Like every other self-respecting middle-class English-speaking child born in the 1990s, I spent much of my childhood helplessly addicted to Harry Potter. I went to the midnight book launch parties (though I swear I never dressed up). I spent an inordinate amount of time watching not only the movies but their trailers online, sometimes on repeat. My mom used to have to take and hide my Harry Potter books so I’d stop rereading them and try something else. Nothing else every really compared: clichéd as this may sound, I really did have this feeling of being transported to another world when I read Harry Potter.
And then this summer I picked up Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my favorite of the series, and it just seemed, well, kind of childish. Fun, maybe, but simply written and not particularly interesting. This, it took me far too long to realize, is what happens when adults (or at least 18-year-olds) read children’s books. They’re not written for us.
But The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s new novel, is very much written for adults. To wit, it’s loaded with sex, drugs, brutal poverty, rape, adultery, domestic violence, child abuse, self-mutilation, horrific bullying, and just general brooding, nasty, real-world self-centeredness that manifests itself in small but disturbing ways, reminding you (or maybe just me) of the foulness that lingers near the hearts of all of us. Though at times I got the sense that Rowling was trying a little hard to insist that she doesn’t live in a Harry Potter fantasyland, that she knows about adult things, too; it’s admirable that she’s finally taking on the dark complexities of adult life. And I’m pleased to report that The Casual Vacancy is, despite some nagging flaws, a good book.
The best description I can come up with for it is this: imagine if Harry Potter—the whimsical narrative style, colorful characters, exciting scenes, but minus all the fantasy—were blended with the 2005 Oscar-winning movie Crash—serious subject matter explored through a group of diverse main characters who run into, or “crash” into each other in fascinating and revealing ways.
The Casual Vacancy is set in a quaint British countryside town, Pagford, where a local parish councilor has suddenly died. Soon the ugly seams of relationships—between teenagers and their parents, between spouses, between social classes, between opposing political factions—are splitting open left and right and the town doesn’t seem so quaint after all. Pagford is Rowling’s miniature simulacrum of the world.
Certainly The Casual Vacancy has plenty of flaws. Most strikingly, it’s strange and a bit distracting how the characters constantly run into each other at such impossibly opportune moments in too-perfect, plot-advancing ways—as a result, this book’s 12 or so characters often feel like the only living residents of Pagford. In fact, much of the plot feels contrived, from the councilor’s death on the third page to the series of bizarre coincidences that lead up to the grand finale. This is no doubt intentional, a technique that allows Rowling to do what she’s best at: animating her characters. But at moments it feels intrusive (though I can think of no good fix—Crash has the same issue).
The biggest contrivance here is that the fate of a large poor housing development, the Fields, is at stake in the replacement of the dead councilor (either a pro-Fields “good guy” will be elected or an anti-Fields “bad guy”). Really the issue is whether the development will be officially considered a part of Pagford or of Yarvil, the city next door, but it’s never really clear why this technicality is such a big deal, so to add to their badness the bad guys on the council also want to force an addiction treatment clinic in the Fields to close. All this may sound like hideously blatant liberal political moralizing. Which, unfortunately, is precisely what it is.
Rowling’s writing is another weak point. It’s not that the book is poorly written, because for the most part it isn’t, but too often Rowling seems to be straining for lyricism (e.g. “the leathery skin of her cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed”). And there’s some cringe-worthy clunky exposition (as there was throughout the Harry Potter series). Though there’s the occasional impressive turn of phrase (when the dead councilor’s body is put on display, “the deep black cuts in the white scalp, like the grooves of skates on ice, were hidden by his forest of thick hair”), the heart of the matter’s that this book lacks the verbal subtlety and poise that allows for deeply affecting fiction.
So it’s not hard to find flaws in The Casual Vacancy. But in an important way these criticisms feel kind of irrelevant. Because the truth is that “The Casual Vacancy” is just plain fun to read: it’s engaging, often funny, interesting in its exploration of relationships, and sometimes quite moving. Rowling’s narrative has real force and she is, as she showed in the “Harry Potter” series, exceptionally skilled with character and voice.
Rowling—and this is to her credit—doesn’t try to create fully human or “round” characters; rather, she gives her characters well-chosen defining and distinctive traits. Of course there’s nothing wrong with painstakingly detailed characters, but Rowling’s technique works equally well. She simplifies not to tell a simplistic story but to explore the qualities that define people to us in real life. And she often does so in a spectacularly entertaining way: for instance bad guy Howard Mollison, the self-important First Citizen of Pagford, is first described like this:
A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.
This is great, and then throughout the rest of the book Howard is described as “heaving” and “waddling,” not just plain walking. Howard’s unctuous pomposity is reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’s Dolores Umbridge; both are repulsive and both are fantastic characters, repulsive in the ways real people are repulsive and cleverly given ugly physical traits. Is this cheap? Perhaps, but I think we all tend to associate those we dislike with their most glaring physical traits—Rowling simply flips the association, cleverly conveying a great deal about a character in a quick physical description.
Howard is a particularly entertaining example of Rowling’s sense of character, but there are subtler, more serious ones too: an abused child sees the grandmother who takes her in as a “a strange mixture of savior and scourge;” an angry father “habitually acted as though inanimate objects were conspiring against him.” Rowling’s third-person narration’s generally straightforward and allows these characters to take center stage. She’s particularly gifted at dialogue: each character has a strong voice, and the book’s complex conversations are its best scenes.
What all this comes down to is simply that Rowling is a great storyteller. For a number of reasons this isn’t valued by critics the way it was, say, a hundred years ago, but the truth is that great storytelling is all I wanted as a kid and I never really outgrew my desire. Great storytelling transports us and is what makes fiction entertaining. The best serious fiction, on the other hand, is acutely moving in a very deep, honest way—it is, as the late David Foster Wallace put it, about “what it is to be a fucking human being.” My distinction oversimplifies things quite a bit, and certainly no book is entirely one or the other, but it seems to me there is room for more serious fiction with compelling storytelling: I like to imagine a hypothetical perfect novel at once very entertaining and very much about being human (I was thinking in part of this when I came up with the column name “Grown-Up Stories”).
The Casual Vacancy is perhaps Rowling’s attempt to craft such a novel. It fails, but no book is perfect, and it fails well. It’s engaging and a game attempt to examine and bring to life the relationships that define our lives, even though its lack of great writing and contrived plot ultimately make it not particularly memorable or powerful. Rowling has rare talent and, I think, the potential to write an adult novel as good as Harry Potter.
Photo by Izzy Kornblatt-Stier/Daily Gazette.