J.K. Rowling's first literary novel for adults is a surprising triumph
I don't think it's especially ungallant of me to have doubted J.K. Rowling. Like a hundred million or so other people, I have a genuine love for Harry Potter, but I wanted to be realistic: a lot of young-adult authors have tried their hands at literary fiction, and unless my literary sabermetrics are off, not a lot of them have succeeded. Not even Roald Dahl could switch-hit.
But when I read Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, I was surprised not only by how good it was but also by the way in which it was good. I suppose I'd expected a kind of aged-up, magicked-down Harry Potter, showcasing the same strengths the Potter books did: Rowling's meticulous plotting, her inventiveness, her love of mischief, her likable characters, her knack for visual spectacle. I also expected it to showcase her weaknesses, because all writers have them. Personally, I think the Potter books have too many adverbs in them and not enough sex.
But The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, 503 pages) is a different beast entirely. It's a big, ambitious, brilliant, funny, upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and bereft of cant, and if it had been submitted, which I assume it wasn't, it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize. It's as if Rowling (like Hogwarts professor Remus Lupin) were a werewolf, except that instead of turning lupine when the moon was full, she turned into Ian McEwan.
Before I get into the plot of The Casual Vacancy, I want to call out one character in particular, a sardonic schoolboy known as Fats, because he's an instructive point of comparison. Having read all 4,198 pages of the Harry Potter series, I thought I'd heard most of what Rowling had to say about the inner workings of teenage boys. I was wrong. Here's Fats skipping school--he wears his uniform "with the disdain of a convict"--and thinking about his life and his obsession with what he calls authenticity:
The mistake 99% of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats' currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.
Fats, like so many adolescents, has grasped a truth and made the mistake of believing it to be the whole truth. He could be talking about Harry Potter in that last sentence (messiah, pariah, noble misfit), but whereas Harry lives a fantasy, Fats must coordinate fantasy and reality, which is a very different task indeed. Long before you get to the "splendid breasts" and "miraculously unguarded vagina" of the girl Fats is meeting later for a callous shag in a graveyard, you know you're not in Hogwarts anymore or even in its affiliated den of sin, Hogsmeade.
Jane Austen once advised a young writer that "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on." Rowling is on the Austen plan here. The Casual Vacancy is set in a picturesque English town called Pagford. It begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, which is locked in an internal struggle over the Fields, a low-income housing development that borders Pagford's larger, less lapidary neighbor Yarvil. Some Pagfordians, who resent the burden of the Fields, want to rezone it as part of Yarvil, but Barry was sympathetic to the Fields. His death creates an opening on the council--the technical term is a "casual vacancy"--and in their unseemly haste to fill it, Pagfordians on both sides expose their carefully concealed inner lives.
Rowling arranges her characters not in neat opposing ranks but in a complex web. Among the citizens we meet are Colin, a neurotic deputy headmaster (and Fats' adoptive father) who wants to carry on Barry's work; Howard, a deli owner and leader of the anti-Fields lobby; Miles, Howard's son and Barry's former business partner, whom Howard is grooming for the empty spot; and Kay, a social worker who visits families in the Fields, including that of Krystal (she of the splendid breasts), whom Barry coached in rowing. It's in this Gordian tangle--and that's only about a quarter of the full tangle--that one sees most clearly the patient hand that built Harry Potter's world, a universe so detailed that an entire generation has pretty much chosen to live there.
Based on that pitch alone, The Casual Vacancy might seem to be light social satire, a skewering of small-town foibles and hypocrisies. But Rowling has always been more ambitious than that. Her interest is in the emotional and social gaps between us and the grotesque emotional wounds we inflict on those on the other side, always in the belief that we're acting in righteous self-defense. The people of Pagford can't go five minutes without lying to someone else or themselves; the town's psychic currency consists of "things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised." When they do try to tell the truth, they discover that the tools at hand, words, are pitifully inadequate. (Rowling, by contrast, shows off a new descriptive dexterity: a used condom in the grass is "the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub"; an old woman's fingers are "a clutch of bulging knuckles covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin.")
In Pagford they all believe they're the hero of the story, but as the point of view restlessly shifts, we see each character recast as villain, victim, fool, lover, ally, traitor. The sexually precocious Krystal is a daughter of the Fields, and each side uses her to bludgeon the other: she's a cautionary tale, a model of educability, a bully, a loyal sister keeping her family together. The truth is, she is all those things. (Krystal's mother is a heroin addict, and the story of that shattered tribe is the most wrenching thing in the book.) As the vote over the vacancy approaches, the fight descends into a hail of body blows from which not all the characters will recover. There is no Dumbledore to step in and declare a moral victor.
The Casual Vacancy is not so much an extension of the Harry Potter books as their negative image. It's a painfully arbitrary and fallen world that, bereft of the magic that animates and ennobles Hogwarts, sags and cracks under its own weight. After his furtive coupling with Krystal, a melancholy, postcoital Fats thinks, "He wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom." Harry would just have apparated there. But Fats, like the rest of us, must take the long way home.