Casually Vacant

The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown and Company 2012, 512 pages, $35.00 hardcover

The issue of bias is one that we try never to speak of in academia. We like to imagine that no one – at least no one we agree with, and certainly not ourselves – ever has any sort of preconceived notion coloring the lens through which they view the world.

However, when you ask a girl who once stood for 10 hours in a line thousands of people long on a humid Orlando day just because she wanted to be one of the first into the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park to review J.K. Rowling’s first book since Harry Potter, you can’t just ask her not to see Dementors lurking around every corner or not expect Sirius Black to return from the dead.

But I tried anyway. JK Rowling’s new literary endeavor, The Casual Vacancy, is a sort of odd tragicomedy about the aftermath of a British councilman’s death and what that means for the town, as well for the overarching tapestry of society as we know it.

Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurism early on in the book, and from that point on the 20+ narrators of the story are thrown into a tizzy.

The ensuing plot has mostly to do with the election of  a new councilman as well as the decision to eliminate a section of  the town that is deemed “lower-class”. Having much to do with personal interaction, humanistic portraits are woven though this larger story. The novel switches from point of view to point of view so quickly that you often forget the back stories of the characters you are reading about, a problem that persists through to the end of the book.

Yet this seems to be almost purposeful as the individuals of the town seems much less important than the overall characterization of a small, close-knit British town. Rowling takes painstaking effort to explain to the reader the actions and the motives of every character as you move through the story of the town of Pagford – and maybe that’s where the book falters.

Rowling undeniably captured billions (of people, of dollars) with her world of witchcraft and wizardry. But what she didn’t capture billions with was her prose.

While it seems like a harsh claim, no one really says J.K Rowling is a great “writer” they say she is a “spellbinding storyteller” or a “creative mind,” both of which are true. In “The Casual Vacancy”, her characterization and descriptions of this pompous little community in the middle of nowhere – which really is of no consequence to anyone but the creatures who inhabit it – is spot on. You feel as though you are a spectator to an intense game of chess as you watch these characters advance toward each other and back again. But you can always see the player making the moves.

Rowling commits the crime of telling the reader everything that she can. It’s as if her imagination is so vivid that she simply cannot leave anything ambiguous to the reader. Every moment must be slowed down and reviewed. Every action of every character must be documented and dissected for deeper meaning right there in the middle of the text.

While this isn’t a wrong way to write creatively, it does come off as childish. It’s as though in the seven years since her final book, she hasn’t grown at all as an author, and that saddens me.

And while I tried my hardest to separate her adult endeavors from “the series that shall not be named,” you just can’t help yourself. Reading The Casual Vacancy left me wondering when someone was going to scream Avada Kedavra or get their owl from Hogwarts. I just couldn’t separate one part of Rowling’s work from the other; they warrant at least some comparison.

Which I truly think is fair. It’s no secret that I would consider myself a Harry Potter super-fan. But while I love J.K. Rowling, I do not love her writing style.  In describing one character’s unrequited infatuation with another, she pens the line, “Andrew returned to his contemplation of the dirty window with an ache in his heart and in his balls.” This is simply unacceptably bad writing. She lays out all of her cards without any filter, and considerations of tackiness aside, that just isn’t fun for the reader to experience.

To use another example, in the story of the Price family, we are introduced to their dysfunctional family dynamic though an incredibly intense breakfast scene, which is meant to make clear to the reader patriarch Simon Price’s emotional and physical abuse. Instead of letting his actions and the reactions of the family speak for itself, we are spoon-fed in a very heavy-handed manner that he is going to beat the mother, has beaten the mother, and will continue to beat the mother if not stopped. This is just no fun.

And perhaps that’s why people loved Harry Potter so much. She made the conscious decision to not reveal anything regarding the plot. This left a vacancy, if you will, that was quite to the satisfaction of the reader. It made you think about each book after you closed it. There was no definitive ending.

But really, if you read the last book, you knew that this would be coming. The infamous epilogue, which resembled bad fanfiction more than an ending to a legitimate book franchise, had just this same problem. Everything was wrapped up neatly, there was no room for improvisation or wondering what happens to whom and why does this character does that. It was a big sign that reads, “THE END!” Hiding good plot points and twists in the story keeps the reader interested and entertained enough to find the story interesting and to spark ideas into the reader’s head about where the story may end up or about the underlying motivations and actions of these characters. And Rowling just doesn’t allow you to do that.

And that irks me. But why? After all, if Stephanie Meyer wrote a new book and it were just as bad as all her other ones I’d just chock it up to her being a completely incompetent author and carry on. But when Rowling does it I am angered. I want her to be better, to improve, and to grow as a teller of stories – and am immensely disappointed when she doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s the sentiment of the eleven-year-old girl still inside of me: that little brown girl with pig tails that waited for an owl, but never got one. It’s not that I still want to be a witch (but of course I do); it’s that I know that I’ve grown up since then. I’ve matured and changed. So why hasn’t she? I grew up with Harry and as the books went on, they got better and better as well. So why did she stop now? What gives?

The moral of the story isn’t that I hated The Casual Vacancy – it’s that I hated the way in which it was told. It seemed lazy and badly thought-out. And I simply can’t abide by that. The point of the book isn’t always the story, but rather the way the author nuances the telling. That’s the gorgeous part; it’s all about the trip, never really the destination. It seems that J.K. Rowling really hasn’t learned that yet.

Even though you narrated my childhood Ms. Rowling, it appears that I’ll have to find a new voice as I grow into adulthood.

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2 Responses to Casually Vacant

  1. Emily C says:

    Awesome review, Mallory! I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, and now maybe I won’t, but if I do, I’ll definitely go in with the expectation that JK Rowling isn’t the goddess of literature I’ve built her up to be in my head.

  2. Chuck says:

    Good review. I think Rowling is a one trick pony, in that all she did/will be remembered/will be paid for is the Harry Potter series. I haven’t read through the entire series, but I have read enough to agree with you that she’s not a great writer, but rather got extremely lucky. The idea of magic and wizards is not particularly new. She was fortunate in forming a base of readers in the earlier years.

    But who cares, she has a net worth of 1 billion pounds and probably won’t write again.

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