The Casual Vacancy
One fine Saturday morning in September, Ron got up way before dawn to drive an hour to the airport, fly to Chicago, fly to Des Moines, and then rent a car and drive for another hour to see Eleanor at Grinnell. He brought her a book from the airport. The same morning, our friend Carol got up at dawn to drive my mother an hour to the airport and then go to a bookstore to get us each a copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Then she drove an hour back and delivered mine before noon. So Eleanor and Carol and I were all reading the book at the same time, like half the English-speaking population of the world.
After reading the first third, Eleanor said what I was thinking (and what Lev Grossman had previously observed)–that it’s a book about the Dursleys, complete with the repulsively fat and obtuse father figure, the fluttering and ineffectual mother figure, and the indulged and abused children growing up side by side. You may think that’s an exaggeration, because the Dursleys were clearly villainous for comic effect. The characters in this novel are just as villainous, but less active (there the title is accurate—it not only frames the plot, centering on the small-town politics of England, but also describes the atmosphere, in which no one does much of anything at all). The best thing about the novel is the complicated plot and how all the details come together, but my complaint is that there is no one to like.
I tried to like the teenagers, in turn, but they were each eventually revealed to be ill-treated and likely to grow up pretty much like their adult oppressors. I might have been able to like the mothers, except that they took turns standing around wringing their hands about how their children are fucking each other, both literally and metaphorically. There were moments when I’d feel I had something in common with one of them, like when Tessa thinks “how awful it was…the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.” And then I’d take a figurative step back in horror and resolve to never feel like that again, lest I turn into the same kind of ineffectual and deeply depressed woman.
The worst families, the ones with children who get beaten and raped, are the ones in which everything stays the same. Even after Andrew, one of the abused teenagers, exposes one part of his father’s monstrosity to the world, he “watched and waited, losing hope every day. He had tried to show the world what his father was, and the world, it seemed, had merely shrugged.” For Krystal, who doesn’t have parents and tries to care for her younger brother, things stay the same for so long that she finally gives in and lets the family entropy take over. There are only a couple of families who seem affected at all by the sordid events of the plot. One responds by planning to move from the small town back to London. The other responds by being a little nicer to the child they almost lost.
The culmination of Rowling’s characteristic distaste and intolerance for anyone overweight in her fiction is the impassioned speech a character who is a doctor makes about how hypocritical it is for someone fat to refuse to support local efforts to help someone addicted to drugs:
“Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?”
Yes, in this world it’s quite clear-cut that fat people choose to be that way, whereas drug addicts can’t help it.
This is a novel about small-minded people in a stiflingly small town and by the end I was so disgusted with all of them that I was glad they end unhappily. They deserve everything they get, and more.
If you’re already feeling misanthropic, don’t read this novel. If you want to make the world a better place, don’t read it because you’ll be discouraged. In fact, I can’t imagine why anyone would read it. Don’t read it. And if you’ve started it (like Carol and Eleanor), don’t finish it.