Saturday, May 4, 2013

Town Without Pity: The Casual Vacancy Review


The Casual Vacancy is a first for both J.K. Rowling and myself.  For Ms. Rowling, it is the first novel she's written post-Harry Potter, the 'children's' series that has brought her fame and wealth beyond anything most writers have or will achieve (when was the last time YOU went to a Portnoy's Complaint theme park?).  Thus, there is a lot riding on whether she can write books not 'geared' towards children. 

I say this noting that I, based on the Harry Potter films, would argue that they are not children's literature past Prisoner of Azkabahn.  Every Potter film post-Azkaban I'd say was quite adult in terms of subject, but who am I to argue with success?

For myself, this is my first Rowling book that does not involve "the boy who lived", and if I must be honest I didn't like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the only book in the series I have managed to finish).  There was never any mystery to it all: Harry, you're a wizard, let's move on with it.  I wasn't enchanted with the first Harry Potter book, and while I've been told by those who've read the whole series that Sorcerer's Stone is the weakest of the seven, I never had the urge to read more Harry Potter stories.

Still, that is for another time.

Thus with The Casual Vacancy, Rowling declares her freedom from make-believe.  Her first foray into adult literature proves one thing: J.K. Rowling is definitely NOT in any way a genius.  In fact, The Casual Vacancy is such an awful read that if it didn't come from the keyboard of Jo, it probably wouldn't haven been published.  There is a reason I nicknamed her "Sprawling Rowling": her tomes are always so massive that at least with The Casual Vacancy, it simply cannot carry the story she is telling.  With the myriad of interlinking stories she has in her little town of Pagford, it's not that one gets entirely lost between the Lexies and Sukvinders and Fats and Robbies rolling around.  It's that they are more stick figures for Rowling to play with.

This is what I have always felt about Rowling: she has great ideas for books, she just never has great books to match them. 

Now, a Venn diagram would be invaluable to follow the various characters in Casual Vacancy.  One can start with any of them and shift from Person A to Person Z without breaking the chain.  Let's start with Andrew Price.  He is a teenager, one with strong acne, whose father Simon is as abusive as they come: physically beating his wife and sons, emotionally belittling them at every opportunity (for example, calling his youngest son 'Pauline' to his face).  Andrew is passionately in lust with Gaia Bawden, recently from London, though not by her own choice.  Gaia's mother Kay has moved on down to the seemingly-idyllic town of Pagford following Gavin, a man she sleeps with but who, despite her general obsession with, won't even introduce her as his 'girlfriend', let alone anything else. 

Kay is the temporary social worker for the Weedons, a sorrier group of people living in The Fields, which is the estate section (what we in the States would refer to as 'the ghetto', 'the hood', or perhaps 'the barrio') of Pagford foisted on them many years ago by the larger neighboring city of Yarvil.  Terri Weedon is a heroin addict and lively tart who hides stolen goods for her...friend with some benefits Obbo and is mother to Krystal, teen, and Robbie, toddler.  Krystal is a sad mix: a slut and thief who is also the only real parent Robbie actually has. 

Krystal goes to school with Andrew and his best friend Stuart Wall, generally known as Fats.  Fats is one of those kids who thinks he is somehow beyond morality.  His parents, Colin (the school director nicknamed "Cubby" for his obsessions for 'cubby' holes) and Tessa (a guidance counselor at the school) harbor a dark secret about Stuart, who basically hates them between joint hits.

Stuart has no problems bullying Sukvinder Jawanda, another classmate who is Sikh and because of this cannot shave the small amount of facial hair she has.  To compensate, she secretly cuts herself.  Her mother, Dr. Parminder Jawanda, is oblivious to her daughter's cutting, but it probably wouldn't matter all that much to her given that of her three children, she makes it clear the ironically-nicknamed "Jolly" is by far the biggest disappointment.  Dr. Jawanda's husband, heart surgeon Vikram, is the object of lust among the WASP set of desperate housewives.

Parminder serves on the local council and her chief nemesis is Council Head Howard Mollison, owner of the local deli.  He is definitely fat, and smug, and self-righteous, and hypocritical...therefore, he's obviously Tory.  He has a business partner, Maureen, who I think is also heavy-set.  His equally large wife Shirley worships the very shadow of Howard, seeing that he can do no wrong and I mean that literally.  Their son Miles is married to Samantha, who hates Pagford, hates the Mollisons, and generally hates everything while not getting tans and boob jobs. 

Krystal and Sukvinder are on a rowing team together, organized by Barry Fairbrother, another Council member who is generally allied to Parminder.
Gaia is best friends with the shy, self-conscious Sukvinder (though more because the latter is the only 'ethnic' in town versus the uber-white village she's been dragged into).
Krystal and Fats begin having sex: he to be rebellious and she to hopefully get preggers and thus he can 'take her away from all this'.      

Andrew, who understandably hates his father, is enthralled by Gaia, but she is unaware that he masturbates to her.

Samantha is also starting to feel her Mrs. Robinson coming on, drinking heavily while lusting after Jake, a member of a boy band her daughter Lexie likes (though Lexie both prefers another band member and is totally unaware how Samantha plays the band's DVD endlessly to see an open-shirted Jake appear before her hungry mother).
Jake, is that you?

In all that description, I haven't even mentioned the actual PLOT of The Casual Vacancy, but it is important to know exactly who is who before diving into the actual sprawling story.

In a nutshell, Barry Fairbrother drops dead on his anniversary, leaving his wife Mary a despondent widow.  Fairbrother's death leaves an opening (or a Casual Vacancy) on the council, and this seat is the catalyst for an epic struggle between all these people.  For the Mollisons, it is a chance to dump The Fields to Yarvil, and to close down the drug treatment center there as well (as they happen to own the building...I think).  Parminder Jawanda is equally determined to keep The Fields and the clinic in Pagford (especially since Barry, who managed to rise from The Fields to respectability) wanted that as well. 

The election to fill this Casual Vacancy brings havoc to all the families.  Simon Price wants in, seeing it as a way to gain more financially.  Cubby Wall wants in, as a way to honor his old friend Barry.  Miles Mollison wants in, as a way to do dear old Dad's bidding.

However, the election is now a way to pick on old wounds and resentments.  Andrew, striking out against Simon through hacking into the Pagford Council website as "the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother", reveals that his dad buys stolen goods and uses the company printing machine for his own gains.  Later on, Sukvinder, also using the Ghost username (but without Andrew's knowledge) reveals that Parminder may have been in love with Barry (explaining why she always voted with him).  Finally, Fats gets in on the act, again without Andrew's assistance, revealing that Cubby is terrified that he inadvertently molested someone.

Well, as Shirley, the website's manager, is inept at stopping the Ghost from posting, the news spreads quickly.  Simon withdraws and is made redundant, with the high possibility of having to leave Pagford.  Parminder is constantly on edge, worrying about her own feelings.  Cubby now finds his obsessive-compulsive disorder going out of control, terrified that he did something wrong when it's all in his mind.

Fats and Andrew's friendship is strained when Stuart and Gaia appear to hook up despite Arf's knowledge of Andrew's fixation.  However, Stuart is too involved with Krystal to think much on it.  Neither are in love with each other but instead are using each other and not just for clumsy sex. 

To wrap things up, on a fateful day all of them collide: Kay realizes that she will never be anything to Gavin, who's convinced he's in love with Widow Fairbrother, who won't return his affection.  Stuart and Krystal go for a tryst in the bushes near the river after she ran away from Terri, taking Robbie with them.  A toddler near a do the math.  A devastated Krystal deliberately overdoses on her mom's smack, even after Sukvinder did her best to come to a little one's rescue.

Oh, and Miles won the election.

One thing that shocked me was how any editor would not have laid down the law and told Jo that she needed to change character's names.  We have two Mollison wives: Shirley Mollison (wife of Howard) and Samantha Mollison, who had to marry Miles Mollison, the heir.  Shirley, Samantha, Samantha, Shirley...pretty soon it becomes hard to remember who is who.  Any first-year writing student would have been told that having two characters whose names start out with the same letter being so closely connected to each other might confuse the reader.  This is especially true in Casual Vacancy, where the women are either passive or passive-aggressive.

One thing that I noticed in Casual Vacancy is how Rowling loves to float between characters in the same chapter.  We start by reading what let's say Shirley thinks or feels, and then when Shirley looks or talks to Samantha we go into what Samantha thinks or feels, and if she makes a comment to Howard, now it's on to his thinking or emotional state.  One point I recall how Gavin was thinking about his feelings to Mary (who is about the only character whom we rarely if ever hear from, primarily because she isn't much featured in Casual Vacancy) as he walks her home.  I think Howard observes them (or it might have been Cubby...both are fat men) and then we start hearing what THEY think of this rather shocking development.

As someone who has barely encountered all those connected to Hogwart's, I am astounded how both shallow and similar all the Casual Vacancy characters were.  The men were almost all generally uncaring: Vikram's disinterest, Howard's selfishness, Simon's abusiveness, Gavin's ambivalence.  The women were almost all equally bad: Shirley's passivity, Terri's self-pitying, Parminder's one-track mind, Samantha's silent rage. 

There isn't one character in Casual Vacancy that I could care about.  Even the ones that could have provided some sympathy, like Krystal or Sukvinder or Andrew, were all in their own way rather horrible people.  I don't expect there to be saintly figures who do no wrong, but one would expect there to be a protagonist in a story.  Casual Vacancy doesn't have a protagonist because everyone in the story is almost universally antagonistic to someone or themselves.  In short, I didn't care who won the election, I didn't care what happened to this collection of monsters, I couldn't find sense in almost anything they desired or did.

Krystal is a cliché: the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who hides her pain with sex and theft and bad behavior.  Only when Barry encourages her in her rowing and working with the team does she have any moments of humanity.  I kept hoping that perhaps Krystal would show some secret skill, some positive characteristic that would make me want her to succeed.  She never did. 

I don't think I've met a more reprehensible group of people than those in Pagford.  Truth be told, the way The Fields was described, I would have sided with the Mollisons, which is probably the opposite of what Rowling had in mind.  The Fields is a dreadful place: full of people who apparently do not want to improve themselves and think the world owes them a living.  The best way to describe The Fields and its relation to Pagford is to say that if one can imagine Compton suddenly thrust into Martha's Vineyard you'd have the main idea.  I doubt any of the posh set would want a ghetto near them, so despite Rowling's best efforts the idea that The Fields is a drain on their town is a perfectly natural one.  Perhaps not the right one, but a perfectly natural one.     

Meet the Mollisons...I mean, Dursleys...
same thing.

As I kept reading The Causal Vacancy, I couldn't get over how perhaps psychologically, Rowling has an obsession over fat people.  Even the most casual reader or viewer of the Harry Potter series who reads Casual Vacancy cannot help but notice the similarities between the evil Muggle Dursleys and the evil Tory Mollisons.  Rowling loves to describe how Howard is this massively obese individual, and at the Council meeting (which to my memory is the only time in the whole book the council ever actually met), Parminder lets Howard have it, calling him a hypocrite who sees those attending the Bellchapel Clinic as a waste on society when his health problems due to his own refusal to lose weight are an even bigger drain on the public.

I kept thinking how Rowling, who is slim herself, connects obesity to fat-headedness (pun intended), to small-mindedness, to bigotry, to intolerance, to smug self-righteousness.  The Mollisons are just a copy of the Dursleys (fat mean father, worshipful mother, fat and indulged son), so much so that the only thing missing was a little boy living in a cupboard under the stairs.  I really do wonder why Rowling hates fat people so much. 

You have people whom you don't want to succeed, people who are petty and mean.  Even worse, you have people popping in only when necessary.  The Widow Fairbrother is almost irrelevant to The Casual Vacancy, only there to provide a love triangle between Gavin and Kay (and unwittingly at that).  One would imagine Kay would be smarter than she is, but Rowling can't have any actually smart people: Kay's neediness, Parminder's blindness to her daughter...what horrible people.  Yet I digress.

I did become rather fascinated with Vikram.  He is this sex object to all the women in Pagford (what was the on legs), but he isn't a part of the story.  He seems to be the type who just has a smile on his face and doesn't speak much, and is oblivious to how the women see him.  At least I hope he is, because if he isn't then he's being hypocritical when rumors of a liason between Parminder and Barry surface. 

Here is an interesting thread.  Nowhere is it stated that either was unfaithful to their spouses.  Instead, Parminder just wonders whether she had feelings for Barry, but that thread is dropped pretty quickly.

Finally on that front, one thing I detested about The Casual Vacancy is how Rowling used her characters as mere plot devices.  Take Patricia Mollison, Howard and Shirley's daughter.  Truth be told I don't even remember a mention that they HAD a daughter, but in she comes for her father's birthday party.  We instantly know she's a lesbian because her "bigoted" mother didn't invite her partner.  Shirley didn't invite her because according to her, she wasn't sure exactly how to address her in the invitation: she wasn't 'family' but not exactly an acquaintance.  In any case, Pat just so happens to reveal a secret about her father to Gaia, Stuart, and Andrew who just happen to be there, then she leaves and is not heard from again.

That to me, Jo, is lazy.  You have a character come in, give a vital piece of information to the right people placed there in the most haphazard manner, and then get rid of her.  While not a Deus Ex Machina, the 'irrelevant character who comes to say something important and then disposed of when no longer needed' is something most teachers wouldn't excuse.

I can't understand why Rowling couldn't give us one character in The Casual Vacancy to care about.  They're all such horrible people: both the ones in favor and opposed to The Fields.  I didn't care who won this unimportant election (it's unimportant because I don't remember much campaigning going on, making me wonder why citizens voted one way or another save for Samantha, who voted against her husband).   Perhaps instead of The Casual Vacancy, she could have called it something more accurate, like Mugglelandia.

The characters are one-dimensional.  The omniscient voice she uses is no longer in vogue (but an endless source of fascination how she jumped from one brain to another with nary a breath).  The sprawling nature of the story is almost too much for the book to carry.  The Casual Vacancy failed the Byzantium test: a story so fascinating one HAD to keep reading to know what happens even when one is exhausted.  In fact, this is the reason I've only posted it now: it took so long to finish because I was basically forcing myself to.

In short, The Casual Vacancy wasn't just was boring.  That is far worse.  Sadly, Rowling again failed to cast a spell at least over me.      

Born 1965