"The Casual Vacancy" book review: Past the Point of No Return

By Brandon Cook, New Media Journalist @Holonpublishing & Student at Indiana University.
See his blog, The Brandon Blakely: http://brandonblakely.wordpress.com

J.K. Rowling has become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Following the release of her final series novel, the authoress of the ridiculously successful “Harry Potter” septet threw herself back into public controversy just months after the release of “Deathly Hallows” with the announcement of Dumbledore’s homosexuality. Late last February she announced a skeptically anticipated first ‘adult novel’, which she referred to as “new territory” that the success of “Potter” has afforded her. Being in the rare position of having both power and choice, Rowling must be respected for her choice to close Hogwarts and turn her attention back home.  

“The Casual Vacancy” is certainly “new territory,” in the same way that thirst is new from refreshment, or fulfillment is separate from famine. Rowling has managed, almost admirably, to sap all traces and hints of life or charm from her new novel that, dismally dense at 500 pages, leaves the reader questioning whether he has just completed a novel or slogged his way through a privy council textbook that cites brief tragedies. Quoting intermittently from the barrister bedside Local Council Administration (Charles Arnold-Baker), Rowling provides the answer to this question.

Writers have dubbed this gimmick long ago as a simple of case of trying too hard, and for 500 pages, that is exactly what Rowling does. Think Daniel Radcliffe desperately shedding the geeky, love-struck Potter from 2007’s The Order of the Phoenix by posing nude, erotically fondling a horse for his debut in Broadway’s Equus. Rowling has done much of the same and in ridding herself of her associations of wand-waving preteens and magic trains, she has effectively rid herself of all of writing’s magic and plunged herself straight into a world inhabited by the muggliest of the muggles.

She asserts her newness on almost the first page when Pagford (a small and presumably quaint English village) town councilor Barry Fairbrother keels over in a restaurant parking lot from an explosive brain aneurysm. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth come from his widowed Mary, and for the remainder of the book Rowling is concerned with the business of reminding the reader why Fairbrother’s death is such a tragedy. I’m of the belief that it’s because Fairbrother was the only character that I didn’t have to get to know and therefore, learn to dislike, but no matter.

The authoress has her own agenda and it involves a daunting cast. For the opening thirty pages each one is paraded in great pomp and their feelings about this sudden tragedy are picked and exploited by the director. Rowling, who once exhibited such elegance and tact when showcasing character dynamic, settles for an abrasive narrator here—one which at best, deprives the reader the fun of watching characters interact and at worst, gives the text the snobbish pedantry of a Brit who loves the sound of her own words.

Following Fairbrother’s death the citizens of sleepy Pagford awake to the drama of the imminent election. For the Parish Council opening there are three candidates: the sadistic Simon Price, the boring Colin Wall, and the almost likeable (in the sense that you don’t know enough about him to have a care either way) Miles Mollison. Don’t expect high-tension political battles between these crusaders. Each one is laden down with an extensive family, and each persona is composed of guilts, regrets, ambitions, and most popular, cruelties.

With alternating levels of distribution, this is more or less Rowling’s formula for creating characters. No one, it seems, is permitted much idiosyncrasy, notwithstanding one or two key players. One of these is Krystal Weedon, a foul-mouthed student of sixteen who takes care of her baby brother Robbie while her mum is either shooting up in the bathroom or pimping herself out for blow. The travailing Krystal is only one of many experiments in the world of ‘adult problems,’ and Rowling develops a penchant for the type and is quick to disperse more.

Stuart “Fats” Wall, the adopted son of Colin, is this handiwork taken a step further. School celebrity, chain-smoker, philosopher, tormenter, and casual gigolo, Fats has so much autonomy that it’s a miracle he even manages to function. When he does, he plays off as Rowling’s intended complexity more than a homo sapien, which might be intentional. Fats’ behavior resembles that of a sociopath who boots a skewed moral philosophy of “authenticity.” This allows him to justify the cruelties he instigates against a hirsute Indian classmate, his spineless father, and later his best friend.

Predictably, Fats’ devil-may-care attitude wins the attention of Krystal Weedon and the two begin an illicit courtship that comprises much of the book but is in reality very dull. Krystal doesn’t fit Fats well but it’s a fit nonetheless because she provides for Fats the grit of life he’s been looking for. Most of the relationships are not this complex. Having determined to make her characters as unprepossessing as possible, Rowling drains all relationships of any sense of love and most of them are maneuvered by either ambition or the desire to humiliate. The exceptions are the young and randy, tired and weak, or gossipy and annoyed.

Such are the motifs of ‘adult’ life. After a hundred pages or so the dynamics go from frozen stagnant to lukewarm as love affairs and secret hatreds begin to bloom. From the narrator, the reader comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the veneer of the Pagford citizenry is false. None of the citizens really much like each other, and everyone wants to see their neighbor suffer. Eventually their wishes are fulfilled when “Arf” Price hacks into the Parish Council website and posts an incriminating message detailing his sadistic father’s theft habits before signing the message as “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” The Pagford parlor tea drinkers explode with gossip, loutish Simon Price beats his son and yells at his wife for allegedly squealing on his ill-gotten assets, and the other councilor hopefuls chuckle and smile.

The whole novel is more or less structured with the “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” correspondences. They’re peppered here and there and supply the town’s reserve of gossip. Meanwhile the citizens go through lives of ever-mounting depressions and predictable culminations; dead relationships continue to fester, a self-abuser cuts deeper, an irate father beats harder, a stoned mother uses more.

Other critics have accused Rowling as having been needlessly, almost gleefully cruel to her characters. Even so, with all of her trauma she fails to establish any emotion stronger than a tepid dolefulness. A writer can only rephrase a character’s death threat or jack-off fantasy so many times before the action becomes dull. Philandering is not, and never was, that interesting to begin with. Incessant “fuck you’s” become impotent when the reader can’t distinguish one character’s curse from another’s.

However, after reading “The Casual Vacancy,” what appears most alarming is neither the newfound obsession with sadism nor the glacial progression of village politics but the fact that the prose itself has suffered.

A sloppy new technique of inserting a flashback in the middle of a scene, sometimes for pages, forces the reader to keep hold of an idea and then, inevitably, to backtrack when the thread of story is lost. Paragraph segue-ways are sometimes spasmodic and haphazard. Complex sentences and over-punctuation taxes concentration. Rowling’s realism has allowed her to free a strong vocabulary and create striking metaphor: “[her] slow passage up the school had resembled that of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor”, but she suffers too many fleeting details that leave nothing to the reader’s imagination.

Following her multiple successes, Rowling undoubtedly feels that is allowed to take risks and break the more stolid rules of storytelling, yet many times the text’s greatest benefactor would have been a thorough line editor.

Readers will undoubtedly take away what they will from “The Casual Vacancy” and it is unlikely Rowling’s, or Potter’s, popularity will suffer. Magic is indelibly associated with the authoress and an experiment in grim maturity will shift no tides. Unfortunately for Rowling, her trending dark and lifeless themes seem to be reflecting a private war with an unresponsive muse. There can be no return to Hogwarts. Rowling must find her magic in the muggle world. 

Brandon Cook, New Media Journalist & Staff Writer at Holon Publishing

Reblogged from: The Brandon Blakely