Wednesday, October 10, 2012

J.K.Rowling and the Critical Mom

I thought Michiko Kakutani tasteless for saying she couldn't find "narrative sorcery" in J.K. Rowling's new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, because a world-class critic shouldn't make it even more difficult for a writer to deviate from every reader's favorite subject.  Rowling's fabulous children's fiction, the Harry Potter series, is what everyone wants to read, but she's done with that, and wants to write a novel for adults, and wants readers to anticipate a novel written entirely for adults.  She's asking the impossible, but I think we owe her reviews that don't suggest that she ought to be writing more Harry Potter books just because we want to read them.   In the spirit of wanting to prove Michiko Kakutani wrong, I started The Casual Vacancy and liked the first few pages, which begin with an unexpected and very sudden death.  After that, the book loses momentum.  I kept reading--and I re-read the first thirty-nine pages because I was having trouble keeping track of characters--and I'm still plowing through the thing, but really plowing.  I'm enjoying it less and less.  At least now I can give you one reason:  Rowling hates these people.  And they're hateful, the main characters, most of the secondary characters, and the minor characters.  Denizens of a small, and small-minded English village, every last one of them, with the possible exception of the man who dies in the first scene, is riddled with petty prejudice or the object of petty prejudice.  A father calls his son, "little shit"and "pizza-face," ridiculing the boy's acne; a mother can't forgive her daughter for being less than brilliant, and the daughter cuts her arms routinely, under her physician mother's nose.  Teenagers whose families fill them with boredom or despair, parents at sea in their marriages and relationships . . .  I could see anyone making a good novel out of these people, and the novel is very well written, filled with precise observations, but there's no real story:  the plot feels jerry-rigged.   We're supposed to care that the death of Barry Fairbrother leaves a "casual vacancy," an empty spot in the lowest rung of British government, and that bad guys may rush in to fill it and get rid of the methadone program and other socially conscious enterprises.  But I don't give a damn, because I have the constant, uneasy feeling that Rowling's main purpose in writing, or what gave her pleasure in writing, was to reveal how horrible and petty the people in the village of Pagford are.  But I already know how horrid and petty people can be--and there's got to be more of a story than that.  The difference between the appeal of Harry Potter and the failure of this novel is that Rowling loved the characters in the Harry Potter series.  Even the worst villains strike some sympathetic note--not that she offers any explanation for evil on the scale of a Voldemort, but she does make the character an orphan.  Choices, especially moral choices, remain important to her, but what carries the story is her love for the characters, and her good humor.  I can't help thinking that she can't stand most, if not all, of the characters in The Casual Vacancy, even Krystal Wheedon, who, because she makes an appearance in the thoughts of the man who drops dead in the first scene, and because she's clearly an underdog struggling to do the right thing, is bound to have some great reward by the end of the novel.   But she's not someone Rowling seems to like much either.  I'd like her if Rowling liked her.   
The Harry Potter books were so good that I allowed myself a pleasant delusion:  J.K. Rowling was writing an autobiography:  she's really a renegade Hermione Granger who decided to spill the secrets of the magical world, and expose her alma mater, Hogwarts, to the world.  And ever since she did, all kinds of new enchantments have been cast to prevent muggles like me from finding the place, situated as it just must be somewhere in the northernmost reaches of Scotland.  (How could I believe otherwise?  My children sit around drawing up the Marauder's Map and pretending that they are on their way to the shrieking shack.)  But the truth is likelier to be that The Casual Vacancy is the autobiographic novel, that it spills the beans about life as the young Rowling experienced it in several small-minded British villages:  she can't forgive these people for their bigotry, their cruelty, their stupidity.  And neither could I.  But that's one reason--one of many, no doubt--that I'm no novelist.  She's the novelist!  She's either got to write a story that makes it interesting to hate these folks--supply us with an excellent reason to do so--or she's got to love them.  Somehow.  I wish I had something better to say.  I'll buy anything she writes, and I'll read some of it, and, now that I see I'm in the same camp as the rest of the world, I'd like another magical world, please.  With lots of sauce and a cherry on top. 


  1. It's sad that her first venture out of Harry's world was so bad, but perhaps this will send her back to do a sequel that millions of fans will want to read. I never did think she was a great writer -- the prose was not scintillating -- but the stories were good and she did indeed love those characters.

  2. Yes . . . and so many mistakes! Like the character constantly harassed by someone sending threatening or obscene messages to her Facebook account--as if this teenager would not know to have privacy settings to keep intruders out.

  3. It now occurs to me that she had a lot of fun writing the Harry Potter books--playing with the characters, playing with language, playing with maybe this situation or that one, playing with changing her mind about the whole thing. This new book isn't playful--it's target practice.