Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Casual Vacancy

I wanted to love J.K. Rowling's first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, and I was certain I would, not because of any fangirl loyalty to Ms. Rowling. Rather, I was annoyed by the negative reviews from disappointed Harry Potter fans. I wanted to affirm with my praise Ms. Rowling's right to write whatever she wants. I was also intrigued by the notion that this book was somewhat personal to Ms. Rowling, who struggled on government benefits before her publishing success.

Indeed, the novel reads like the author has an axe to grind, but I'm sympathetic to this particular axe, which seems to be a desire to castigate those who heap scorn upon the poor from the safety of their comfortable homes. I know the species, and its members deserve every dig the famous author can send their way.

Ms. Rowling's prose is not elegant, but she is competent in her crafting of characters, settings and plots. I have no quibble with her technique or subject matter. The novel fell flat for me because, like some of her teen characters, I wanted to see the fictional town of Pagford disappearing in my rearview mirror as I sped away.

The only truly likeable adult character in the novel is the guy who drops dead on page three. A few others are tolerable, some are pathetic, and a couple are detestable. They are all far too real and I doubt I'm the only reader who wondered if Ms. Rowling had visited his or her hometown and modeled Mr. or Ms. So-and-So on that guy who always complains at city council meetings or that woman who gossips at the coffee shop check-out.

This is the problem: the gritty realism of The Casual Vacancy is too familiar, too much like the world many of us want to escape when we open a book. I don't require wizards and magic, but I do want someone or something in the story to triumph, or at least improve. If I wanted to mire myself in negativity and mean-spiritedness, I could walk three blocks down the street on Monday nights and listen to some of my neighbors complain at city commission meetings about the threats to their comfort posed by the handful of destitute members of our community.