The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780316228589
503 p.p.

Why People Hate Rowling’s Post-Harry Potter Writing (And Shouldn’t)

Writers, particularly women writers, are often invisible—they are names on pages of our books. Very few of them are ever more than that—how many of us could claim the ability to identify writers by their photograph alone? What is gratifying is when we really believe someone has broken through: Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling. We have tended, as women readers, to embrace them as shatterers of glass ceiling we all wish no longer existed. Some of the very people that applaud them have never read their books—they just appreciate the ability of the women to ascend past the restrictions women writers face. Other people read them and might appreciate that the writers are famed, but simply love the work regardless of who wrote it. Most people make a critical error: they assume that the author IS their writing. Anne Rice IS the queen of vampires, Stephanie Meyer IS the duchess of science fiction YA, and J.K. Rowling IS children’s fiction especially in the genre of magic.

Our problem is that we think we are lifting up these women, but we have (most of the time) trapped them. What would happen if these women stepped outside their given genres? That’s the problem with J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy—the vast majority of people don’t think of her as a woman writer, or even as a writer… she is only Harry Potter’s writer.

People have to understand that their love of Rowling has intrinsically linked with their love of Potter, but to really appreciate her we have to separate out the characteristics of her writing that aren’t a part of Harry’s world.

When I first heard of The Casual Vacancy I—like most people—ignored the title of the book and wondered, hoped, dreamed, that this was a chance to read adult-style Harry Potter. I couldn’t help myself—I loved Harry Potter. One of my grandest achievements is that I (with a small cohort) identified that Tonks and Lupin were a sure-fired couple who would wind up happily married with a happy little electric-haired were-child. I have considered naming a big burly cat Crookshanks. I would even venture to say that my preference for the name Lily was directly inspired by Harry Potter. I definitely own Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (and the margins are annotated….).

But we have to do J.K. Rowling a favor and stop assuming she only writes Harry Potter.

In creating “media sensation authors” we have made prison cells for people… to quirk an idea by Helene Cixous—writers as individual people are getting lost in finding their own voices because they are trapped by writing in the restrictions of “their” genre. Why aren’t we letting Rowling find her “literary body” by expanding beyond the cuffs of Harry Potter? Because most readers, even if they say they are all about Rowling, are selfishly concerned with their own desire to keep reading Harry.

I feel for this populace—I know what it is like to get incredibly sad because you will never read Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time again, never wait for the midnight release of Goblet of Fire, never feel the anxiety and desire for that final epic edition Deathly Hallows (and then AGONIZE over the epilogue—do you love it? Do you hate it?).

However, Rowling deserves for each and every one of us to approach her as a writer, not as Harry’s writer. She is truly gifted, and The Casual Vacancy shows that. Rowling herself even anticipated the hardship of being accepted as a writer outside Potter which is why she attempted (unsuccessfully, thanks to a leak at the lawyer’s office) to write The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith (if you missed that epic moment, you can read up here).

So, The Casual Vacancy

Rowling has a truly haunting trip into a small town. It opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother. Like in Potter, Rowling uses names to communicate something essential about key characters. Fairbrother was a councilman in local government who wants the Fields—a low-income housing area with a fairly busy addiction clinic called Bellchapel—to be kept active so its residents have a chance at reinvigorating their lives so they can become part of scenic Pagford. There are other Pagfordians who want the clinic and the neighboring projects shut down because it brings a disdainful element to their picturesque community. Pagford is the small town where Rowling sets her scene. It is quintessential—tiny, full of local mom and pop businesses, and fairly timeless. It gives a generational quality because so many people stay in Pagford for life, and those that move into it tend to stay because stasis is the norm (in a comforting way). The death of Fairbrother can be jarring—I started reading Casual Vacancy only a few days after my own father died and at first I put the book down and walked away because talking about death can be draining. Readers will be forgiven if they aren’t into the morose start of the book. However, what I came to find refreshing (and rehabilitating) about Rowling was that death was received so realistically—some people were devastated by Barry’s loss, other people were almost gleeful, and some did not care. It gave real perspective on the human experience—I didn’t get the impression that Barry Fairbrother would’ve lost a wink of eternal rest knowing that kids like Andrew Price or Fats Wall (or adults like Kay Bawden) didn’t care that he died. You have to live the life you wanted to live. Rowling commented to The New Yorker that, “This is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.” And to that end she is incredibly successful—this book makes us revel and revile the responsibilities of all the characters, especially the ones who attempt to take on absolutely none.

The problem with Casual Vacancy is the pacing. It is hard to get through the first 150 pages because Rowling’s organization left something to be desired. In Potter she routinely threw 10 new characters at us in a book, sometimes up to 10 in one chapter, but we were able to set them into orbit around Harry and thus keep them somewhat straight. Rowling’s mistake with the opening of Vacancy is that she opens with Barry Fairbrother, immediately kills him, and tries to make his ghost the central figure when he really isn’t—I will argue that Krystal Wheedon, the ever downtrodden sixteen year old from the Fields left abandoned by the Pagfordians of the world when Barry dies, is really Rowling’s protagonist.

Krystal is, seemingly, a transparent character that refracts light into bad luck—the whole book you are rooting, and hoping, that she can change her situation but get smacked over the head with how overbearing the obstacles are, and how powerless she is as a teenage girl with absolutely no support system. The daughter of a lifetime heroine addict (an addict whose children have been taken away before and we are, sadly, hoping that Krystal and her baby brother Robbie get taken away) Krystal is the soul caretaker of her three year old brother, she is rarely in school because she is the only one even attempting to take care of her home, and as a result of these circumstances is so behind on her education that the deficit (she can hardly read) simply can’t be made up. She is plucky but offensive and violent because she sees that as strength and she has learned that the weak become addicts or pawns of the drug dealers. She is the swansong of childhood—taken with dreams of “adult life” being better, removed from torments and hardships, that “next time” she will win, or “in the future” it will all get better. But her dreams have no leg to stand on—nobody fights for Krystal, and nobody wants to see her succeed.

Krystal is the anti-Harry Potter. They both begin in a place of oppression, but where Harry rises and finds both friends and allies, Krystal only continues to be kept down. Does this have to do with gender? Does Krystal find it harder to get away from the oppression because she is female? Maybe. Maybe the hardest thing to acknowledge is Rowling’s revelation that short of miracles or magic, kids in situations like Krystal seldom get out, and part of the reason why they are kept down is because the privileged, white, male “middle” class that runs Pagford truly believe that Krystal is a second-class citizen who doesn’t deserve to be brought up. And, disturbingly, they believe that Krystal consciously wants to be kept down—despite the fact that almost none of them have had more than passing interactions with her.

Krystal Wheedon is the center of many arguments for keeping or closing the Fields and the Bellchapel clinic, which is strange as she is not a voluntary resident of the Fields (her mother, who she would love to get away from, can’t get her out of the Fields) or a patient at Bellchapel (her mother is on a third round there, and seems to be setting herself up for yet another drop out). Krystal is a victim of circumstance, but the adults that have the ability to help her are willing to condemn her simply for being born to a junkie.

Krystal’s classmates—Andrew Price, Fats Wall and Sukhvinder Jawanda—as the younger crowd of Pagford speak to many key elements of the novel, and underscore Rowling’s fascination with the teenager psyche. Andrew is abused by his father, Fats has maliciously decided to undermine authority to stress out his already too stressed out father (just for kicks) and Sukhvinder is part of the only Sikh (indeed the only non-white) family in Pagford, and as the only child that isn’t good at something she is constantly railed upon by her mother. Andrew is a victim, but he is passive aggressive and rarely sees anything outside his own interests—not in an evil way, but in a distinctly human way (ever just not noticed that major events happened because you were too absorbed in your own thing?). Sukhvinder is dyslexic, overweight, and bullied on every side, in every situation—and yet maintains a truly kind, selfless heart that wants to help people. Her heroics at the end of the novel demonstrate her real personality, and at least temporarily (for the audience knows that this break in the clouds can’t last) relieves her from a life of self-hate and surety in her own uselessness.

Then there’s Fats. He is a very realistic teenager—into minor drugs, sex, and titillated by the idea of rebellion (he calls it being “authentic”) while never really escaping he massive bubble of privilege his parents have given him. When he finally goes and contributes to something unthinkably horrible and irreversible, he realizes (too late) how awful he was. Particularly, he was awful to his father—a man wretched with truly crippling OCD where he is convinced he has committed crimes that he hasn’t.

If you have ever been to a small town, lived in one, or feel a kinship with that atmosphere, every moment of this book will ring as true to you. By the end of this book I was sobbing cathartically—it was epic. There is “fairness” and karma… and bitter realism mixed in to make us remember that life isn’t fair, and clean cut and predictable.

People rejected this book because it wasn’t fantasy—Rowling has achieved greatness by showing that she can write lovely, bitter realism and fantasy. If you haven’t given this book a chance because you liked Harry Potter, you are hurting not only yourself but the career of a truly gifted writer. Rowling deserves to be recognized as a woman, a writer and especially a woman writer—by deciding that we want her to only write for our ends, instead of writing for her craft, we have effectively gelded a promising career. Read this because it is great writing, love her because she makes it great, and let the author build their body of work unfettered by genre restriction.

***

J.K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling is a writer that is noted for her children’s fiction, Harry Potter which she began publishing in 1997. Harry Potter became one of the best-selling series in the world until it’s conclusion in 2007—it has subsequently become a blockbuster movie series and a theme park. Rowling broke into adult fiction with 2013’s The Casual Vacancy and has another adult series that includes The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm. Rowling is heavily involved in charity work, primarily with children’s welfare and anti-poverty causes (check out her charity, Lumos), stemming from the hardships she faced prior to Harry Potter’s success. She has received The Order of the British Empire and countless other awards, for her literary and charitable works. She currently lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three children. Recently she partnered with the BBC to help produce a miniseries on The Casual Vacancy.

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3 responses to “The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

  1. Although you paint a pretty bleak picture of the entire book, the points you make about Rowling as a write are absolutely valid, and I am tempted to see if I can make it through that first 150 pages.

    • I hope that you have tried that first 150 (I figured I’d give you a little time to crack into it— I know that first 150 took me a while!)

  2. And that is why I love Harry Potter, not Rowling. I can’t judge her for what she wants to write or how she does it, but I’m glad she wrote HP.

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