Among the first 50 pages or so of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, it is difficult to say what makes the greatest impression. Perhaps it is a teenage boy’s reference to his father as a “self-satisfied f***er” and a “c**t”, labels which, amidst the repulsive squall of profanity that concludes the second chapter, stand out only because they are italicized. The same teen, later infatuated, is reported to masturbate at the thought of his love interest, the mere thought of her later leaving him “with an ache in his heart and in his balls”. Then there is the description of a five-year-old girl’s exposed vulva—“as though Father Christmas had popped up”, and the description of a used condom lying beside a doorstep—“like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”. The cloud of f-words is meanwhile becoming ever thicker, on occasion becoming so abrasive and predictable that one flinches as one flips, each page promising a new eyeful of dirt.
While seemingly picked out like rotten cherries, these items do not misrepresent their crop. Situations and wording in the novel are equally off-putting. While ostensibly the story of a municipal election in the fictional English town of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy is about the dissolution, dysfunction, and misery modern audiences have been led to believe is lurking beneath any pleasant façade. It is, according to The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, “depressingly clichéd […] like an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like ‘Peyton Place’ with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives.”
The book begins with a man—a parish councillor—dying on a street of an aneurism, collapsing before his wife into, what we, we are later told, was “an eruption of vomit and piss, a twitching pile of catastrophe”. The next chapter explores the arrant gleefulness of a family of political rivals at learning and spreading the news of his passing. Shirley Mollison even compares her elation to the birth of her own son: “the news of Barry Fairbrother’s sudden demise lay like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances”.
Keep going, and readers will encounter everything from wife and child-beating through drug addiction and self-mutilation to suicide and rape (two rapes, actually—one, graphically described, of a 16-year-old girl by her mother’s heroin-dealer, and possibly another, inflicted by the same man on her 3-year-old brother. Even Rowling demurs at describing this one). Pick a page: locating such material in The Casual Vacancy is as simple as spinning a roulette wheel. About the only thing missing is cannibalism.
For those who would object that a well-written novel about misery and depravity will indeed come across as miserable and depraved, The Casual Vacancy isn’t well written, either. Though it doesn’t attempt much, it mixes its metaphors (“break the frost”, “sliced […] like a demolition ball”) and presents a large number of awkward sentences whose thesaurus-assisted verbiage pretends sophistication (“The first effusion of Pagford’s outrage had annealed into a quieter, but no less powerful, sense of grievance).”
Perhaps most cloying of all are its politics, however—not liberalism, not progressivism, but leftyism—offering the clichéd, self-loathing-but-self-righteous left-wing extremism parodied even on left-leaning comedy such as 30 Rock and Modern Family. Vices are tragic manifestations of victimhood, men—particularly fathers—are pathetic, negligent, and/or abusive, while the only positive values and innocence to be found in the novel are confined to the token non-white couple.
Parminder and Vikram Jawanda are Sikhs, physically attractive, professionally accomplished (both are doctors), and who look to their faith and holy books for strength and guidance. The only time one of them truly breaks this respectable posture is when Parminder publicly rebukes a client and fellow councillor for believing that drug addicts are responsible for their own actions. She tells him that his obesity is as much a drain on the health care system as drug addiction, and storms away, having jeopardized her career in betraying their doctor-client confidentiality. Among the various misdemeanours of the novel, however, it is practically—and clearly intended to be—noble.
Rowling has stated that the worst criticism she could receive for her adult novel was that she should stick to writing children’s books. One should not be so sure about that; in erecting this ruin, she may have borrowed wood from the bridge. The Casual Vacancy and its hackneyed parade of misery and depravity represent Rowling’s simplistic understanding not just of adult literature, but of literature in general.
While some reviewers, including The Times’ Kakutani, have used the Harry Potter books as a gold standard—essentially soft-pedaling what The Casual Vacancy reveals about Rowling’s approach to fiction—one cannot deny the presence of smarmy self-righteousness, victimology, and stage-managed misery in the Harry Potter books as well. From the obvious example of the abusive Dursleys through bleach-blond racists to house-elf-slavery abolitionism, the books never were subtle in their analogies.
Till now, readers had the luxury of believing that it was all part of some timeless, heroic template, brilliantly recast and represented, irrespective of age and creed. Unfortunately, however, because Rowling’s understanding of readership is clearly based on raw content, with no investment whatsoever in sophistication, one now knows what was left out of Harry Potter.
There are many things one might learn here. While many writers and theorists—among them J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—have spoken of literature as something to invigorate and empower our own lives, Rowling approaches fictional populations with the entrepreneurial ambitions of a pimp. With The Casual Vacancy, victims are lined up, exposed, and humiliated for what is assumed to be the ultimate pleasure of the audience, not to mention the handsome remuneration of their orchestrator. It is the opposite of catharsis, a clinically-controlled injection of venom for the privileged soul. The image of Rowling on the book jacket—richly dressed, antic smile, seated in a lavishly upholstered chair—is so incongruous with the novel’s contents and personae that it all seems nightmarishly surreal.
Rowling recently told The New York Times that she believed The Casual Vacancy to be one of the best things she has ever written, reinforcing a remark, made earlier to The Guardian, that she did not use a pseudonym because she felt it was braver to publish the novel under her own name. She asserts the influence of Charles Dickens and other celebrated Victorian writers; “The Casual Vacancy,” she says, “consciously harked back to the 19th -century traditions of Trollope, Dickens, and Gaskell… Any review that made reference to any of those writers would delight me.”
As it turns out, a comparison between Rowling and Dickens had already been made—not by a reviewer, but by Rowling’s own editor, Michael Pietsch. Rowling, for her part, has seemingly become accustomed to the association. In speaking of ending the Harry Potter series, for example, she addressed one of Dickens’s remarks from an 1850 edition of David Copperfield, where he reflected on the end of a two-year creative investment in the eponymous character. Rowling was unsympathetic: “To this I can only sigh, ‘try seventeen years, Charles.’” For such a professed admirer of Dickens (and intimate colleague, judging from her use of his Christian name), Rowling also seems to have overlooked the fact that David Copperfield follows many events from Dickens’s own youth—in the real world, rather than Hogwart’s—whereby his investment in the character must be reckoned in decades of reflection.
Perhaps it is best to let Dickens speak for himself, however. Though his works resound with the toil and lamentations of the downtrodden, including, yes, even drug addicts (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), he proves even and especially in matters of misery and victimhood, that literature is about good writing. Consider the situation of Alexandre Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, a man imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years:
“The faintness of his voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorably peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.”
Northrop Frye once stated that “if any literary work is emotionally ‘depressing,’ there is something wrong with either the writing or the reader’s response.” As an indictment of bad fiction, it is shrewdly ambiguous, but here Dickens proves, as he does in countless other places, that good writing is like alchemy. Nothing it treats remains the base material which inspired it; even misery becomes gold, though chill to touch. Its brilliance works to bring us together as people, its common language to unite otherwise isolated experiences.
Either Rowling does not understand this, or she is utterly incapable of duplicating it. Either way, The Casual Vacancy is a monstrosity.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com. He originally reviewed The Casual Vacancy in the Good Reading Guide.