Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling
Published by little, brown book group, 2012
Part of the Forest of Dean (UK), apparently the model for Rowling's Pagford.
According to Robert McCrum in the Guardian.
Teenage angst in a small town with big problems, this 'condition of England' novel is weakened by an unecessary lunge towards tragedy.

It’s not embarrassing, nor is it masterful. It is decent, and worthy, and though I resented reading this when I could be reading greater works, it moved me, and so was a distinct improvement over the author’s previous work. 

The startling success of the Harry Potter series  still needs explaining, for Rowling wasn’t exactly original, crossing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five with Tolkeinesque fantasy. Maybe that particular mix was original, though I think rather that the growth of the characters over the books contributed more than other factors to the series’ success.  

That growth from childhood to adolescence continues . The latest novel is not quite aimed at adults, whomever we might be, despite the publishers hype. The central characters are teenage school students, and the conflicts are between these young people and their parents.  

So this is more of a teenage novel, or a novel for parents of teenagers. These relationships are presented believably, though I think my idea of believable might be drawn from TV soap opera, and so too Rowling. 

In any case, although the parent-child relationships are the most memorable aspect of this novel, Rowling has a frame – and plot – within which to showcase these relationships.  

The setting is a rural village with a housing estate on its outskirts, and the plot contains a political battle to either retain or detach responsibility for this estate. Given her huge potential readership, this is a commendable subject, and broadly speaking the author’s sympathies are in the right place. She gives a voice to the wretched and oppressed, while not sentimentalising them. 

A sort of sentimentality does creep in though, and it can be found tainting the representation of the major villains, the village old guard. They are presented as grotesque in almost every way, and the author ensures they receive a 'poetic' comeuppance.

More problematically, the plot climaxes with a double death on the estate. For the first, of the toddler Robbie, we feel nothing, as he remains throughout a cipher, symbolising the failures of both his family and our care system, or, from a different angle, the last remaining hope of his half-sister Krystal. She is a more substantial character, and her subsequent suicide is clearly supposed to have a tragic sense.

Krystal’s suicide doesn’t achieve tragedy, though it is moving. She too must receive punishment for her behaviour as we have seen it in the novel. She has been reckless, epicurean, resentful, and leading good young men astray. Her punishment is as just as that of the reactionary grotesques who despise her. 

Wait a minute. I’m sure this wasn’t Rowling’s intention. We must be supposed to feel remorse at her death, as the other characters do. Somehow we have failed her, this potentially brilliant young woman, who simply needed a little help in life. 

That both of the previous paragraphs might be true needn’t be a problem – ambiguous cruelty is the very heart of tragedy. But I felt that Rowling wasn’t trying to be ambiguous, and so in the end wasn’t in control of her material. Again, this needn’t be a problem, as some of the greatest artworks seem to have operated counter to their makers’ intentions, but here the effect is in the opposite direction, of bathos rather than pathos.

If the plot doesn’t quite work, the pacing is fast and clear. It’s easy to criticise Rowling’s style, but in focussing on plot she deflects this criticism. She isn’t a stylist, but many stylists can leave the reader bored. She isn’t a literary genius, but it is hard to detect these among living authors, so I don’t think this can be a serious criticism of her.

I’m hoping her next novel will focus on adults, with teenagers and children secondary. Here, when the focus is on adult relationships, disbelief is poorly suspended. 

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