J. K. Rowling
makes a bid for the adult book market
The Casual Vacancy By J. K. Rowling Little, Brown, 512pp, $35 (HB)
WHAT do book reviewers think they are doing, venturing an opinion on The Casual Vacancy? To attack the first adult novel by one of the most commercially successful and beloved authors in the history of the book is a bit like waving back the tide. But to praise it is to become complicit with the infernal marketing machinery that helped make a dull boy wizard into perhaps the most recognisable character in contemporary culture. The phenomenon is too encompassing for narrow discrimination, too ubiquitous for contrary opinions: it’s waving a white flag in a snowstorm.
Still, like black holes or Justin Bieber, it is the grand mystery of J. K. Rowling’s success that begs investigation. I have read every word of Harry Potter and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, without feeling much excitement — larger feeling, literary or otherwise — at any point throughout. Rowling’s talent is at room temperature, always. Her fantasy novels lack the political edge of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, or its raciness. The worlds they describe do not share the studied coherence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middleearth. Nor can we compare Rowling’s pedestrian prose with earlier exemplars of the form such as Ursula Le Guin or Alan Garner. When the classic fantasy novels of our time are eventually judged, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will most likely turn out to be the work that endures.
Yet Rowling is undoubtedly the canniest literary impresario we have. Her genius lies in the production of fictions that comfort and reassure. For all the drama and sadness that adheres to the childhood and youth of Harry Potter, his eventual triumph is as inevitable as Jeeves winning the argument over Bertie Wooster’s tartan spats. Her narratives are shameless celebrations of middle-class ordinariness; indeed, no author since George Orwell has placed such a premium on ordinary English decency. The challenge, then, of The Casual Vacancy is not to transcend an earlier literary achievement but to respond to the moral certitudes that governed the universe she made in the Harry Potter sequence. In this sense, her new work is a wrenching departure. It is a Death Eater of a novel, sent to feast on the warm virtues that its predecessors once espoused.
The novel’s setting, the imagined village of Pagford, is bucolic to a fault. It is the kind of chocolate-box town, stone-built, with pretty hanging flowers and a ruined abbey on its fringe, that symbolises a certain hackneyed idea of Englishness.
The smugness and xenophobia exhibited by many of its residents is of the kind that makes Midsomer Murders such guilty televisual pleasure: as an audience we relish the violent comeuppance visited on the county’s bourgeoisie, while enjoying the scenery they have so carefully and lovingly tended.
Rowling does something similar here, raising the small-town squabbles of Pagford’s Parish Council in the wake of the death of its most charismatic member to the level of a Greek tragedy. She is less interested in the exquisite virtues of Pagford as a place, however, than the moral ugliness of which its inhabitants are capable. The cruelty and complacency of contemporary British society is the author’s subject and she lays into it with unfeigned vigour.
Nonetheless, the novel flaps its wings for a while before take-off. Rowling takes pains to fully introduce her cast. The vile and obese delicatessen owner, the upright Indian female doctor, the lonely single-mother social worker, the foul-mouthed girl from the local estate: each village ‘‘ type’’ is laboriously furnished with a back-story that informs the narrative and grounds each character in larger social forces. Alongside its desire to entertain, it soon becomes obvious that The Casual Vacancy is a state-of-the-nation novel that aspires to sit beside the recent work of novelists such as Philip Hensher, Richard T. Kelly and Martin Amis.
And the story of the fallout from the death of councillor Barry Fairbrother does capture something of the sour national flavour. In a time when the prosperity of the few is threatened by austerity endured by the many, Pagford’s efforts to cut itself off from the urban encroachments of a nearby regional centre have the character of a microcosm. Faced with the poverty and addiction that blight Britain’s post-war housing estates, the author shows us a village in the midst of pulling up the drawbridge against the moral and physical ugliness they represent. It could easily stand for the country at large.
Rowling wrings some appropriately dark notes from this unedifying spectacle. There are few heroes in The Casual Vacancy, and what goodness they possess is mixed with the usual human selfishness and confusion. The little humour ventured in its pages is vinegary and the younger generation that drive the narrative are both damaged and capable of inflicting damage on their elders. The novel is largely successful in escalating a mundane political argument into a proper calamity.
But there is no getting beyond the limitations of Rowling’s talent. At more than 500 pages, the novel is over-long (what editor would dare to pluck the goose that laid the golden eggs?), much of it consisting of needlessly attenuated dialogue and superfluous exposition. The characters are clearly delineated and believable, yet the author often chivvies them along, obliging them into thoughts or insights that more likely belong to their creator. Finally, the few literary grace notes that her prose attempts are jarring. In one example she describes Britain’s ubiquitous satellite dishes as ‘‘ turned to the skies like the denuded ovules of grim metal flowers’’.
Yet these flaws only return us to the essential mystery of Rowling’s success. It is too simple to observe that she is the writer we deserve, one who takes our own mediocrity only to flatter and primp it. Rather, her strengths gather in the one area, storytelling, plain and simple, that more sophisticated ‘‘ literary’’ forms have long abdicated. The popularity of Harry Potter across all age groups spoke of a hunger for expansive narrative not catered for elsewhere in our literature. Perhaps it is no accident that Rowling’s emergence should coincide with a golden age of long-form television drama. Like them, her fictions recall us to the unabashed pleasure to be had from immersion in other worlds. The weakness of The Casual Vacancy is that it returns us to our own.
J. K. Rowling last year at the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part II