The Casual Vacancy By J.K. Rowling, Little, Brown, Rs 850
I must confess at the beginning that I have not read any of the Harry Potter novels. But, of course, it would require wizardry of the highest kind to save one’s skin from the radiations of J.K. Rowling. So from time to time I have found myself dozing over reports on how children stand in eager queues all night to buy new Potter books (do they also hold candlelight vigils?), marvelling at blissful youth that can go into a tizzy over Harry and iPhone 5, and wondering about the shabby-looking sets and heightened emotions, reminiscent of Bengali soaps, that seem to characterize the Potter movies. What I gathered from these unwitting exposures is that most of the Harry Potter series takes place in a school and so logically involves some growing up; the good fights against the evil, with some charming mix-up of the two in between; and, in short, is about as exciting as reality shows.
Surprisingly, The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first “adult” novel after the seven Harry Potter books, also seems to be about all these, and a little bit more — to create the special effects, as it were, now that magic has been dispensed with. This novel confirmed my suspicions about Harry’s creator. Rowling is the undisputed queen of mediocrity. She writes a prose that makes no demand on the reader — which is perhaps one of the chief reasons behind her cult status. The issues at stake are as undemanding. So if you are in the mood for a cleverly crafted drama on good triumphing over evil — with just the right measure of drugs, prostitution, adolescent sex and used condoms thrown in to send shivers down the spine of the peanut-crunching crowd — this is the book for you.
The novel is set in the “pretty little town of Pagford” somewhere in England. Since the town is pretty and little, life in Pagford must be claustrophobic and frightening, as anyone familiar with previous studies of English provincial life should know. But one need not take the trouble of revisiting Middlemarch or Cranford to understand Pagford. Even Agatha Christie had frequently made such small towns or villages the setting of her novels, and for a similar purpose. This is not to say that there are delightful murders in Pagford, although it could have done well with a few, but deaths are aplenty here. It begins with the sudden death of a member of the parish council, Barry Fairbrother, that creates the “casual vacancy” designed to bring out the best and the worst in all concerned. In the course of the novel, Barry becomes the MacGuffin, who is everything, in terms of his remembered virtues, and nothing, since he is not there.
In this modern-day Morality play, where names are indicative of character types — the well-meaning but ineffectual couple, Colin and Tessa Wall, are walled in, both protected and confined, by their kindness — Barry holds out the elusive ideal of fairness that is conspicuous by its absence in Pagford. The “brother” in his name is also suggestive. It connects him to Bhai Kanhaiya, “the Sikh hero who had administered to the needs of those wounded in combat, whether friend or foe. When asked why he gave aid indiscriminately, Bhai Kanhaiya had replied that the light of God shone from every soul, and that he had been unable to distinguish between them.” Rowling certainly has her political priorities right.
The resident doctor of Pagford, Parminder Jawanda, remembers telling Barry this story perhaps because she had found a likeness between him and the hero. She, of course, had always been in love with Barry without knowing it (Indians must be quaint), and is among the few who try to live up to his ideals. Where she succeeds only falteringly in this endeavour, her neglected, hirsute teenage daughter, Sukhvinder, who is subjected to routine racial abuse in her school, accomplishes the impossible. She almost gives up her life trying to save the little brother of Krystal Weedon — the prickly, foul-mouthed, street-walking working class heroine who is touched by the grace of Barry. The two funerals at the end, of Krystal and her brother, chasten the bad characters, who duly feel ashamed of themselves. In a final dazzling show of political correctness, Krystal the (dead) social underdog and Sukhvinder the (almost dead) tortured outsider together carry the banner of the Good and genteel English pettiness is vanquished.
Packed with deaths, illicit sex, crumbling marriages and cuss words, the novel might seem adult at an apparent level, but I found something disconcertingly regressive in all this. The characters are all wooden dolls, they jerk as per the author’s will, and never mature. This is strange given the fact that a considerable portion of the novel is set in a school, or involves schoolkids: the main action is set off by the adults, but from then on the children, all of whom are students of the local school, Winterdown Comprehensive, take over. The scenes in which the parents and the children interact have a fine verisimilitude, which is one of the few pleasures afforded by the novel. Little details, like the adolescent son raiding the fridge, diligently finishing off one item after the other, and then putting the empty wrappers back on the shelf, as the mother watches with annoyance without commenting on it, redeem the narrative at places before it goes completely downhill.
But even all these scenes are set pieces: mothers and their teenage sons or daughters are forever caught in the gloop of their bitter love. Events merely happen in the lives of the characters, courtesy the author; they themselves are deprived of the power of bringing about the incidents. (Rowling can make a middle-aged, frustrated housewife go starry-eyed over a bare-bodied, pubescent rockstar from her daughter’s favourite boy band — she trawls the internet for his images and almost lands up at his concert.) If adulthood chiefly entails the necessity to choose and to take responsibility for one’s choice, Rowling’s characters, young and old alike, are all babies or sleepwalkers.
It is here that The Casual Vacancy most strongly becomes a continuation of the Harry Potter series. Harry had been transformed into an angry adolescent from an unhappy child in the course of the seven books. There is a numinous quality, which does not preclude darkness and terror, in every myth of growing up, be it the tale of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, or even the more ‘modern’ stories of, say, Maggie Tulliver or David Copperfield. The darkness that Harry grappled with as he moved towards adulthood had a plastic quality — it was the fancy horror of cartoons and video games that thrills, but never threatens, being part of an unreal life happening out there.
But in those books, Rowling had at least some magic, although again of the lifeless, computer-generated sort, to offer. The Casual Vacancy, shorn even of that useful device, is as flat as a pancake. There is not much in it except relentless, gratuitous venom against English snobbery that seems purposely designed to portray Rowling as a champion of the working classes and the immigrants who make up the new England. Such excellent sympathies are surely laudable. Only one wishes that they had been less crudely expressed.
Rowling had made a grand figurative gesture of breaking her magic wand with the last Harry Potter. She should glue it back. More novels like The Casual Vacancy can render her invisible in no time. She would not like that, given her penchant of posing for the camera with a smug, (faux) wizard-like smile.