The hipster Harry Potter

Colin Meloy’s fake children’s book isn’t for children at all
By CHRIS BRAIOTTA  |  September 21, 2011

The inside flap of Wildwood — the new young-adult fantasy novel by Decemberist Colin Meloy — claims that the book is for ages nine and up.

Say I got the assignment to pick author blurbs for the back of a children's book. You know whom I wouldn't choose?

Jonathan Safran Foer. Or Michael Chabon.

Oh, I don't doubt that Park Slope brownstones are positively curdling with nine-year-olds who demand readings of Wonder Boys at bedtime. But you don't market 500-plus pages in hardback just for one neighborhood, no matter how monstrously fertile that neighborhood may be.

And yet Wildwood does exactly that. Something is afoot.

Wildwood tells the story of the Impassable Wilderness, a magical, mysterious forest which abuts Portland, Oregon. Like that Chinese restaurant that used to be in Davis Square, no one knows what happens inside the Impassable Wilderness, and no one ever goes inside. No one, that is, until 12-year-old Prue's infant brother Mac is stolen by a pack of crows. A murder of crows, as we're tirelessly informed. The crows fly off to the Impassable Wilderness. Prue plunges in after them, only to get swept up in a power struggle waged by a deposed Dowager Governess and her army of Napoleonic coyotes.

That all sounds pretty kid-friendly, right? With its talking animals and its oily queen who flatters Prue's friend Curtis into joining the wrong side, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wildwood is a Jesus-free rip-off of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

If that's all it were, that would be great. I'd greet the day with a lusty halloo if that's all it were!

But that's not all it were. Suddenly those back-cover Chaboners make sense when you realize that this book wasn't written for "Young Adults." That's publishing jargon for "just old enough to feel body shame." No, Wildwood was written for actual young adults. As in, old enough to be admitted to Emerson. And sleep with the quidditch team.

Meloy's musical career has provided the soundtrack to a thousand nights of Etsy, with its tales of stevedores catching dropsy from dirty baccarat tables. And it's exactly that audience he's trying to draw in with this book. And what makes me ill is thinking about how fiendishly successful he'll be in luring the Harry Potter–bereft with a fake kid's book.

The first clue is that Portland setting. The mere mention of that rain-gray Narnia of vintage dresses and vegan scrambles is like horny-making musk for the acutely twee. But just in case his cuddleparty sybarites miss that signal, Meloy studs his prose with winks. Prue's black hoody. Her black flats. Her bicycle that he makes sure to tell us only has one speed. The book's climax — a climax, I emphasize, to a story about a magical war of succession — is kicked off with a scene of DIY bicycle repair.

Meloy has some good ideas. I liked blood-fed ivy as a doomsday weapon, and the way the story's pre-history lies in people who are mad to have children. And where most of the characters are either avatars of crummy jokes or just milky flingers of tired sarcasm, the Dowager Governess is as compelling and well-rounded as her title is irritating.

But Meloy neglects his good ideas in favor of sultry eyebrows waggled at his demo. So where a Narnia rip-off would at least be honest, Wildwood is more like a story Wes Anderson would tell Miranda July in order to charm her into giving him a QJ (quirkjob).

Related: Young Adulteration, Excerpt: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan, Further adventures in literary obsession and authenticity with Brock Clarke, More more >
  Topics: Books , Books, Jonathan Safran Foer, Harry Potter,  More more >
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