcement and married to Ginny Weasely. The action centers on their unfortunately named younger son, Albus Severus, and his time-turning adventures with new best-friend, Scorpius Malfoy (yes, son of that Malfoy) at Hogwarts. At first glance, the play defies the conventional idea that time stops once a book ends and disrupts the seeming stability and hope of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows‘ epilogue. Harry and the others seem to have been aging in real time while we weren’t looking, because now that Harry is a married adult he is too boring to write about, always the unspoken message of the fairy tale ending: “They live happily ever after, because nothing interesting happened to them ever again.” Even then, though, the play would still be in keeping with one of the series’ most powerful and ironic ideas: that a magical world should be as mundane and distressing as our own, centering on rules, social castes, ministries, prejudice, and, worst of all, school.
In bringing the characters back and adding their progeny, the play becomes about the passage of time itself, and then what going back and changing the story could have meant. Dead headmaster Dumbledore, as in Deathly Hallows, continues to communicate with Harry, and the reader, here in the form of a magically sentient painting; for plot purposes, death cannot stop Dumbledore from functioning as a living character. And through the narrative magic of time travel, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child brings back, at least temporarily, formerly deceased characters, most notably Cedric Diggory, the pivotal death in the series.
For many fans, Cedric’s death in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire suggested that the series, along with its initial readership, was growing up, able to handle the darker, more mature idea that a student at Hogwarts, not just villains or adult characters, could die and, with his death, usher in the return of Voldemort. In Cursed Child, Albus and Scorpius are persuaded by Delphi Diggory, a new character claiming to be the niece of Cedric’s father Amos, to go back in time to save Cedric. But not surprisingly, their plan goes awry, with each attempt creating a series of unintended consequences and butterfly effects on the events of the novels that readers have enshrined. Their changes to the continuity ultimately turn Cursed Child into the YA genre that the Harry Potter series itself was supplanted by, a Hunger Games-style dystopia where Harry is dead and Voldemort reigns supreme. Harry is resurrected by the boys’ continued interference in the stories we thought we knew, with the additional twist that Delphi is the daughter of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, a detail that also interferes with the stories we thought we knew, in a different way. Their seeming failure was part of her evil plan to bring Voldemort back from the dead the whole time.
It is not, of course, Albus and Scorpius who have rewritten the story as much as Rowling herself, arguably acting through Delphi, whose name is less prophetic than backward looking. With a decade of Pottermore, public statements, and Tweets, Rowling has been unable to leave the series alone, to let it stand on its own or rest in peace, perhaps best satirized by this tweet: “*jk rowling wakes up* what’s today’s tweet *spins large bingo cage* hagrid… is… pansexual and… he later joined isis”
Through her foray into this time-travelling sequel and with the next series of movie prequels, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Harry Potter, or at least his wizarding world, joins Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Marvel as yet another fictional universe from which we never need part. Yet when Deathly Hallows ended, readers finally got to see Voldemort vanquished, and in its epilogue, see Harry finally earn what he’d always most desired, going back to his vision in the Mirror of Erised in Sorcerer’s Stone: a family. That would, or could, have been enough. Now, readers get to see him age, work and struggle with his kids, so that, near the end of Cursed Child, after the proper timeline has been restored and Voldemort defeated again again, father and son bond over their similarities:
Albus: I’ll try to be a better son. I know I’m not James [his older brother], Dad, I’ll never be like you two—
Harry: James is nothing like me.
Albus: Isn’t he?
Harry: Everything comes easy for James. My childhood was a constant struggle.
Albus: So was mine. So you’re saying—am I—like you?
Harry smiles at Albus.
Harry: Actually you’re more like your mum—bold, fierce, funny—which I like—which I think makes you a pretty great son.
Albus: But I almost destroyed the world.
But we, like Albus, shouldn’t worry. The destruction of the world is safely at bay because that would mean the end of the Harry Potter universe, and Rowling and her fans, unlike poor Harry himself, have no desire for an ending.
On the other hand, Zero K, the most recent novel by Don DeLillo, raises the possibility that death, or even staying dead, is not, to borrow from Sherlock Holmes, the final problem. The problem, like Cursed Child, is who has to die, and what happens next. Like Cursed Child, Zero K feels high concept—instead of Harry’s son on a time-turning quest, Zero K is narrated by Jeffrey, son of billionaire Ross Lockhart who, with his terminally ill second wife Artis, attempts to subvert death through cryogenics. As Ross explains to Jeffrey, “The time will come when there are ways to counteract the circumstances that led to the end. Mind and body are restored, returned to life.”
Somehow, without realizing it, for both DeLillo and Rowling, death, the end of the world, and endings themselves are best emblematized by a dysfunctional father/son relationship. But unlike Cursed Child, this is no adventure story, with no acts ending in cliffhanger stage directions like “He’s coming. He’s coming. He’s coming. And then a scream. The voice of Voldemort… Haaarrry Pottttter!” Despite its trappings of science fiction, Zero K spends zero time on the mechanics of how the freezing and reviving process would work, unlike the similarly timed Ridley Scott film The Martian (2015), based on the novel by Andy Weir, yet another book that seems to kill its protagonist only to bring him back again, except the reader knows he can’t be dead if he is the narrator; The Martian ain’t exactly William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The Martian is interested only in its science. The metaphysical implications of being left behind, alone, on a distant planet, do not concern astronaut Mark Watney. But the philosophical problems of what defeating death would mean is all that interests DeLillo. Jeffrey begins to realize the problem in his conversation with the man in the monk’s cloak in the cryogenics facility:
“What do you do here?”
“I talk to the dying”
“You reassure them.”
“What do I reassure them of?”
“The continuation. The reawakening.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Don’t you?” I said.
“I don’t think I want to. I just want to talk about the end. Calmly, quietly.”
“But the idea itself. The reason behind this entire venture. You don’t accept it.”
“I want to die and be finished forever. Don’t you want to die?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the point of living it we don’t die at the end of it?”
In keeping with the title and DeLillo’s reputation, the tone of the novel is chilly. The cryogenic facility, referred to as the Convergence, and Ross’s decision to freeze his body—end his life now so that he can be reborn free of death—becomes DeLillo’s occasion to analyze the end, or the end of the end, as we see in the novel’s opening sentence: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” Here, we immediately learn that not everyone can deny death. The poor, political refugees, soldiers, and regular folk, like Cedric Diggory, a narrative martyr whose death in Rowling’s world prevents disaster, will still die. But DeLillo, unlike the wave of apocalyptic pop culture before him, is less interested in the end than who is left after the end to possess it.
DeLillo seems to be nodding toward the growing ranks of real-life billionaires—PayPal’s Peter Thiel, Virgin’s Richard Branson, who donates money to Alcor, an actual “life extension foundation” devoted to making cryogenics reality, Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, 81-year-old casino magnate Don Laughlin, and more—bankrolling real facilities like Zero K‘s fictional Convergence. And for a supposed technological utopia, the Convergence bears all the marks of a religious cult: devotion, compliance, nonstop sermons, barebones asceticism, and dubious promises—associations DeLillo’s language and imagery frequently emphasizes. More than anything in fiction, the Convergence resembles Heaven’s Gate, the real-life cult that committed mass suicide in 1997 in their attempt to reach a spaceship they believed was following the Hale-Bopp comet. The Convergence’s assurance of life after death is the ultimate heaven’s gate, the final gated community, available only to the ultra-rich, while the rest of us remain outside to die.
Zero K‘s opening line thus changes the dynamics of dystopia: only the obscenely wealthy can place themselves in suspended animation and survive. Death becomes the ultimate version of Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine a title that sounds like Rowling made it up to describe Delphi’s plan, as Klein explains in her book: “This desire for godlike powers of creation,” Klein writes, “is precisely why free-market ideologues are so drawn to crises and disasters.” Death, once natural and inevitable, is rewritten as a catastrophe and engineered to benefit the wealthy. In his first line alone, DeLillo exposes the disaster-capitalist intimations of dystopias evident in works like HG Wells’s The Time Machine, Jack London’s The Iron Heel, and hiding in plain sight in the Hunger Games, where the final battle against the Capitol (-OL) would be better off spelled Capital (-AL). Stories about the end of the world are and have always been about income inequality—an economic term that, in its innocuousness, feels like something a DeLillo character could have invented. But its bland euphemism masks life and death.
Engaging in a kind of Socratic debate, the twins that Jeffrey refers to as the Stenmarks try to resolve the Convergence’s existential problem:
“What about those who die? The others. There will always be others. Why should some keep living while others die?”
“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving” (70).
In a domestic novel—say, DeLillo’s masterpiece black comedy White Noise—the line would be an epigram, a clever jab; in Zero K, it’s a vast expansion of White Noise‘s recurring marital question, “Who will die first?” Now we know: the poor, the unimportant. Think of how many Muggles must have died in Cursed Child‘s alternate timeline who don’t even warrant a mention. They—we—are the unnamed collateral damage in Harry Potter’s personal and secret war, just as everyone aside from the superrich will be cast aside in Zero K.
On the other hand, though, as the novel goes on, we never learn the fate of Ross or Artis. We don’t even know for sure whether the Convergence’s procedure works, or whether the promise of advanced futuristic technology to rescue and resuscitate will come to pass. Instead, Jeffrey’s life simply continues. He takes care of his father’s estate, just as if Ross had died. He meets a woman, and things are good, and then they aren’t. He struggles with work. The Convergence barely comes up again. With death seemingly banished, the novel itself has no ending to speak of, simply leaving off, with Jeffrey alive and searching, concluding abruptly in medias res—like the reader, in life’s relentless middle.
Yet on the very last page, as Jeffrey hears a boy—”thick-bodied, an oversized head”—cry out, and he envisions “Ross, once again, in his office, the lurking image of my father telling me that everybody wants to own the end of the world,” realizing that, perhaps, not everybody wants to own the end of the world. He doesn’t, anyway. It’s not quite an epiphany, but even though it’s on the last page, it captures the best part of being in the middle, even, like Harry Potter, being middle-aged: the modest realization, even cliché, that as bad as life can seem, it still beats the hell out of the alternative. Jeffrey concludes, “I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. I had the boy’s cries of wonder.”