The amazon.com page on J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, carries the following plot synopsis: “When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils … Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?”
That is all that is known about Rowling’s first non-Harry Potter creation, other than the fact that it will be available in print, e-book and audiobook format on 27 September, and that her publisher has referred to the tale as “blackly comic”. Obviously, all details will be guarded more fiercely than a nuclear arsenal till the date of release, and millions of copies will be bought. For all I know, millions of copies have already been pre-ordered. It will almost certainly be the biggest selling fiction title of the year. All this, of course, will not have anything really to do with the quality of the novel.
A file photo of J.K. Rowling.
The Harry Potter books, which have—at last count—sold more than 450 million copies in 75 languages, are essentially cleverly put-together puzzles, and the first three ones in the series are certainly as gripping as any children’s book ever written (The later ones got unnecessarily gargantuan in size as Rowling became more and more obsessed with the arcana and details of the world she had created). Literary value? Well, as one British commentator recently pointed out, many of us can still quote a few phrases or lines from Alice in Wonderland which we read in our childhood, but can anyone recall one sentence from the several thousand pages Rowling devoted to Harry? The Casual Vacancy, I don’t think, will turn out to be a serious contender for the next Man Booker Prize.
But what I guess it will have in abundance will be intrigue, selfish and petty-minded characters (all uniformly two-dimensional), and a lot of sadism. As a parent, I was alarmed at the amount of sheer cruelty—both physical and mental—that child readers were exposed to in the later Harry Potter books. Rowling is unlikely to moderate her impulses for adults. As I mentioned, the book has been called “blackly comic”. The “black” part I can understand all right, but I do not recall being aware of any sense of humour in the writer of the Harry Potter novels. Was there even a tinge of comic relief in the books? If so, I either missed it, or can’t remember.
Black comedies are tough to carry off. Even Evelyn Waugh, a master of the genre (Scoop, Decline and Fall, the Basil Seal novels), often ended up leaving the reader enraged rather than entertained by the unadulterated nastiness of his cynicism. Among more recent novelists, perhaps only Tom Sharpe managed to carry it off—horrendous deaths that are also hilarious, mishaps so grotesque that they are rip-roaringly funny. Will Self scales the peaks with some of his works, but some others are just plain disturbing. So I think it’s quite all right if I feel mildly scared of what Ms Rowling will find “comic”, given the sadistic streak that I seem to spy in her as a writer.
Of course, I shall read The Casual Vacancy, like everyone else will. I shall try to borrow it from some friend who’s bought it, though I fear I will end up buying it and reading it. I may not be able to escape the Incredible Marketing Hulk that is straining at its leashes, and whose rasping hot breath will become audible to us in another couple of months’ time. Agatha Christie spent a lifetime telling us what horrible secrets could lie at the heart of idyllic English villages. Now Rowling is having a go at that. The horrors she has shown herself capable of thinking up would possibly have frightened Christie, if she was alive. And all that was in an imaginary world. Rowling’s depiction of the real world can only be darker.