As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.
Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.
It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.
But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”
If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.” Bleak is an understatement.
Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.
And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”
The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.
By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.
The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without. This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked. Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.
But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.
It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.
The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine. “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.
In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read. There is no cushion of humanity.
The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter. It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.
In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”
“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful. But so far it’s worth it.
Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.