J. K. Rowl­ing

makes a bid for the adult book mar­ket

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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

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