4 October 2012

J.K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy

As a rule, I generally avoid reviewing books when I am only thirty or so pages in, unless I am reviewing something by Dr. Seuss, but in this case I may have to make an exception, because I may not be going any further.

Casual Vacancy is Rowling's first book after her wildly popular Harry Potter series.  It is her first intentional novel aimed at an adult audience.  I say intentional, because Harry Potter, while ostensibly a children's series, was widely read by adults.  And the story does begin with a double murder, so it could be argued the books were adult books in disguise, or at least not dumbed down for children.

I feel I owe Rowling a great debt.  The Potter books arrived in my hands at a singularly depressing point in my life.  I had been working on my PhD for some time, and was beginning to realize that 1. everything my colleagues held to be true was a load of crap; and 2. related to my belief in point 1, I was never going to get that degree.  My studies for that final degree had forced me to read more and more books that I never wished to read.  I wasn't reading books, as such, nor was I reading books about books, but books about theoretical views in approaching the studies of other books, and books expounding those theoretical works, and works expounding the expounded views of theoretical works, and so on, and so on.  I grew to hate reading itself.  It was no longer a pleasure to me, but a chore, an unpaid job.

In this atmosphere of failure and the loss of one of my greater joys in life, my wife came home with the first of the Harry Potter books.   She worked at a daycare centre, and one of the managers there had asked her to review the book, as some places were banning it.  She dropped the book on my lap, and asked me to do it for her.  This was a new low: all my education, and I was vetting children's novels for day care centres.

But I started to read the book. When I looked at the clock, it was well past midnight, and I should have been in bed hours earlier, but I had not noticed the passing of time.  Something had happened, something that had not happened for a long time;  I was reading a book I enjoyed.  The next day, I bought the next book in the series. Something wonderful had happened. I found again my love of reading.

I am trying to place this new book in some kind of frame to help me explain it, or the little I have read of it, so far.  It is set in a small English village, the sort of place Jane Austen may have set one of her novels, but in the present day.  I wonder if Rowling intentionally set out to update Austen.    She has said in interviews that she finds the work of Austen to be "unputdownable." So the setting may have come from Austen.  But Austen always had a certain charm in drawing her characters.  Rowling's characters have none of that here.  She has populated a quaint English village with characters from Joyce.  More accurately, she has written a book about the Dursley's.

The Dursley's were Harry's cousins in the earlier series. Each book began with Harry living with a family who despised him, who were as normal as Harry was not.  The two played off each other well at first.  The Dursley's were originally comic relief.  They were abusive to Harry, but they were amusing in their attempts to remain normal.  We laughed as Vernon drove around in endless spirals to try and avoid the oddness that followed them everywhere.  We were amused when Petunia's dessert was inadvertently dumped on her guest's head, or when Harry accidentally inflated his Uncle's sister.  We didn't like them, but we liked watching them.  At least at first.

As the stories progressed, however, something happened to the Dursley's.  They stopped being funny, and when the humour was gone, all we were left with was a couple of brutal, stupid people.  Rowling forgot that, while we are supposed to hate the bad people, we are supposed to like hating the bad people.  Instead of humour, she heaped contempt upon the normal people.  In one interview, she stated with a great look of dislike on her face that she was barely exaggerating with the Dursleys.  The look on her face spoke to me of hatred.  She knew them, and she hated them.  With all that contempt, the Dursley's were no longer the people we liked seeing get the pie in their face; we just didn't like them at all.  And now, she seems to have created several families of them, and put them in a village.  I have met several characters in these first bunch of pages, and I can't say I like any of them, and if I don't like them, I don't much care what will happen to them.

That's the first problem.  The second problem is story.

The average reader decides within a few seconds of opening a book whether or not they will continue to the end, or put it down and never pick it up again.  The author has about one paragraph to capture the attention of the reader, and no more.  So by the time the reader finishes that first sentence or two, they had better find themselves in a story.

Of course, the writer does not want to show all their cards at once.  They tell you what you need to know slowly, reluctantly, teasingly, making you pay for every tidbit of information you get.  The opening chapter of the story, assuming the reader gets that far, is the hook.  The reader must be given something, but not too much.  Sometimes the writer will give the reader more than they realize, but the reader will only understand it when they are done.  The first chapter of the Harry Potter series was Rowling's masterpiece.  It told the reader very little, but far more than the reader could know at first. 

This new book is not her masterpiece.  I am, as I said, about thirty or so pages in, and I see no trace of a story.  Just a bunch of annoying, small minded people leading annoying, small minded lives.

Rowling hated the Dursley's, I think.  I think she isn't very fond of the new characters, either, and this is not good.  if the creator does not love their creation, how is another supposed to love it and care for it?  Why am I supposed to care about these people, who seem to populate a novel that is part Austen, which is good, and part Joyce, which is not? I may continue with this novel, in the hopes that it improves, but if I do, it will not be as an act of love. 

My second post on The Casual Vacancy.

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