narfna’s #CBR4 Review #58: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
BEFORE, 9/20/12: Confession time, you guys: I haven’t been that excited for the new Rowling, although you’d think I would be, the way I’ve behaved over her previous novels (hint: like a fuckin’ lunatic, yo). Since I first discovered Harry Potter in October of 1999, I have yet to find any story that touches me the way(s) HP does, for whatever reason. Not that my love of HP has instilled in me ridiculously high expectations or anything, EXCEPT THAT IT TOTALLY HAS.
I would tell you that I’ve re-read those books more times than I can count, except that would be a lie because I HAVE counted, and I’m just not telling you because, frankly, it’s obscene. But no matter how many times I re-read them, they still make my heart beat fast, make me laugh, make me cry, and make me scream obscenities and want to throw things across the room (Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, and specifically Dolores Umbridge, is responsible for the first recorded incidence of Ashley-on-book-violence). They make me feel FEELINGS, and in only the best ways. And every time I pick them up again, they never fail to make feel like I’m discovering magic for the first time all over again — you know, like Madonna in “Like a Virgin,” except with books instead of sex.
The last time a favorite author of mine came out with a new book, I was crushingly disappointed by it. Alice Sebold followed up her ethereal and haunting The Lovely Bones with the absolutely god-awful The Almost Moon. I hated that book as much as I loved her first one, and I loved her first one a lot. So maybe it’s my brain’s way of protecting me against disappointment, this not caring. I pre-ordered The Casual Vacancy like a good fan, like a good little bibliophile, but deep down where it counts, I felt nothing, and it feels awful. I feel dead inside, like someone who is allergic to ice cream or cookies or something equally as awesome.
BEFORE REDUX, 9/24/12: It’s three days before the release date, and I have been trolling the internet for every last scrap of information I can find about this book. This has led me to two conclusions: 1) I still fucking love Jo Rowling — I want to be her BFF, and I’m so happy she’s still putting her words out into the universe; and 2) I have let my fear that I am going to hate this book consume me. I’m absolutely petrified. I have to stop thinking about this now.
BEFORE, WITH SOME CAMUS THROWN IN, 9/25/12: I’m thinking about it again. And I am having an honest to God existential crisis about the release of this book. SOMEBODY HELP ME. I know it’s stupid, but there is a rather large part of my brain currently devoted entirely to the thought that if I don’t like this book, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE WILL IMPLODE.
BEFORE, WITH TREPIDATION ON THE RELEASE DATE, 9/27/12: Okay, so it’s today, and I’ve been gorging on reviews, both intelligent and moronic, and I’ve decided that I need to CHILL THE FUCK OUT (for evidence of the moronic, see: all the reviews on Amazon right now, most of whom, good or bad alike, have not actually read the book — but also you’re probably just going to have to trust me, because once reviews start going up from people who’ve actually read the thing, the idiots will be harder to find). I need somebody to slap me or something — this is just a book, and Jo herself, in all the interviews I’ve read, has tried to temper the madness. She’s said repeatedly that she wrote the book for herself and that a lot of people aren’t going to like it. In fact, in a Potter-less world, this book would probably be unremarkable, and it’s a bit unfair to both Rowling and the book that because of who she is and what’s she’s done, it’s getting so much media attention and scrutiny (see: this ridiculous reading journal, for example). Also, as much as I love her style, I think I have to prepare myself rationally here that I’m most likely not going to love this book. It’s a social satire, which can be really fun if done right, but most of the reviews I’ve read are making it sound bleak and graphic, especially this one, which made me want to crawl under my covers and weep:
“Can I read it, mum?” asked my resident Harry Potter scholar on Sunday afternoon, snuggling closer to get a look at my review copy. “No, you can’t.” “Why can’t I?” “Because it’s full of really dark things and you’re too young.” “Not worse than Prisoner of Azkaban.” “Yes, it’s worse.” “Why?”
I had to think hard before I answered him. In previous JK Rowling books, there has been evil and death and sadness, but there has also been hope and redemption. At the end of The Casual Vacancy, there is no wand to wave, no spell to make the horror go away. It is pitiless. One child lies dead, another drowned; almost nobody in the story loves anybody else, and the author isn’t much kinder.
“There’s no magic in this book to make it better,” I said. “Lots of it is really horrible. I don’t want you to read it, darling.”
“OK,” he said, weighing up the wisdom of my words and jumping off the sofa, “I’m gonna read it.”
Mother of God.
BEFORE, OUT FOR DELIVERY, 9/28/12: Amazon tells me my book will be here soon, possibly hours from now, possibly seconds. Meanwhile yesterday, in an effort to stop being such a freak about all this, I exchanged a series of frantic emails with my friend Heather Anne, who I knew for a fact had purchased the book that morning and was probably mostly done with it. Sure enough, she tells me that she’s 2/3 of the way through and she’s “already cried 13 times.” That made me panic more, but then she said this: “To me, it reads like the first novel Hermione Granger would write while on maternity leave from the Ministry of Magic after having her first child.” This made me feel better because Hermione, but also because that comparison likens Casual Vacancy to something in the vicinity of S.P.E.W. or some other cause deep in Hermione’s social activist heart. I feel better now.
BEFORE, GULP, 9/29/12: IT’S HERE.
DURING, THE UNBOXENING, ETC, 9/30/12: Have now read the first fifty pages, and unless something changes drastically in the 450 remaining ones, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t hate this book. Which is a good thing, because I interrupted my late-night important eating of Macaroni & Cheese and a first viewing of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to wander the half mile or so to my mailbox in my pajamas while holding a fresh cup of tea (in a mug) when I realized it had been delivered. I couldn’t even wait until I got it home to open it, just sat down on the ground like a five year old and ripped that box open. Turns out the feeling of holding a brand new Rowling book in your hands, fresh and unspoiled (well, mostly), isn’t unique to Harry Potter. Thank God.
(And I promise, that is the last time I will mention Harry Potter in this review. I’ve become increasingly frustrated over the past two days with the amount of people who have picked this book up and hated it immediately because it wasn’t Harry Potter. These people are reading this book because SHE wrote it, and that’s fine, but they’re blaming everyone else when they don’t like it, instead of realizing, hey, MAYBE THIS JUST ISN’T MY THING. I’m also frustrated with the “critics,” who seem incapable of writing a review for this book without resorting to the same tired comments. So, this review will be about THIS BOOK, and not about how THE MAGIC IS GONE! THERE IS NO DUMBLEDORE TO SAVE THE DAY! Etc. Shut it, monkeys.)
Just from the first fifty pages, my impression is that this book is a study of both character and society, centered around the catalyzing event of local city councilor Barry Fairbrother’s death, and Rowling isn’t shying away from anything. I think one of the reasons people are having such negative reactions to this book is that it makes them uncomfortable. This is the sort of writing that characterizes contemporary adult literature, not eliding over the nastier bits of life: bodily functions, swear words (yes, children, maybe you don’t swear, but other people do!), and the sometimes horrible things people think, say, and do. People who spend their time moaning and bitching about sex and vulgarity in literature and TV/Movies are missing the point. Pretending this sort of thing doesn’t exist or happen on a regular basis (right next door to you even) is willfully seeing the world as you want it to be seen. This book is attempting the opposite: to dig into the hidden corners of people’s lives and delve up the dirt. I think I have an idea of what the purpose of all that delving is for, but it’s only a guess so I’ll keep it to myself for now.
DURING, A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT ‘VULGARITY’, 10/2/12: Two hundred pages in, still enjoying the experience of reading this thing, although I admit I am feeling the length of it more than I ever do with HP (I SAID THE WORDS!), but mostly because the experience of reading this book is so brutal. I mean, it’s good, but it’s not exactly enjoyable, if that makes sense (even though I literally just said I was enjoying the experience — whatever, shut up, Ashley). Anyway, wanted to pop in to say a thing or two about all those ‘vulgar’ quotes reviewers and journalists have been throwing around to get ratings and page-views. All those ‘dirty’ quotes they’ve highlighted so publicly read much differently in the context not only of the story, but in the context of the paragraph and sentences where they’re located. IMAGINE THAT. That condom quote, for instance, or the line about the wrinkled cleavage. Certainly its shocking at first to see such things printed in conjunction with Rowling’s name, but when you actually encounter them in the book, they feel entirely natural and unremarkable. I’m not even sure I would have glanced twice at them if they’d not been so well-publicized beforehand. Frustrating.
DURING, SLOW STUFF, 10/7/12: 256 pages in. This whole middle section is kind of dragging. I’m sure all of it is building up to something, but right now I have no idea what so it just feels like a slog.
DURING, AVOIDANCE, 10/11/12: I haven’t touched the book in over a week because I can feel some sort of Rowling-esque tornado coming. It’s vibrating its way backwards in time from the last 100 pages. Me and the characters are getting antsy, hence the avoidy. I have finished two other extremely fluffy novels in the meantime, and they tasted like chocolate chip cookies. TCV tastes like the BROCCOLI OF DESPAIR. I’m going to stop writing words now.
DURING, I HATE MOST OF THESE PEOPLE, 10/13/12: Am feeling very yo-yoed right now. Characters I like do something awful and then all of a sudden I hate them, and then a character that I thought pretty much irredeemable goes and does something that makes me like them. There are only a few characters in this novel that I 100% love, and even they do very stupid/mean things sometimes. I keep wanting to jump into the book and smack these people upside the head. It is emotionally exhausting. For the most part I see the point of all of this, but I do wish that good old Jo had let some of these characters have a good day. Characters I hate the most right now: Parminder (I liked her previously, but the way she treats her daughter Sukhvinder makes me want to chop her head off), Fats (who is a giant turd of teenage self-entitlement), and Gavin (who is the world’s biggest emotional fuckwit). I also find myself despising the weak characters that let other people stomp all over them, like Colin and Ruth. Mary the Widow comes off very selfish, all of a sudden. Yeah, her husband just died, but it seems like she’s unable to get past her own need for attention to see that her husband was working for a worthy cause – jury’s still out on her. Characters I like: Kay, even though it’s kind of annoying that she wouldn’t just leave Gavin, that turd — it’s painfully obvious he doesn’t even like her; Tessa, although her love for her shithead of a son is a major detriment; and Andrew, even though he’s a coward for going along with Fats’ bullying, and a stupid teenager for still hanging out with Fats, who is an awful person.
Krystal just makes me sad. She has good intentions, but is so uneducated and misunderstood that she misses opportunities for betterment all over the place, and constantly is unable to truly read the events going on around her. She’s stuck getting information second and third-hand, and is so alienated from authority that even when she’s raped, she refuses to call the cops because she knows it would end badly for her mother, who is in constant danger of relapsing her drug addiction. It feels like everyone but poor, dead Barry failed her, and with him gone, she’s fucked.
DURING, HERE COMES THE TORNADO, 10/13/12: Made a huge dent in this tonight. Read about 180 pages, and now I only have about 100 left to go. Nothing awful has happened yet, but I can just see it coming, especially since the event the whole book has been leading up to is coming in the next section. None of these characters are going to come out of this without their lives being ruined, I just know it. (P.S. Parminder is back in my good graces because she exploded at Howard in a council meeting, basically telling him that his refusal to lose weight is the same thing as a junkie refusing to get clean. The statement might be suspect, but the feeling behind it was much appreciated.)
AFTER, 10/14/12: Finished this first thing this morning, just before going to see Argo (which was really good, by the way). Need to put my thoughts together.
AFTER, SO NOW I’LL STOP TALKING, 10/14/12: I’ve been toying around with how to finish up this journal for about an hour now. Ultimately, this was a really well-written book that appealed more to the side of me that can appreciate “literature” and enjoys literary criticism than the other side of me that prefers lots of made-up shit and fairy beasts and spaceships and junk all over the place. And since, when left to my own devices, 95% of the time I’ll go for the latter option, I know that I fall into the group of people who probably shouldn’t have read this book. And not because I couldn’t appreciate it, because I could, but because it depressed the fuck out of me and I generally try to avoid that feeling as much as possible.
However. I’m glad I read it, because I think that’s exactly what Rowling was going for. A huge part of Rowling’s ready-made audience is used to using her fiction as an escape. While HP does tackle important issues like class and bigotry and bullying, ultimately the series ends on a hopeful note that suggests all that bad stuff can be overcome. This is a great message for kids. If every kid who read the Harry Potter series had their moral compass shaped by it the way mine was, that’s certainly not a bad thing. But with grown-ups, the experience of reading the HP books is a bit different. For children, it’s an adventure. For grown-ups it’s an escape into a hopeful world that mostly doesn’t exist. I think Rowling wrote The Casual Vacancy (consciously or not) as a response to that. Fantasy stories are wonderful, but it’s very easy sometimes to forget that there’s a real world out there with real problems that aren’t solved by sitting on our asses and ignoring them. I definitely think Rowling had an agenda when she wrote this, but it’s an agenda that I can admire, and one that she executes with a very clear passion for her subject (even if I think she could have stood to lighten up just a smidge). All of the characters in this book are incredibly well drawn, with intensely vivid inner lives, and conflicting (very human) emotions. Even the assholes are sympathetic in the end. It’s really quite astonishing.
I’m not sure who I would recommend this to — there might be a kind of preaching to the choir situation going on. But if you’re curious, I’d say go for it. At the very least, you’ll have something to talk about afterwards. Clearly.