Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

“You’re standing for the council?” he blurted.

Simon slowly raised his eyebrows. One of the muscles in his jaw was twitching.

“Is that a problem?” he asked, in a voice that throbbed with aggression.

“No,” lied Andrew.

You’ve got to be fucking joking. You? Standing for election? Oh fuck, no.

“It sounds like you’ve got a problem with it,” said Simon, still staring straight into Andrew’s eyes.

“No,” said Andrew again, dropping his gaze to his shepherd’s pie.

“What’s wrong with me standing for the council?” Simon continued. He was not about to let it go. He wanted to vent his tension in a cathartic outburst of rage.

“Nothing’s wrong. I was just surprised, that’s all.”

“Should I have consulted you first?” said Simon.

“No.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Simon. His lower jaw was protruding, as it often did when he was working up to losing control. “Have you found a job yet, you skiving, sponging little shit?”

***

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, so there’s little question as to the baggage I may or may not bring into this review: I loved the Harry Potter series, from its meagre beginnings all the way through to the end. In fact, I’m one of the few I know who’d point to the final book in that series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as the best and most satisfying of the bunch (barring the much-maligned 19-years-and-a-half-dozen-unfortunately-named-children-later coda). Since that series’ completion, there’s been much speculation to the type of work Rowling would do next—assuming she was to do anything and not simply hang up her spurs and walk into the sunset as one of the wealthiest writers the world has ever known. I feel this preamble is necessary, since so many reviews for Rowling’s first book written expressly for adults, The Casual Vacancy, have focused on whether or not this new title, which is as far removed from Potter as it could possibly be, is a worthy follow-up to the legacy Potter helped craft. Others have focused on the demands either Rowling or her publisher have made regarding quote approval and review embargos, equal parts annoyed and irritated by an author who has never seemed terribly fond of the media (something which, as a rather severe introvert, I feel sympathetic towards).

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about any of these factors. Taken on its own, The Casual Vacancy is an aggressively characterized page-turner that feels, in light of the current presidential election in America and the more-obvious-than-ever circus of bullshit, behind-the-back insults, and punditry pomp and circumstance, strangely prescient. It’s also at times hilarious, infuriating, and on one or two occasions, unexpectedly sad. It’s not without its share of minor flaws, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the novel—enough to barrel through it in a single extended sitting.

Split into seven parts (a number the author seems mightily fond of…), The Casual Vacancy is, on the surface, a tale of small town political corruption. When mostly-beloved parish council member Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm, the town of Pagford—a non-existent provincial British town where everyone is up in everyone’s shit on a consistent basis—is thrown into turmoil. Who will take Barry’s seat on the council? What will happen to the Fields and those who reside within? Who will snap and marry/fuck/kill their neighbour first?

With its large cast of characters—divided into the adults and parents of Pagford, and their often ignored, beaten and/or emotionally abused children—who flit in and out of each others’ lives with almost universal disinterest in the wellbeing of their fellow townsfolk, The Casual Vacancy plays at times as if someone’s continuously spinning a sinister version of The Benny Hill Show theme. Regardless of position or authority, the highly neurotic cast at times boils down to a collection of gossiping, sniping hens, each out to steal food from beneath the mouth of the others. For some, I feel, this might be the book’s largest sticking point: no one is lovable. In fact, few characters are even remotely likeable.

Howard Mollison, the most benignly detestable of the lot, wishes more than anything to cut loose the Fields and all associated with them—including an addiction clinic that means a great deal to at least one family in the book. He’s the conservative/republican of the lot, who looks to those suffering as partaking in “benefits” (the UK equivalent of welfare) wilfully, as if to cast deliberate spite on those who have homes and opportunities not afforded to all, for whatever reasons. With Barry Fairbrother dead, he has his chance—the opportunity to install someone he can sway to the council, so that he may make his rather unsympathetic power play with little to no pushback. Howard is, on some level, the focus of this tale, with both sides of the fight for the Fields either circling his sphere of influence (however limited the scope of a deli owner’s influence may be), or searching for weaknesses. Spiralling out from the Mollisons we meet family, co-workers, family and children of co-workers, council associates, recent Pagford imports who want nothing more than to escape Pagford for the brighter lights of London, and more than a few children and adults who skirt the line between stereotypical provincial British town and Baltimore-style projects living.

This last point regarding the projects is worth its own mention. The Casual Vacancy is most certainly not for kids. Please, parents, take heed this warning and don’t buy this for your kids simply because of the author’s pedigree: Rowling writes as authentically as she can, with respect to the language and slang used in such a setting. Little if anything is held back. That being said, it was a bit amusing to see the author cut loose and cast off certain young adult fiction restraints: it’s possible there’s seven books worth of the words “fuck” and “cunt” littering the pages of The Casual Vacancy, though little of it feels gratuitous or out of place.

With its large cast of characters and no single obvious protagonist through which we see the world, The Casual Vacancy employs a house-of-cards structure: it spends a great deal of time carefully positioning the various players, so that when the climax comes in the book’s final 100 pages, it reads like a chess board that’s been overturned in anger. Bookended by death, it follows strongly the rule of Chekhov’s gun—that an ailment, insecurity, or mistake in judgement introduced in the first act will somehow pay off in the third. Some of these moments are conveniences, but none so terribly overt that they feel inorganically shoehorned into place. Granted, I’m a sucker for narratives that feel intricately plotted, where all the little seemingly inconsequential things matter, to some degree great or small, when the final curtain drops. In this manner, Rowling’s narrative style greatly appeals to me—it embraces blockbuster film sensibilities in this way, using quite deliberate structure to overwhelm the possibility of sometimes-organic happenstance.

One’s enjoyment of the title may hinge on a few other factors worth mentioning. This is a darkly comic tale, as evidenced by the thoroughly hate-filled actions of the majority of the townsfolk, both young and old. There is emotional resonance to be had, but not in the caring, familial way some might want or expect from a title with Rowling’s name on the cover. It’s a bit of a difficult beast in this manner, one best looked at as one would a germ culture under a microscope—as a curious cross section of personalities exemplifying the edict of absolute power corrupting absolutely, no matter how small the scale of said power. The other element is in one’s appreciation of the novel’s DNA, which ranges from the Robert Altman film Gosford Park and its upstairs-guests-and-downstairs-servants dichotomy, and even The Simpsons episode “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” in which the children of Springfield, as a middle finger to an unfair curfew they’ve been saddled with, begin a pirate radio station in which they divulge the most sordid secrets of their parents, to humiliate them and strip them of their authority. In The Casual Vacancy, it’s primarily through the town’s children—their actions, their behaviour towards others, and in their anonymous, scathing blog postings crucifying their parents—that we see the failings, inadequacies, and prejudices of their parents and their controlling obsessions.

A common complaint of Rowling’s past work has had to do with an overuse of descriptive language. Indeed her style has not changed much in that regard. The Casual Vacancy is certainly a tighter read than the later entries in the Harry Potter saga, with fewer sentences bogged down by unnecessary odds and ends. At times she tells when she needs to show, and a few of the more spoiler-heavy emotional beats don’t resonate as much as they could due to the large cast, which unfortunately limits how well we get to know each character on an intimate level. Apart from those minor quibbles (and my undying wish for Simon to have met a grisly, violent end at the hands of a wheat thresher), The Casual Vacancy is a strong novel with terrific breadth of voice.

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