Monday, 1 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy: A New Masterpiece

J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling that qualifies it as a literary achievement entirely separate of the author’s previous body of work.
The initial reviews that preceded the novel’s publication were filled with criticism of Rowling’s use of explicit language and adult content. These reviews, it seems, failed to take into consideration the fact that The Casual Vacancy is an adult novel. Rowling has been very clear about this from the book’s very first mention, so the focus on these aspects of the novel is highly superficial, and misinterpreted anyway.

The Casual Vacancy is the story of the members of a small community, the ways that they are mixed up in each other’s lives, and how their own selfishness and pettiness obscures the issues of those who genuinely need help. To disentangle the web of relationships, both whole and broken, of the characters of Pagford seems near-impossible now that I’ve finished the book, but I’ll try and elaborate on the plot a little anyway.
Howard Mollison, obese and falsely genial, is the owner of a deli in Pagford, and the head of the town’s parish council. He is the antagonist in the campaign to sever Pagford’s ties with the housing estate dubbed “The Fields” by locals, believing that the residents there are undeserving of Pagford’s support, and that the picturesque town would do better without the ugly stain of such a connection tarnishing their reputation. When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former Fields resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.

Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she occasionally renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. While this makes for an emotionally turbulent read, it also results in a highly realistic portrayal of the human condition. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.
  This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin junkie. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be affected most directly by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.

SPOILER ALERT – The section below contains plot spoilers.
A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done beautifully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity:
By the time Kay and Gaia arrived, and the police decided to force their way in, Krystal Weedon had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them. -481
 It takes Krystal (and Robbie’s) death for the town of Pagford not to realise, but to care about, how badly Krystal had been in need of help. This event shocks some of the citizens into understanding that the petty concerns that they had been preoccupied with were nothing compared to the difficulty Krystal faced every day.

‘…Miles, I saw that boy. Robbie Weedon. I saw him, Miles.’ She was panicky, pleading. ‘He was in St Thomas’ playing field when I walked across it that morning.’
  ‘In the playing field?’
  ‘He must hve been wandering around, while they were – he was all alone,’ she said, remembering the sight of him, dirty ad unkempt. She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him.
He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’  - 494

And while novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the martyr of the story.

Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but mismanaged and the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.
I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.  

Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.

1 comment:

  1. It is extremely nice to see the greatest details presented in an easy and understanding manner. free ebooks