J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

November 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Krystal’s slow passage up the school has resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.  Not that Krystal was always in class:  for much of her career at St. Thomas’s she had been taught one-on-one by a special teacher.

By a malign stroke of fate, Krystal had been in the same class as Howard and Shirley’s eldest granddaughter, Lexie.  Krystal had once hit Lexie Mollison so hard in the face that she had knocked out two of her teeth.  That they had already been wobbly was not felt, by Lexie’s parents and grandparents, to be much of an extenuation.

It was the conviction that whole classes of Krystals would be waiting for their daughters at Winterdown Comprehensive that finally decided Miles and Samantha Mollison on removing both their dauthers to St. Anne’s, the private girls’ school in Yarvil, where they had become weekly boarders.  The fact that his granddaughters had been driven out of their rightful places by Krystal Weedon, swifty became one of Howard’s favorite conversational examples of the estate’s nefarious influence on Pagford life. (p. 58)

Fairly or not, J.K. Rowling’s new “adult” novel, The Casual Vacancy, will be compared to her bestselling juvenile Harry Potter series.  Some doubtless will compare certain characters and their portrayals with the characters found in the small English town of Pagford, but that risks judging this novel on something other than what it aims to be:  a dark, somewhat comedic look at the foibles and egos of a disparate cast of characters in a small town who scheme and screw each other (metaphorically and literally alike) in the immediate aftermath of the death of a parish councilor, Barry Fairbrother.  The Casual Vacancy, however, is the sort of novel that lacks anything approaching narrative creativity or wonder.

The story unfolds over the course of a few weeks, as the Pagford residents try to decide who will be the next parish councilor now that Fairbrother’s seat has been vacated by the “casual vacancy” of death.  Rowling devotes roughly five hundred pages to a laboriously exploration of the townspeople’s social structures, their prejudices, their hypocrisies, and futile attempts to hide their indiscretions and misdeeds from neighbors.  Taken singly or perhaps in say a grouping of three or even four subplots, Rowling’s depictions of these characters might be amusing in her penetrating look at their shortcomings, but there is such an unrelenting excess of similar characters that the entire effect is reduced to a dull, drab look at the worst of contemporary English working class life.

Speaking of social class, Rowling’s lower class characters, particularly the barely literate Krystal Weedon, come across as little more than mostly unsympathetic horny sex machines.  This is despite Krystal’s PoV being presented several times in the novel; Rowling comes across here as being less interested in exploring the complexities of those who must maneuver through the straits of slum life, with its attendant expectations regarding sexual activity and drug culture, than in presenting a surface portrayal of a “oh, how tragic it is that such a girl has to put out so much to horny teen boys, none of which really have a clue about life beyond the next hump session.”

The other characters fare little better, as many are reduced to ciphers in order to fit in with certain dark comedic roles:  the prissy, frigid wife; the husband whose infidelities are a matter of public knowledge and yet who thinks he can win their approval; the various, vacuous aspirants to Fairbrother’s seat, most of whom have the depth of a puddle and the emotional range of a dead guppy.  There just is little ingenuity to these characters; they just merely occupy slots and their tragicomedic fates barely bring a chuckle nor inspire more than a slight sigh.

The Casual Vacancy despite these myriad flaws could have been a decent novel if the plot contained anything approaching originality.  Instead, it feels like an attempt to portray a pathetic collection of desperate, grasping people trying to seize some weak wisp of power that fails because the characterizations are wafer-thin, leaving the reader to wonder just what the point of reading the entire book might have been.  As it is, The Casual Vacancy is a dark comedy of ill manners that fails to inspire anything more than just a vague shrug of relief once the final page is turned.  Terribly dull and plodding makes this book one of the worst 2012 releases that I have read.

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