An Examination Of Causal Vindictivecy

the_casual_vacancyTHE CASUAL VACANCY

J.K. Rowling ISBN 978-1-4087-0420-2

Alright. Yes. Vindictiveness would be standard English, but I wanted to play on The Casual Vacancy, and so I used a -cy ending instead.

But more to the point, vindictiveness is also the standard in J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, her first post-Potter book. This is a very grim, very interesting, very powerful and somewhat disconcerting book. I’ve read some reviewers complain that The Casual Vacancy – being as it is a very adult book about serious and troubling things – is difficult to read because it is written in a style not much different from the style of the Harry Potter books. I’ve read other reviewers complain that without the wonderment of the Potter universe what’s left behind is a grimy world without much redemption. I’ve also read a lot of reviews that sort of flailed around, accusing the prose of being workmanlike or of being overwritten or they accuse the story of being melodramatic or too dull or something, anything to justify a negative feeling about the book.

There is an interesting and pervasive feature of human behaviour. We tend to come to conclusions via an unconscious ‘gut’ system of thought and then post hoc rationalise why we feel a particular way. People are more likely to support and identify with a political party based on a sense of tribal similarity (that party dresses and speaks like I do) and only then rationalise this, for example. This is why so many political discussions eventually run aground on the shoals of pointless rhetoric. At least some of the participants are not arguing from an evidence based or logical place, they are instead working desperately to defend their worldview and their sense of self.

And in reading reviews of The Casual Vacancy I think I found two trends where the reviewer’s sense of self was offended and the reviewer had to justify their feelings after the fact.

The first were from younger persons who grew up under the umbrella of the Potter magic. On the whole they seem to have found the book uncomfortable because it was not only not Potter, but it was full of people who speak like the people in Potter, but now they are talking about drug use and social inequality and rape and there is no magical escape, no hope at all, unless it is the respite of death. Most of these reviews explain that they’re not angry because this isn’t another magical wundertour… they already know that this is a grim, remorseless book of real people suffering. And then these reviews go on to perform verbal acrobatics to explain why they don’t much care for The Casual Vacancy despite having given the book a really fair chance in its own right.

The other class of review is equally interesting. In the case of many of the older, professional or semi-pro reviewers, I have come away with a feeling that they had their sense of self offended a while ago, but now they are a little bit gleeful that they can strike back. Of course they are also desperate to point out that they are not unhappy with The Casual Vacancy because it isn’t Harry Potter, and in this case I believe them. The pro reviewer seems to (on the whole) be happy that The Casual Vacancy didn’t sweep the world. And in this case, I wonder if the pro review tendency to point out the sometimes plain, sometimes high poetic prose, the melodrama and a few instances of sameness of dialogue might actually be read more like this: You see, I told you that Harry Potter wasn’t high literature. Everyone was just tricked by the magical wonder and the likeable characters. Now you can really see that there’s no literary skill here. I was right all along.

Of course this is tricky. It’s difficult not to have expectations (one way or another) and I admit that I read The Casual Vacancy well after many people had already told me that it was a book of gritty realism. I knew very clearly what I was about to read: something more like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman without the magic rather than Potter without the magic. It’s also worth noting that the publisher may have also contributed to the general problematic feeling that something was amiss with the book. A friend who grew up with Potter pointed out to me that he found The Casual Vacancy difficult to read not because of the similarity of style to prior work, but because it was in the same font as in the Potter books. That was a mistake by the publisher. That sort of ‘extra-textual’ thing will filter through to the unconscious, set up all sorts of expectations that won’t be met, and then leave the reader  confused as to why they feel something is wrong but can’t pin down what exactly.

So, everything aside, ignoring previous reviews and prior expectations: why should you give The Casual Vacancy a read if you haven’t already? J.K. Rowling’s depiction of character remains vivid in this book, even if it is geared towards a different sort of vividness to what you might remember from the Potter books. She gets inside the head of teenage boys in a way that seems almost psychic and she works through a remarkable taxonomy of miserable couples with writerly deftness. Stylistically this is a very interesting work too. It employs a floating third person point of view, which is extremely unusual in modern literature and I think it’s a testament to how well she pulled this off that very few reviewers even commented on it. The prose did not (to my mind) get in the way of the stories or characters, although I confess that I’m rather inclined to elaborate, stylistic prose (I’d much rather read Dunsany, Mervyn Peake or Susanna Clarke than a plainly-written whodunnit). I can, however, appreciate good craft when I see it, and Jo Rowling has exercised some very skilful craft in this book. If you are a writer and your object is for your prose to not get in the way of the narrative dream, then you could do a lot worse than to read The Casual Vacancy and take notes.

Most of all though, I think this is a book that has some very interesting things to say about the nature of evil. There is no dark lord in this story, no desire for absolute rulership or fascist-like hatred of ‘lesser’ Muggles, but there is evil all the same. It is the more prosaic evil of everyday vindictiveness, self-involvement, self-pity, lack of self-awareness and the sometimes unsalvageable evils of circumstance. Now, I know that many other authors have addressed the same gamut of underlying ideas: that most evil in the world isn’t the work of terrible empires and shadowy lords, it is the result of everyday pettiness resulting from personal insecurities and unexamined habits of ego. Fine. But J.K. Rowling’s work is much more interesting because it can be juxtaposed against and compared to her earlier work in which evil is a more defined, personified and elaborate thing. I think authors who have never written about evil outside of the prosaic everyday evil are less interesting for that very reason, their view of the human experience of the world is limited. In a rather odd way, I suppose that I think The Casual Vacancy is worth reading specifically because of how the view of human evil and suffering does compare so contrastingly with the ideas around more cosmic evil in Harry Potter. I suppose I am trying to explain that I really enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy specifically because it was reminiscent of but starkly different to Harry Potter. This is clearly a work from the same mind, but one that looks at the world slightly askance. This may place me in a very small minority – let us be honest, this book was not a worldwide success. But I think if you can read The Casual Vacancy while thinking about how evil is depicted in it, and how the work sometimes contrasts with and sometimes agrees with the depiction of evil in Harry Potter, then you will gain an experience worth having and you will very certainly have an interesting and involving read ahead of you.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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