October 15, 2012

Book Review: Casual Vacancy

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Short version:

Don’t bother. At the very least, don’t make the mistake I did and actually spend money on this dreck. Get it from the library if you absolutely must read it for yourself.

(Very) Long version:

The Plot

“Casual Vacancy” begins with a death, a totally unsuspicious death by natural causes. This death becomes the catalyst to a small town, Pagford, being turned inside out as citizens go toe-to-toe in a special election to replace the dead man on the local town council. “Everything is not what it appears” is the theme, as individual after individual finds their private lives being exposed against their will for public consumption.

At the heart of this conflict, that lasts from the beginning of the book to the end, is a small suburb of Pagford, the Fields. The Fields is government housing, built by the neighboring metropolis of Yarvil but (largely) financed by Pagford. The residents of the Fields tend to be druggies, prostitutes and black market dealers, and many of Pagford’s citizens are fed up with having to subsidize the Fields’ tenants.

However, some members of Pagford, including the deceased councilman, see a moral obligation to continue funding the Fields. Going through the same recession the rest of the country is, the town council is split about whether to continue carrying the Fields. So whoever fills the vacant seat left by the dead man (the official term is Casual Vacancy) will decide the fate of the Fields.

That’s the basic plot, or rather, plot device, since the election itself is really just a McGuffin for the heaps of personal drama that seep off every page. Mental disorders, masochism, embezzlement…no one’s got it together in Pagford. The only possible exception is the recently-transplanted social worker, who has her own personal issues, but also has the only actual heart of gold in the town and wants to see the Fields “saved” from budget cuts.

There aren’t any real heroes in “Casual Vacancy” – again, except possibly the social worker – but there are certainly clear villains: the citizens of Pagford, as a whole. They never wanted the Fields to be their responsibility and have battled for over 40 years to cut ties to both the subsidized community and the drug addiction clinic that services it. The dead man at the beginning was fighting to keep the Fields as Pagford’s financial obligation, but these citizens of Pagford will (apparently) stop at nothing to keep from funding the welfare culture that is the Fields.

The most heinous of these Pagfordites all fit a very specific stereotype: White, legally-married, middle class, self-employed/small-business-owning "Christian” homeowners. Their moral defects range from infidelity to pedophilia, without exception. Every single one is rude, selfish, ambitious to a fault, and totally ambivalent to anyone outside their social circle, and most within it. Any person who doesn’t agree with (or even have a strong opinion about) keeping the Fields has absolutely no redeeming qualities. They don’t even own pets, strategically keeping characters from betraying even the smallest hint of humanity. It’s hard to tell which Rowling thinks is their chief sin – abusing their children or wanting to cut welfare funding. It really is a toss-up, the way she presents it.

The Politics

British literature has come a long way from Dickens. Where Scrooge sneered, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Rowling laments, “There aren’t enough prisons! They want to defund workhouses!” Okay, not prisons and workhouses exactly. But Scrooge was written to display a clear concept – that relying on government to subsidize the poor rather than providing individual charity was greedy, lazy and selfish. In Rowling’s universe, personal charity doesn’t even exist; only the hired gun of government-directed wealth redistribution. Any resistance, on any level, is regarded as morally vacant.

If you believe in the American concept of separation of church and state as our Founding Fathers envisioned it – that is, not having the state being the head of a national religion – then inherently you understand the difference between government subsidy and charity. In Rowling’s  novel, there is no such difference, and I think this is due to her culture as much as her politics.

The only church in town isn’t a center of worship or community, just a place to hold funerals, a monument to the hypocrisy of Christianity (as explained by one of the Sikh characters in the novel). Nowhere in her novel does any character display or suggest any kind of personal charity until the very end, when one teenage girl raises money in the community to help her friend. None of the people supposedly so concerned about whether or not the Fields would get to keep their drug clinic ever suggested trying to solve that problem without the government, through community action or personal patronage. Nothing.

This is especially surprising considering Rowling’s own personal philanthropy. She’s famous for her charitable giving. So, it’s strange to see that not a single character in this broad and varied cast she created has any philanthropic ideas of their own. I can only speculate as to why that would be the case – perhaps it undermines her message about the necessity of forcing taxpayers to fund failing government projects, perhaps she honestly doesn’t believe anyone but the mega-wealthy are willing to contribute personally to the needy, perhaps she truly doesn’t see willing individual giving as a legitimate alternative to mandated taxpayer subsidy.

“Casual Vacancy” is quite obviously a political story with a specific political message. But the way it’s written isn’t persuasive, conversational or in any way conducive to bringing the reader into an honest dialogue about the issues, because only one side of the issues is presented as being reasonable, honest, or motivated by anything other than greed. That can happen with regard to any political message, of course. “You’re pro-abortion because you hate babies!” “You’re anti-abortion because you hate women!” It’s annoying enough in unscripted conversation.

But when it’s done in the form of a novel – something that has been drafted and redrafted and redrafted and edited and edited and edited over and over before actually going to publication – that’s really unforgiveable. Rowling had an unlimited number of pages and a variety of characters with which to explore a very emotional and complex issue. Instead, she opted to present only one point of view as correct (without any reasoning to support it, by the way, just a dogmatic “Because I say so” delivery) and to paint anyone who disagrees with her as evil.

Evil white middle-class small-business-owning homeowners. So, you know, me.

The Style
Yes, it kills me I couldn’t think of a third ‘p’ word

It’s possible to communicate very political messages through fiction in a way that isn’t simply preaching to the choir, and that actually has some artistic value. Again I refer you to Dickens. “A Christmas Carol” isn’t a cute Christmasy story. It’s a scared-straight treatise about charity, selfishness, greed, and personal growth. “Casual Vacancy” had that potential, albeit telling a story with a very different message, but Rowling does it almost artlessly. I saw this on twitter:

That’s not an exaggeration. The book is incredibly profane, and very vulgar, without nuance. As other people have pointed out, it’s as though Rowling sat down at her computer and said, “Okay, this isn’t a book for kids, so what would be totally inappropriate for kids? I’ll include that.” There were multiple sex scenes, most involving teenagers, and two or three very explicit, as well as other explicit portions involving other sexual acts and fantasies. And written without artistry or subtlety, just lazily thrown on the page.

So even if the reader isn’t turned off by the heavy-handed political preaching or the way anyone who disagreed with Rowling’s thesis was a monster, it’s nearly impossible to read “Casual Vacancy” without feeling like you have to wash your hands when you put it down.

For future reference: when Rowling says she’s “writing a novel for adults,” she really means she’s writing an “adult novel.” You could almost call it a harlequin romance, except there’s no romance in it at all. Lots of sex, lots of lust, but no love, no romance, no affection of any kind. The worst part is, we know she’s capable of better. She simply chose the low road.

Also, contrary to other reviews I’ve read, I didn’t find hardly any character development in the novel. They’re all pretty flat, generally staying the same at the end of the novel as they were before. Part of that is due to the way the novel ends. While many of the characters wind up sorry they were caught doing some of the awful things they did, or perhaps regret unintended consequences of their actions, we don’t really see any realization that any of those original actions actually were wrong, evidencing personal development.

The Conclusion

Honestly, I feel like I wasted a week of my life on this horrible piece of crap. I can’t think of a single redeeming quality. Not only was the style crude and sophomoric, the subject matter was poorly handled. Any larger message Rowling was trying to communicate was lost by choosing to “preach to the choir” rather than persuading the skeptical, and even then she didn’t give the “choir” any talking points for their position, just dogmatic attitude. All in all, “Casual Vacancy” was a huge disappointment.

11 comments:

  1. I was waiting for your review before I bought this book and now I am glad I did! I may still get it from the library...maybe.

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  2. I know a few folks who were waiting to hear about this book before buying it... I'm sending them a link to your blog! That's a shame the book was so bad, especially since she has wowed so many people in the past.

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  3. Wow. It reads like she's talking about the folks in Chicago.

    What is a bit odd is how the book is filled with F-bombs and yet when I went to Wal-Mart a few weeks ago, there was a large display right at the entrance to the store. Makes me wonder if anyone seriously vetted the work before releasing it for purchase.

    Fred

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  4. Call me crazy, but I never read her other books (I know). I was actually thinking of reading her "adult novel." It sounds like a snooze. I'll donate my time and money to a private, non-government charity instead. Take that JK.

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  5. Thanks for the review. I almost bought this and now I won't. I'm sure her politics would have made me very annoyed.

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  6. Geez. I'm glad you read this before I did. =P It's really disappointing that she couldn't come up with something better. I guess HP was all the good writing she had in her? Sad.

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  7. This is an incredibly insightful and well thought out review! I love it!
    I still want to read the book, but more out of curiousity than anything and I will definitely be getting from the library as you suggested.
    I'm so disappointed that it's turned out to not be so great. I was really looking forward to the books release, but after reading your review, I have significantly low expectations.
    Thanks for writing this!

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  8. I watched an interview with her the other day about this novel and it sounded about as interesting as you found it. I have to say I appreciate a knowledgable, literary review. So many well reviewed books I find to be flat and delevoped on a technical level.

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  9. I read a similar review (though not as honest and pointed, so thank you) prompting to ignore any urge to read it. I had hoped that reading an adult-catered piece of hers would inspire me to venture into Harry Potter (which I have yet to bite into for no other reason than time.)

    I think of Ayn Rand, who has a politically-based way of writing. She does so with eloquence and in an artistic way. Even if you disagree from a political standpoint, her writing is beautiful.

    Oh, and a third p-word (though not perfect): The Prose?

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  10. I just learned of this review via a link at Fred Butler's blog. Just wanted to leave a word of thanks, since my (barely) teenage daughter has been asking about this book (simply because she's a Potter fan). I had already learned just enough information about it to nix the idea, but none of the other reviews were anywhere near as insightful and detailed. So, I very much appreciate yours, and plan to point people to it anytime the book comes up in conversation.

    One other thing. You wrote:

    For future reference: when Rowling says she’s “writing a novel for adults,” she really means she’s writing an “adult novel.”

    In other words, she was being unwittingly oxymoronic. She didn't write an adult novel; she wrote a "sniggery juvenile" novel.

    --A Sooner in Kansas

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  11. I actually really enjoyed the book. I found quite it interesting and extremely true to the current times. Coming from a small town girl's point of view, it was very true to real life.
    I personally thought The Casual Vacancy did a tremendous job illustrating the politics going on in the world right now. There are lot's of stories like Krystal Weedon's these days.
    And as the book showed, the Weedons definitely need some help.
    I also understand where you come from on the swearing/f-word issue. I'm not sure how often you are around teenagers these days, but I can assure you that for many the f-word is commonly used, just like it is in the book.
    Rowling is very realistic during this book, and if you're not into that kind of thing don't read the book.
    Although, if you enjoy a twisted plot, well developed characters, and a relative theme, then I would highly recommend giving the novel a try.

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