This is a reaction to J. K. Rowling’s newest book, The Casual Vacancy. As there is a substantial amount of language used in the book that is considered offensive, you should be warned that I may include them in some of it in quotes. This is also a *SPOILER*-y post regarding the plot of The Casual Vacancy.
A friend, who knew I was planning to read the book right away and wouldn’t get a chance to do so herself, asked me to text her a one-word review when I was finished reading The Casual Vacancy. I thought of several options while I was reading, like “raw,” “depressing,” “honest,” “heartbreaking,” or “grim.” In the end, I settled on “condemning,” because it was overall a very bleak and realistic portrayal of our modern society, populated by repeatedly selfish and cruel humans, whose self-absorption, stereotyping and prejudice ultimately did nothing to prevent fatal tragedies. Barry Fairbrother seemed to have been one of the only decent people in the town, and he died in the first chapter. There was very little hope that the miserable existences described in such painfully vivid detail would ever be improved. Perhaps that is a more realistic outcome–that change comes slowly to society, that maybe only one or two people in the whole situation are motivated to try to effect change–but the fact that this is really an accurate presentation the current state of affairs, that most of us won’t be bothered to do anything about the plights of our neighbors or the less fortunate, should make the reader feel ashamed.
Pervasive self-centerdness was definitely one of the themes I felt this story hammer home, partly through the fact that many characters enjoyed others’ misfortune with schadenfreude-ic glee, but when the situation was reversed felt that people should pity them, without a trace of irony. There was also the climax, when three people saw a small child all alone and did not concern themselves over his well-being in the slightest. It seemed that this quote, describing Andrew’s violent and corrupt father, would be appropriate for many other characters as well:
Simon had the child’s belief that the rest of the world exists as staging for their personal drama; that destiny hung over him, casting clues and signs in his path, and he could not help feeling that he had been vouchsafed a sign, a celestial wink.
Tessa notices and is frustrated by this unconscious belief that oneself is the most important person in the universe, shared by her son Fats and many of the students at the school where she works:
She wanted to scream, You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.
Later, Tessa is again frustrated by a person not bothering to think of others as he does himself:
Tessa fought down an impulse to snap. Colin had a habit of making sweeping judgments based on first impressions, on single actions. He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own.
Although she doesn’t always act accordingly, Parminder reminds herself of a Sikh teaching at several points:
The light of God shone from every soul.
I hope I was meant to generalize those quotes and see them as applicable to both the entire cast of this book and much of its audience, but then I’m apparently not very good at discerning what this author intends. In a interview promoting the book, Rowling gave a much different perspective on her work than I came way with:
Themes of the book include drug addiction, racism, rape, alleged paedophilia…. It’s clear that this is a very different kind of book.
“It’s a cheery book! Clearly a comedy, it’s a good beach read. But yes it is different, I genuinely think even though it sits a little oddly with that list of themes, that this is a humorous book. Some of the humour may be rather dark in places but yes its life in a small town [and] everything that entails.” [source]
I can’t find a video of this interview, only the written transcript, so I don’t know whether her inflection indicated that she was joking or not. But I’m a little saddened if she really thinks this is primarily a comedy. There are certainly several snarky descriptions and a couple parts that made me laugh out loud, but my mind refuses to process reading depictions of self-harm, rape, drug addiction, child neglect, and domestic abuse as “comedy.” I cried much more than I laughed. However, in the same interview, Rowling also intimated that readers should cry:
The book has quite a bleak and shocking climax , what sort of reaction do you hope it gets?
I don’t think I would have much to say to anyone who didn’t at least tear up a bit. I don’t think I would have warm feeling toward someone who didn’t. But it’s a vile thing to say to a reader, did you cry or are you some sort of sub-human? [source]
After so many years confined to the magical and comparatively safe and happy land of Harry Potter, perhaps it was a relief for Rowling to write something so gritty and real, so contemporary and ugly. People died in Harry Potter, but not by suicide. Draco may have been a bully, but he didn’t relentlessly post cruel Facebook messages to Hermione’s wall and make her want to cut herself. The Dursley’s mistreated Harry, but they didn’t physically beat him. I’ve got nothing against harsh depictions of reality in stories, but I would have preferred more hope for a change for the better in this one, (and I’m not convinced we really needed those explicit descriptions of the porn that Andrew and Fats viewed.) Much of this book seemed to be simply noting, in very well-crafted style, “isn’t it funny how absolutely terrible people can be?”
I wasn’t really bothered by most of the “foul” language, since it fit with how those characters would realistically speak or think. This was even addressed explicitly in the book:
Krystal thought she was being funny. She used “fucking” interchangeably with “very,” and seemed to see no difference between them.
The important thing about analyzing any language use is the context; Krystal uses those words indiscriminately with everyone, barely realizing they’re considered taboo, while Andrew and Fats sometimes use offensive words together to mark the situation as casual, intimate, and without adult supervision. What struck me most about the language in this book was actually the amount of big words, (like I had to look up a few even though I consider myself to posses an extensive vocabulary), and the prevalence of Britishisms.
I marked all of the instances of British slang that I noticed, and if there is an interest I could write up a separate post outlining and explaining them to an American audience. Click here to read my post on the British slang in this book.
If you’re familiar with the brilliant parallels in the structure of the Harry Potter books, which have been dissected and discussed by others at length, you might not be surprised that Rowling’s new book also features 7 sections with a similar theme running through the end of each one. I can’t quite figure out how section 4 features in as the middle, and I haven’t yet noticed whether there are individual parallels to be made within each section, but what I have noticed is a systematic recurrence of sex and death.
In the last segment of Part I, Fats and Andrew get high and ruminate on the meaning of life together.
“Yeah,” said Fats. “Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.”
“Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.”
“Or trying to die,” said Fats. “Some people. Risking it.”
“Yeah. Risking it.”
There was more silence, and their hiding place was cool and hazy.
“And music,” said Andrew quietly, watching the blue smoke hanging beneath the dark rock.
“Yeah,” said Fats, in the distance. “And music.”
The river rushed on past the Cubby Hole.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this conversation is almost a blueprint for the rest of the book. Part II ends with Krystal and Fats having sex in a cemetery, strongly echoing Fats’ summation of the two most important elements that make up life. Part III ends with Nana Cath’s funeral and Krystal being raped. Part IV ends with the election, so I’m not sure how it fits in exactly, but maybe the thematic element is in the middle of Part IV instead of the end, since it’s the middle chapter? Part V ends with Robbie’s death, due in part to Krystal and Fats’ irresponsible coupling, and Part VI ends with Krystal “trying to die,” and succeeding. Part VII ends with the music at Robbie and Krystal’s funeral, and the townspeople averting their eyes from her grieving junkie mother, because they’re still unable or unwilling to really see or engage with her, and the river of their selfish, judgmental pettiness is going to keep rushing on uninterrupted. (How depressing!)
Now that I look back at all the repetitions, I don’t know why I was so shocked by Robbie and Krystal’s deaths at the end. I should have seen them coming.
Of course, there were lighter moments, too! One of my favorite descriptions, perhaps ever, was of Krystal’s education:
Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.
I also enjoyed the humor in royal-watching Shirley’s volunteering at the hospital with a fantasy that the Queen will visit and thank her, diabetic Tessa’s characterization of muffins and chocolate as “traitorous glucose,” and the abundance of descriptions of the gossiping bussybodies that populate Pagford, like this one:
Maureen’s mouth was hanging open again; she was like an ancient baby bird, or perhaps a pterodactyl, hungering for regurgitated news.
My favorite character was definitely Sukhvinder Jawanda; I felt she was one of the bright spots in this little town full of so much pathetic meanness. After all, she is the only one who tries to help rescue Robbie. I felt a lot of empathy for her in her self-loathing, egged on by Fats’ torment, and my heart nearly broke for her at this relatable pain:
His every insult and jibe was branded on Sukhvinder’s memory, sticking there as no useful fact had ever done. If she could have been examined on the things he had called her, she would have achieved the first A grade of her life.
I was glad her parents discovered that she was cutting, and I hope the therapy they’ve enrolled her in will be helpful, and that they will learn to communicate their appreciation and love for her instead of cutting her down and complaining that she isn’t a superstar. (Is it weird to hope for things for the futures of fictional characters?)
As for whether or not I would read the next book by Rowling, I might, but I will read the early reviews and excerpts next time, (which I completely avoided this time around), before deciding if it sounds like something I want in my mind. Rowling isn’t the cheerful and optimistic author I wanted her to be, but she’s still very talented, and I must accept the reality of other people.
**update** J.K. Rowling has answered a fan question about the gritty, realistic characters in this book at length. Her response is very detailed and it makes me appreciate the story further.