Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was released worldwide on Thursday. Potter admirers be warned: this is absolutely unfamiliar ground for Rowling and her fans. Nonetheless, REBECCA DAVIS finds, it’s not all that bad.
While reading initial reviews of The Casual Vacancy, many of which gasped at the novel’s coarse language and sex scenes, I was reminded of the decision of Daniel Radcliffe to choose the psycho-sexual play Equus as one of his first post-Harry Potter acting roles. The production required him to spend time onstage naked, getting his jollies from a horse. It was decidedly non child-friendly stuff. The provocative choice – he could, after all, have started with something more middle-ground, like The Mousetrap – seemed deliberate, a clear message out that Daniel was all grown up now, and his schoolboy wizard days far behind him.
Rowling seems to be doing something similar via The Casual Vacancy. Carping about swearing in this novel – as, most notably, the Daily Mail’s hateful and hate-filled columnist Jan Moir has done – seems utterly bizarre. Why shouldn’t there be swearing in this novel? It’s a novel for adults. Adults often swear. The descriptions of sex, too, are far from gratuitous. Nonetheless there is a sense, particularly in the initial pages, that Rowling is staking her new ground out quite firmly.
“A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him,” reads an early description of a main character; “wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed”. Toto, we ain’t in Hogwarts no more.
While I was reading The Casual Vacancy at a Kloof Street coffee shop, a woman next to me leaned over. “Excuse me, that doesn’t have anything to do with Harry Potter, does it?” she asked. No, I replied, explaining that it was Rowling’s just-published foray into adult literature and that it had received mixed reviews. She didn’t like the sound of those mixed reviews.
“Do you not think that people will just say it’s bad because they don’t want her to have too many good books?” she asked earnestly.
Actually, it’s not a bad question. There is both a tremendous amount of pressure on Rowling, with this first foray into “serious” literature, and a tremendous amount of hype attached to the actual book. The novel is expected to be one of the best-sellers of the year, swelling the coffers of a woman who is already the richest novelist in history. The photograph of Rowling, on the hard-cover dust jacket, has subtly changed in tone since Potter days. Rowling is pictured in an armchair in what looks like a stately home, or at least a grand living room. She is no longer the single mother who hit it lucky with her likeable wizard series. She is now, for better or worse, a national treasure.
The stultifying effect this must have on Rowling’s writing can only be guessed at. She has said that she considered publishing The Casual Vacancy under a pseudonym, because it was the only way in which the novel would be judged on its own merits, and because she feared its reception. Ultimately, however, she said she felt it was braver to bring it out in her own name. Will she regret that? Some reviews have been pretty brutal so far, yet had the novel been brought out under a pseudonym, it is almost impossible that it would be a bestseller. It would not be nominated for the Man Booker prize. It would be treated, perhaps, as a decent, slightly over-ambitious novel, showing promise. But that’s all irrelevant, because we all know that JK Rowling wrote it, and it’s very hard to extricate that from her previous work, as much as we know that we should.
Was anyone really expecting a work of genius from Rowling? What made the Harry Potter series compulsively readable was largely her skill at creating a meticulously-conceived alternative world. But the books are not in themselves beautiful, mysterious and wise in the way of, say, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which can be read on a multitude of levels. Within the Harry Potter universe, the “Muggle” (non-wizard) world was always portrayed as pretty dreary. Without any magical elements at all, the world according to Rowling – as seen in The Casual Vacancy – is dark to the point of hopelessness.
The story is set in the town of Pagford, which we are told is in England’s West Country but really just seems to stand for “Middle England”: unplaceable but recognisable. It conforms to the small-town cliché of seeming unremarkable on the surface but having tensions bubbling below. The youngsters of Pagford yearn for the metropolitan centre: they “dreamed of London and of a life that mattered”, we are told. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. These are tropes recurring through English literature since the invention of the novel. It is to Theo Tait, writing for the Guardian, that we owe the coining “Mugglemarch”, as a description of this novel – a reference to both its Potter antecedents and its George Eliot heritage.
All is not well in the town of Pagford, and its murky depths are brought to the surface in the aftermath of the death of a popular Parish councillor, Barry Fairbrother. One central, cataclysmic event causes ripples through a small town: this, too, is familiar territory. The death of Fairbrother opens up a coveted position on the Pagford Parish Council, and soon the town is in a state of virtual civil war. In the recounting of the rivalry between local would-be councillors, I was reminded of the late Victorian novelist EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series. Except that the Mapp and Lucia books are full of warmth, charm, and irresistible humour; The Casual Vacancy is as if French misery-guts Michel Houellebecq took a turn at re-writing the series one rainy afternoon.
The novel is exceedingly bleak in its view of human relationships of all kinds, but particularly in its view of adult sexual relationships. Parent-child relationships also come off badly. Rowling gives us both the child’s and the parent’s point-of-view in some relationships. While empathy for all her characters is a calling-card of the author, there is a sense that her sympathies ultimately lie on the side of the children. This is particularly demonstrated by one really caricaturish father, Simon Price – prone to punching his youngest son Paul in the nose till he bleeds and then yelling things like “Pauline’s got her fucking period again” – who is an almost perfect amalgam of Vernon Dursley, the man from whom Harry Potter was rescued, and the father in the Roald Dahl novel Matilda.
Rowling is at her best with the teenage characters, so it’s no coincidence that much of the action takes place around a school. She is funniest when she writes about the kids. Of one particularly dysfunctional schoolgirl, for instance, she notes: “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”. On the subject of a schoolboy’s crush, she writes: “The chimeric Gaia who filled his fantasies was a sexually inventive and adventurous virgin”.
When it comes to the action around the adult characters, however, part of the problem is that it’s so damn plausible. No doubt many platforms of local politics function precisely how she explains the Pagford Parish Council, but the issue is that their petty betrayals and mean-spirited behind-the-scenes machinations are ultimately rather dull. Who wants to read the minutes of parish council meetings, or endlessly speculate on who might fill an unimportant local committee position? Yet this is essentially what we are asked to do as readers, as well as eavesdrop on a number of excruciatingly failing relationships.
Rowling is at her best in the novel skewering the pretensions of the upwardly-aspirational middle class. “It was classy to volunteer; it was what women did who had no need of extra cash,” a character realises. She is also very gifted at capturing the back-and-forth of thoroughly banal cocktail-party chitchat, where phrases like “Never a dull moment!” are brought out as though they were priceless witticisms.
There are also some wonderfully sharply-observed characters. The reluctantly-ageing housewife who develops a crush on a boyband member and is humiliatingly relieved to discover that it’s a different member of the band to the one her daughter lusts after. The pretentious deli-owner who “had introduced fine dining to Pagford with the élan of a sixteenth-century adventurer returning with delicacies from the other side of the world.” The woman in a largely unreciprocated love affair who stays on the line, after her unwilling boyfriend has rung off, in order to pretend to return expressions of love for the benefit of any co-workers who might overhear.
But the novel is very long, with a vast roster of characters to keep track of, and none of them are very likeable. The only character who seems uncompromisingly nice is the recently-deceased man who forms the absent centre of the novel. For the rest, there are few to warm to. This would be perfectly acceptable, except that in a novel of this length (503 pages), one eventually tires of following figures without much caring as to their fates.
Over the last quarter of the novel, the pace suddenly accelerates from ambling to sprinting, with the plot growing progressively less plausible in terms of the speed and scale of social disintegration it describes. Unlikely coincidences pile on each other, and the tone turns mawkish. It’s hard to buy. “People round here are effing mental,” says one schoolgirl, and by the novel’s end, you can see what she means.
What is it that elevates a novel from good to great? What quality raises a novel from fiction to the status of literary fiction? You may find yourself asking this question throughout The Casual Vacancy. Whatever that elusive quality is, this book doesn’t have it. Then again, neither did Harry Potter. DM
Photo: Author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers during a event to publicize her adult fiction book "The Casual Vacancy", at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London September 27, 2012. J.K. Rowling's first foray into adult fiction was bound to be compared to her wildly successful Harry Potter series, and, while "The Casual Vacancy" has earned mixed reviews, for some critics the magic has worn off. REUTERS/Paul Hackett