what i'm reading: the casual vacancy by j. k. rowling

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling's first non- Harry Potter book, received almost universally poor reviews, ranging from tepid to savage. Reviewers found the book too long for the subject matter, too slow, poorly paced. They thought the plot was a soap opera. They found the writing cliched, studied, heavy-handed. In a book full of characters, they found few noteworthy. As one reviewer put it: "Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull."

I disagree.

Backlash? Impossibly high expectations? A certain measure of that is to be expected, given that Rowling is one of the most successful writers of our time. But it's no excuse. Reviewers have an obligation to put Harry Potter aside and review the book that's in front of them. Maybe they did. Maybe I just happen to disagree with almost every reviewer. Or maybe not.

Putting the Harry Potter series aside is easy for me: I haven't read any of those books. I might read part of one one day, but in general, I have little interest - except, of course, as a children's publishing phenomenon. I know how to help a child find Rowling's books in the library, and how to find other books a Harry Potter fan might enjoy, but I've been unmotivated to read any of them yet. So my reading of Rowling's first novel expressly for adults is untainted by what came before it.

Here's another reason I like it: it's very good.

I am about halfway through The Casual Vacancy, and I'm enjoying it very much. It's a "what lies beneath" novel: a picture-perfect English village, its charming exterior pulled back to expose the pettiness, the nastiness, the bigotry, the loneliness, the unfulfilled desires, and the genuine psychic pain that seethes and boils beneath it.

The plot itself is very small, but that should not be a problem. One, the book is not plot-driven, it is character-driven. And two, the seemingly minute scale of the plot should be seen as a stand-in for something much larger: the class divide in contemporary United Kingdom.

The characters that people the novel are rich and varied and real. Some of the characters are more fully realized than others, but none are caricatures. Many are painfully memorable.

Some choice bits from reviews make me wonder if the reviewer was paying attention. (I often wonder this.) In The Guardian, Theo Tait writes: "Rowling relies on stock situations and verbal clichés; if you're irritated by important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as 'But then came the hour that changed everything,' then this is probably not the novel for you." But that singled-out phrase is not the narrator's voice: it's from a character's thoughts! And that character - a teenager in love for the first time - would think of this singular moment in his life in those terms.

The book is criticized for being too long, but I'm finding the pacing perfectly suited to the form. There are multiple subplots of interlocking stories, which take time to unfurl (and which Rowling juggles brilliantly, by the way). Most importantly, it takes time to introduce so many finely drawn characters. A lesser writer of a more facile novel would give you a few sentences of cliches for each. Rowling offers each character's internal monologue - their fears, their frustrations, their pain, their dreams - and lets their personality come to you in their own thoughts. This takes time.

Rowling's writing is precisely descriptive without being ponderous or self-conscious. The characters, for the most part, are authentic and complex. The issues of class, of a divided society, that play out through the characters' lives are weighted and shaded towards a point of view, as they should be, as they are in any art, but there's little grandstanding or speechifying.

One of the few positive reviews of The Casual Vacancy was in The Observer, the Sunday edition of The Guardian. Melvyn Bragg writes:
This is a wonderful novel. JK Rowling's skills as a storyteller are on a par with RL Stevenson, Conan Doyle and PD James. Here, they are combined with her ability to create memorable and moving characters to produce a state-of-England novel driven by tenderness and fury.
I agree.


James Redekop said...

[...] the seemingly minute scale of the plot should be seen as a stand-in for something much larger: the class divide in contemporary United Kingdom.

Reminds me of an old saying: Fights in academia are so thoroughly vicious because the stakes are so small.

laura k said...

Ah-ha! I just found the review that made me want to read this book. From the Daily Mail:

The question is, can The Casual Vacancy ever live up to the hype?
On balance, I would have to say no. Not unless you want to have more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.


When the Daily Mail calls it rubbish, you know it's worth reading.

impudent strumpet said...

I read it a while back (long enough ago that I've forgotten anything sensible I might have had to say) but I did find myself wondering if it would have gotten published if the author wasn't J.K. Rowling. Not because of the quality of the story, but because of what its perceived marketability would have been.

I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed with it simply because it isn't Harry Potter. Harry Potter is the coming of age story of the messiah (of the universe he occupies). This one is about petty people's petty feelings about petty things.

Plus, before we even get into the quality of the story or the characters, Harry Potter unfolded over the course of a (real-life) decade, and many of us spent the time in between thinking about it and theorizing about it, whereas Casual Vacancy is done when it's done. As a purely practical point, the Harry Potter characters are going stick with us simply because we spent so much time thinking about them, whereas Casual Vacancy doesn't need us to remember them (regardless of whether or not we do).

laura k said...

It's possible it wouldn't have gotten published if she were an unknown writer, but that speaks to how awful the publishing biz is. Many books by very good writers are not being published - and many books by great writers of the recent past would not make the cut today.

It is about petty people and their petty feelings, but it is also about self-absorption versus community, egotism vs altruism, the myth of the self-made middle class, conceptions of the underclass, and so on. The pettiness is not in itself the point.

Yes, I'm sure many HP fans were very disappointed.