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What I Learned From The Casual Vacancy

Last night, I finished J.K. Rowling's long-awaited "grown-up" novel, The Casual Vacancy. I say "long-awaited," but what I mean is "long-dreaded." Would she fumble the ball? Would she dash our hopes for the next great literary achievement, the application of her famous creative wit to the complex and contradictory world of adults?

Short answer: "yes."

Every review I saw before I checked it out was either timidly cautious or boldly negative. But I picked it up anyway, thinking, "It can't be that terrible, right? Rowling has been honing her writing chops for years. She must have the best editors in the world on her side. I mean, how bad can it be?"

Bad. Very bad.

Now I assume that, as I did when I read the negative reviews, my readers are now thinking, "Aw, come on. You're just disappointed 'cause it wasn't Harry Potter." But I wasn't expecting it to be like Harry Potter. I wasn't even expecting it to be very entertaining, though it was billed as a tragicomedy. But I was expecting it to be not terrible. I am certain that if The Casual Vacancy did not have J.K. Rowling's name on the cover, this book would never have been accepted for publication, never mind selling a million copies internationally in its first days on the bookstore shelves.

I don't want to just be a negative Nancy and whine about how I wasted so many hours of my life on this novel. I ought to learn something from it. I'm at least going to write down, here, why I hated it so much, and what I should never, ever do in my own future works.

A Bunch of Psychological Profiles Jammed Together Is NOT a Story

An overworked politician. His put-upon wife. An obese conservative. An judgmental busybody. A mama's boy. A troubled slut. A druggie mother. A nurse in denial. An unhappy housewife. An abusive father. A well-meaning social worker. A headmaster with OCD. A school counselor who likes to talk more than listen. A spineless bachelor. A spotty boy with his first crush. A fashionable social butterfly. A depressed outcast. A pseudo-philosophical rebel. A type A doctor.

There. I've just told you the story of The Casual Vacancy. Admittedly, there was a bit more than that...just enough to put some Elmer's glue between them all. Someone at The Guardian has apparently dubbed this novel, not-so-affectionately, "Mugglemarch"—which is only funny if you majored in English or are the offspring of someone who did. If you're neither, it's a play on Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans). It's a 1000-page novel about middle- and upper-class society in a nineteenth-century town, characterized by in-depth portraits of flawed men and women and their complicated, ever-evolving relationships. The Casual Vacancy seems to have cribbed the head-hopping, narrative-heavy Middlemarch style, but not so much the organic flow or insight. Hence the slightly derogatory nickname.

The whole thing reads much like Rowling got into some therapist's case files and just started copy/pasting them into a novel. The chapters are short and disjointed—sometimes only one spread long. She jumps from one head to another every few pages, and even when she settles on one for a spell, she tells several stories at once: one in the story line's present, a second in parentheses of some buried memory, a third of the running internal dialogue weaving between the first two, a fourth of the narrator's opinion on this fictional person...and then BOOM, we're someone else. By the latest chapters, she's jumping from one character to another every two or three paragraphs.

It can get very confusing, especially since none of the characters or plot threads is very unique. All of the bad marriages, bad parenting, and bad decisions blur together. After reading for a while you start to ask whether we're talking about Tessa or Kay or Samantha or Ruth, and who's with which inadequate husband again? But then you realize it doesn't matter, because no matter which terrible relationship we're talking about, they'll all end up the same as they started.

There is an overarching plot—kind of—but it's slow in coming and never goes anywhere. At the resolution of what was supposed to be the story, we get the underwhelming feeling that all of it was completely pointless and it doesn't matter who wins the stupid local election, because people will continue to be miserable and terrible and mean to each other no matter what. And that leads us to:

No One Is 100% Miserable

Everyone in this story—and I mean everyone—leads a miserable, depressing, sordid life. In addition to being miserable, they are also self-centered, self-satisfied, and/or self-destructive.

Now, there's nothing wrong with writing about people with these qualities. Most people in real life have some combination of them. They can be small, jealous, cowardly, guilt-ridden, abusive, dishonest, even mentally ill. But that's not all they are. They can find a moment or two of contentment. They can make the occasional friend. They can sometimes think about things other than their little hatreds and prejudices. And, on very rare occasions, they can treat their husbands and wives like real human beings.

But in the city of Pagford, which Rowling describes as "small," "old," and "Victorian" at least half a dozen times each, there isn't a single person that is basically decent, not a single relationship that isn't crumbling to pieces. Every marriage is strained and unhappy. Every child hates, fears, and looks down on his/her parents. Every mother is selfish and overbearing; every father violent and crude. If a teen isn't crying and cutting herself, she's screaming at people, bullying people or being bullied, or experimenting with drugs and unprotected sex. No one ever stops being angry and confused long enough to smell the goddamn roses.

I can imagine that, after spending twenty years writing sparkly young adult fiction about wizards and unicorns and a little boy who saves the world just by being special, Rowling felt the need to get all of the dark energy left over out of her system. But a blanket of black paint over a canvas isn't art. You need contrast. You need highs and lows, not just a tedious buzz of misery for 500 pages.

Shocking Events Aren't Shocking in a Sea of Shockers

As I said in the previous section, everyone in this book is, at his or her baseline state, miserable. There are a few points in which they are more miserable than others. And these super-low points are, I gather, supposed to be shocking. Rape. Suicide. Adultery. I never expected any of these things to make me yawn.

In my last blog post, I wrote that sex is exciting by default. I'm afraid I'm going to have to take that back. The sex in The Casual Vacancy was excruciatingly dull. Don't ask me how she did it; in the abstract, it's all very edgy. I mean, there's sex in a cemetery. There are kinky fantasies of coupling with young boys with husbands watching. But it's just...blah. And maybe Rowling did that on purpose, because she's determined to show that even fleeting bits of happiness are unattainable. But I doubt it.

I think The Casual Vacancy has the same problem as a lot of B-rated horror films. They string together one cheap thrill after another until the suspense is gone and you're just drumming your fingers, waiting for the next close-up of a screaming beauty and a corpse. The first gross-out shock of this book comes on page two (and it is pretty gross; I started reading it while eating dinner and quickly regretted the combination). After that the shocks just march on by in turn. Now there's adolescent bullying. Now there's wife-beating. Now there's shooting up crack and smoking weed. I just started ticking off the hot-button issues on my mental tally sheet. By the time one of the girls was raped, I just thought, "Golly gee, didn't see that one coming. Not at all." And of course the rape is forgotten in two pages, and we move on to the next melodrama.

It didn't help that the big, shocking climax was the faint echo of a movie my parents had on VHS: Mermaids, with Winona Ryder and Cher. Yes, a campy comedy starring Cher beat J.K. Rowling to the punch...twenty-two years ago. So I only saw the tragic conclusion coming from, I don't know, three or four chapters before it was supposed to sock me in the gut. (As I said before, the chapters are tiny, so that's like ten-twenty pages. Maybe. I'm not going to pull it out again to count.)

Tragedy can only sock you in the gut if you don't see it coming, or if you do see it coming but cling to the belief that everything will turn out okay. Agatha Christie's most famous mystery novel is literally titled And Then There Were None, and the poem in the front matter tells us exactly what should happen to all the guests, but we still think until the last page that the pretty deranged girl will somehow make it out of that house. (I mean, no one's stupid enough to just hang herself on the advice of a racist children's rhyme. Right? Right?) But I had no faith, after a few chapters of The Casual Vacancy, that anyone in this book would turn out okay. I didn't particularly want them to, either. I was just waiting for their miserable lives to end miserably.

It's not like J.K. Rowling doesn't have the skills to make us care. She made me cry buckets when Sirius Black kicked his. It came out of nowhere because he had seemed invincible. He and the spunky kids had always managed to save the day and beat the bad guys. But it turns out they couldn't save everyone. He also seemed to leave behind a lot of unfinished business, a life that could have been happy if evil hadn't stepped in the way. But when the doomed characters of The Casual Vacancy started dropping like flies, all I felt was, "Oh, good. Now they won't suffer anymore...and I won't have to suffer them."

So what have we learned from this, boys and girls?

I've learned that (a) pictures in words are very pretty, but you should make them move every once in a while; (b) a story needs peaks and crevices and the feeling that you're going somewhere with them; (c) shocking and tragic events are neither shocking nor tragic unless they defy expectations and people care; and (d) if I were J.K. Rowling, I could scribble a few expletives on a napkin and earn another million dollars.

Sorry—I couldn't help it. I don't hold anything against Rowling personally. Everyone has written something that falls short of expectations when they've ventured into unknown territory. It's just that her experimental mess is in the hands of millions of people, while mine are safely tucked away on my laptop. I can't help but wonder if the publisher pushed to get this out before it was ready, like the last Harry Potters (I didn't even read the seventh and can't remember much about the sixth, but I do remember thinking that if I were her editor, I would have told her to chop all of the installments after number three in half). Maybe with a few more rewrites, it could have been fine. Maybe if she had extracted the many disjointed stories and developed each into its own shorter novel in a Pagford series, it could have been great. In any case, I've heard that her next one is going to be in children's fiction again, so I think she knew she was out of her element with the super-heavy stuff.

Now I'm going to go write something happy.


Kerry Ann (October 24, 2012, 5:02 pm)

I thought the same thing. I felt almost slanderous writing my review, but, well, as you so well stated, it was a miserable read. I considered a pseudonym (not really) and felt mild relief that my review was posted on the BookshelfBombshells site instead of my own.

Not a book to be read on a gloomy day. Hope you read something light and frothy or at least pleasurable next.

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