The Casual Vacancy | J.K. Rowling
It has been 15 years now since J.K. Rowling gave the world the comic grotesques of middle-class English suburbia that were the Dursleys. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much,” went the opening sentence of Harry Potter And the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), a sentence whose satiric bite is softened by the affectionate parody of that concluding “thank you very much”. The rural middle-class families of Pagford in Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy have much in common with the Dursleys: They abhor the abnormal, lapse constantly into cliché (“Christ, it puts everything in perspective, though” or “Goes to show, doesn’t it?”), and cling to a fragile happiness that depends so entirely on silence and secrecy that it takes little to unravel it.
The slow unravelling begins with the death, in the second page, of the closest thing Rowling gives us to a wholly likeable character. Barry Fairbrother, of whom we learn most things posthumously, is a sort of a role model of social mobility, raised by education and hard work to the middle class and anxious to extend the opportunity to others from his position in local government over the objections of his reactionary opponents on the parish council. His death, which creates the “casual vacancy” of the title, gives those opponents the chance to fill his position with someone more congenial, which is to say, amenable to having responsibility for “the Fields”, a beleaguered area ridden with poor drug addicts on benefits (“chavs”, as the pejorative vernacular has it), reassigned to the nearest city.
In the background, the landscape of rural England: “Andrew Price... followed his young brother down the steep garden path ... Neither boy spared a glance for the familiar view spread out below them: the tiny town of Pagford cupped in a hollow between three hills, one of which was crested with the remains of the twelfth-century abbey. A thin river snaked around the edge of the hill and through town, straddled by a toy stone bridge. The scene was dull as a flat-painted backdrop to the brothers; Andrew despised the way that, on the rare occasions when the family had guests, his father seemed to take credit for it, as though he had designed and built the whole thing. Andrew had lately decided that he would prefer an outlook of asphalt, broken windows and graffiti; he dreamed of London and of a life that mattered.”
This is nicely done, the landscape rendered a picturesque banality once seen through the eyes of the alienated adolescent. This is also, sadly, one of the few passages in the book better quoted than paraphrased—Rowling’s gifts have never consisted of a command over the aesthetics of the English sentence. But there are compensating advantages, the ability to hint at backstory, and at complexity, with a line of dialogue that reveals the distance between people’s, or places’, perceptions of themselves and other people’s perception of them.
The Casual Vacancy also has the ambiguous virtue of the Harry Potter books, a sure command over the mechanics of plotting. In Harry Potter, this imparted to Rowling’s stories something of the relentless narrative momentum of the whodunnit. Within the conventions of the realist novel, however, it has the unfortunate consequence of making things a little too pat, events seem entirely determined from the start.
It might be that Rowling’s aspirations stop short of realism proper. The book sits in the uncomfortable area of the spectrum between (as one critic has put it) the “dense” fictions of Victorian realism where a richly conceived cast of characters drive the plot, and the “stark” fictions of Greek tragedy where it is the other way around and everything is a matter of necessity. Everyone in Rowling’s novel—the bored housewife, the disgruntled teenager, the abusive patriarch—is set up for a fall, and there is an undeniable satisfaction in watching it come. But inevitably, it means that Rowling must deny her characters the full humanity that comes from having the end less of a foregone conclusion.
Early reviewers, certainly those from the British right-wing press, have been quick to cry Bolshevism. The goodies, they say, are always the social workers, or drug addicts, or Sikhs—in short, those likeliest to vote Labour—while the baddies are the smug, aspirational middle classes who imbibe from their mother’s milk a lifelong loathing for the “undeserving poor” and keep Pagford a safe bet for the Conservative Party. Now, Rowling’s political affiliations are no secret. She named her first daughter after the Communist writer Jessica Mitford, and has written affectingly of her debt to the British welfare state for supporting her through her days as a struggling single mother. But it would take a wilful blindness to the book’s actual contents to see the book as an artefact of the cultural wing of the British Labour Party.
For one thing, how they regard Rowling’s middle-class characters says as much about a reader’s guilty conscience. Smug and petty they most certainly are, but we are repeatedly given glimpses of another way of regarding them, and of them as being as full of unfulfilled possibility as the poor: the middle-class housewife who harbours a secret crush on a young pop star, or the woman in denial about the financial position of her lingerie shop, the teenager unaware of how much his philosophy of “authenticity” has turned him into a moral demon. And the sympathetic characters too have their vices: Barry Fairbrother remained a disappointment to his wife, the crusading Sikh doctor is entirely oblivious to her daughter being bullied at school. There is material here for mockery, as there is for sympathy.
As a moralist, Rowling is no George Eliot. She is not even Iris Murdoch. But all three writers share the view that Rowling puts into the mind, but not the mouth, of a mother to her narcissistic teenage son (the italics, alas, are Rowling’s): “You must accept the reality of other people. ... You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”
For all the worthiness of its moralizing, The Casual Vacancy shows little of the artistic or formal ambition that might make it a worthy candidate for inclusion in this tradition. In this, it is a very middle-class beast. But it is an entirely respectable instance of the lower-middlebrow in modern British fiction. To say this is to damn with faint praise, but so be it: Those who like this sort of book will like this book perfectly well, and why not?