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Friday, November 2, 2012

A left review of J. K. Rowling’s (2012) The Casual Vacancy

To declare possible bias first: I have never read any of her Harry Potter books simply because this genre doesn’t interest me at my advanced age. When I was a teenager in Germany, I devoured Karl May’s Wild West and Oriental adventure books, some 20 volumes in all. Our son was a great fan of Raymond E. Feist’s fantasy fiction and no doubt was instrumental in what authors like Rowling, May and Feist do so well, namely to instil a capacity if not love for reading in young people. Reading large amounts of text, fictional or non-fictional, invariably leads to an extensive knowledge base, to literary refinement and aids the development of one’s own writing skills. Of course some of us harbour the dream that, like J.K. Rowling, our manuscript(s) will be accepted by a major publisher and henceforth sell millions of our books, to be turned into blockbuster movies and commercial accessories, and to become super rich and famous like J.K. My personal connection goes as far as having been an ESOL teacher for some time, just like J.K. in her youth teaching ESOL in Portugal – me in Asia and the Middle East - all the while making notes on Harry Potter, while over the years I only managed to have a couple of academic treatises (one on Noam Chomsky) published – and my novella lingering undiscovered as a self-publication with Lulu.com. Naturally as an average news and literature junkie I have occasionally followed J.K’s progress and when news reached the world that she was writing an ‘adult’ novel, I was intrigued enough to check out what the fuss was all about. When the launch became a major media event, I saw an interview clip on the Guardian website where she amicably chatted with a journalist dressed up as a literary agent for cook books. My wife who monitors my media interests jumped the gun and bought a hardcopy of The Casual Vacancy, a week or so after the launch. Having by then already learnt about the plot and what the major media literary critics thought of the book – mainly OK but not high-brow literature – I was of course wondering if my reading of it would concur with the initial reviews. (I will first present my review independent of any references to any other reviews and only then make some comparative comments).

Having had only time to read the book on my way to and from work (sadly still teaching ESOL) – on a ferry – it took quite a while to get through; however, it was always with anticipation as to what would happen next. A good sign! The main characters and their families were quickly established and the drama, if not the tragedy, unfolded, with some clever backwards and forwards narrative, in the contemporary timeline of a small British town, thinly disguised as fictional, for what was unfolding is in essence a grim social realism prevalent in Britain as much as in the Western World generally. Rowling describes the whole strata of contemporary society in no uncertain terms, from the local grandee cum London banker down to the junkie mother and her two children, teenager Krystal and toddler Robbie living in a dingy council flat at the border of Pagford (the fictional name of the town). Krystal Weedon, as the other high school teenagers in the play – I say ‘play’ both because the novel has Shakespearean qualities as well as being a good script for a movie – Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, Andrew Price, Sukhvinder Jawanda and Gaia Bawden (and few lesser ones) are really the heart of the novel and as such eminently suitable for reading material for young adults, if indeed not adolescents at High School.

Given that there is quite a lot of teenage sex involved – not to speak of the sex between some of the adults, and most notoriously the rape of Krystal by her mother’s drug supplier – there is of course the immediate question of the novel’s suitability for youngsters below a certain age. This conundrum of the ‘suitable age’ has always been hotly debated as if adolescents have to be protected from the depraved aspects of sex, be it rape or paedophilia (as a nightmare scenario for Fat’s father ‘Cubby’, the deputy principal of the local high school) by not talking or reading about it. After all modern schools have ‘sex education’ on their curriculum, albeit in the most sanitized version of sex being a biological act that is best accompanied by genuine love – the latter a nebulous term for many a teenager – so Rowling’s treatment of sex as social reality must come with its teenage angst and most of all with its crude language. Maybe there is something innately British about the term ‘shagging’ which is used frequently as an intermediate term somewhere between ‘fuck’ and ‘have sex’ and ‘make love’. When Fats ‘shags’ Krystal one does get the impression – as a non-British speaker of English – that the act is something akin to coming under friendly fire.

Another term used as pre-eminently British, is ‘slapper’ which is of interest to New Zealand readers inasmuch the term surfaced as a highly unusual epithet in a recent murder case whereby the accused had scrawled the word on a wall, denouncing his brother-in-law’s wife as such and standing accused of murdering his brother-in-law. People had to consult their dictionaries to determine the meaning of ‘slapper’.

In any case the heavy dose of graphic sex, amongst teenagers and adults, running the gambit from rape to ‘making love’ is of course questionable. Sure, nobody can deny that it isn’t happening, especially the low-down abuse of sex as violence but is it the domain of literature as we’d like to know it? How much of it is voyeurism that attracts readers with unstable minds – yes, even readers and writers are not immune from insane acts like rape – and how much is it gritty realism, designed to forewarn the reader of the awful consequences of  depraved sex, like the rape of Krystal ultimately contributing to her suicide. In this The Casual Vacancy is very similar to a notorious New Zealand novel called Once were Warriors (by Alan Duff) which was made into a grim movie detailing the low-down Maori gang culture, also resulting in a teenage girl’s suicide due to rape by a relative. Some people saw it as a powerful tale to make people aware of the dreadful consequences of a macho culture that regaled in mindless violence, while others denounced it as voyeurism that invited sick minds to watch a simulated rape scene. Whilst the Once were Warriors  novel could be critiqued as presenting perversity and violence – with doses of relatively harmless sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – as being inherently low-class Maori, without considering the societal conditions which drive sections of society into underground squalor and misery – with attendant crime and violence – the same cannot then be said of The casual Vacancy precisely because Rowling presents the whole picture, and in no uncertain terms blames the British middle and upper classes for what goes on in the down-and-out sections of Pagford.

The prime vehicle  is the Mollison family: Howard as the obese, ageing businessman and Pagford councillor, his weird wife Shirley who worships the local grandee and the Queen, their lawyer son Miles who plays the theme of ‘as father as son’ and who unfortunately married a class down to a buxom blonde who causes much consternation for her mother-in-law Shirley. The senior Mollisons also have a lesbian daughter who has been sidelined but occasionally surfaces as a minor character – in my opinion as a bit of a cliché and as a flaw in Rowling’s overall attempt to cram in all the middleclass scenarios known to British mankind. Howard represents the silent majority of ‘decent’ burghers who just want the problem of low class people to go away – literally. Out of sight out of mind. Helping low class people like Terri (Krystal’s junkie mother) to get out of their squalid condition, is written off as pointless, as these people have only themselves to blame. It is their choice to take drugs and rape each other. Just don’t do it in our backyard. One might think that this is a cliché not worthy of the middle classes who after all just do the bidding of the upper classes – the Fawleys in the novel – but this is exactly the strength of the argument in The casual Vacancy, namely the denunciation of the upper and middle classes together, as perpetrators of social disintegration for those on the low and lowest socio-economic ladder. Without the help of the bourgeoisie the ruling class cannot function as a model of the Westminster Parliamentary system (read: constitutional monarchy): they would have to revert to feudal absolutism (read: monarchy).

The other central character in the novel, Barry Fairbrother (sometimes Rowling is a bit clichéd with her choice of names, as if the name itself indicates as to who we are) is of course already dead at the beginning of the novel and plays his role mainly as the ‘ghost-of-Barry-Fairbrother’ (for his life, we are filled in by various flashback scenes). He took on the role of lower-class man made good through education, having been brought up in the low-class council flats of the Fields within the border of Pagford, and having made it through university (the first in his family) and become the local banker (he presumably being a ‘good’ banker as opposed to the local aristocrat who is the ‘bad’ London banker). In any case Barry takes Krystal under his wings and just about transforms the troublesome teenager into a champion rower – the sort of saga whereby athletic talent exhibited unexpectedly by the lower classes is seen as the bootstrap by which you can pull yourself up into the big league. Gaia, as the alternative teenage character, just arrived from London with her social worker mother, has or had after all a boyfriend who already was training for the British football league, Chelsea maybe. In any case Krystal, as an unlikely rowing champion with a team of others from the local high school, winning a match against the snobby private school in the area, is a highlight of the sporting kind. Rowling’s descriptive powers and sense of irony work best in such scenes. Kay, Gaia’s mother, as the social worker fresh from London in pursuit of a gutless lover (a lawyer called Gavin), is the only other really sympathetic character in the book, meaning ‘sympathetic’ as a social worker who takes her job seriously and treats Terri quite successfully to the degree that Terri gives up heroin, at least for a while, and looks after her toddler son Robbie better than before. Redemption is possible with the genuine help of those who see the worth in each individual – a powerful message delivered by Rowling, quite possibly echoing her own situation when she was a young solo-mother on welfare in Edinburgh, poor but never down-and-out.

Which brings us to the other flawed family, the Sikh Jawanda family, where the mother Parminder is the local GP, and her husband, the good looking Vikram playing the surgeon in the district hospital. Parminder as a fellow councillor (together with Howard, Barry and a few others) is an admirer of Barry, inasmuch as he seemed to do what others only preach, like her Guru’s saying of ‘the light of God shines from every soul’. Parminder hates Howard for his insipid racism against her family, even though it is the son of the deputy principal, Fats, who torments their daughter Sukhvinder with primitive racial and sexual taunts. Howard’s on the other hand is the wholesome racism of the British race which has a noble and long history wedded to a place like Pagford and no immigrants – especially of colour - can possibly usurp this legacy and tradition, no matter how qualified they are and how well-off they are. There is even some ambivalence in Rowling’s apparent attitude, as she paints Parminder in particular as a somewhat unstable character who is obsessed with a personal hatred of Howard, so much so that she commits a professional indiscretion by publicly admonishing Howard as a cost to the British health system, due to his gross obesity. Of course she is right but in polite society one cannot say so – and there is no doubt that J.K. is now also a member of the polite society.

Which brings us in turn to the interesting question as to why Rowling wrote the book in the first place. Had she written it as her first effort, she would not have found a major publisher for it. After all the publishing industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for British and world society. Having reached the pinnacle of publishing success with her Harry Potter books, she could dictate the ‘next’ book whatever its theme. Maybe she wanted to give the fingers to all those middle and upper class twats who ignored her so cruelly when she was a young and very good writer of fiction – just because she didn’t belong to the right class of Oxbridge people who publish successful books. I would do the same if I had the chance – or so I keep telling myself. There is something very incongruous in having her mug shot at the back of the book jacket, looking ever so glamorous, looking so totally disconnected from the book she just wrote. Presumably aged 47 in the photograph, she exhibits a cleavage she decries so humorously as ‘cracked’ in The Casual Vacancy for elderly women. Of course she can now afford the very best the beauty industry has on offer and she will look forever young and beautiful, cleavage and all. Can Rowling be a social activist? A recent report from the British Commission on Living Standards says that ‘Britain faces a choice between a generation of stagnant living standards for millions of lower-income households, or an alternative that tackles low pay, low skills, and childcare costs’; so, can Rowling be an influential advocate for the ‘alternative’? Will Britain descend to Dickensian conditions and is Rowling the new Dickens? Dickens famously campaigned for children’s rights in many of his novels, and Rowling in The Casual Vacancy can be compared to this noble aim. She obviously has a knack to describe the lives of dispossessed children and adolescents and make us painfully aware that the children – like Robbie and Krystal – are the ones who pay the price with their lives.

Maybe Rowling has the hope that a new generation, spawned by the working and middle classes, can become the new and follow-up rebels of the 60s generation, in open conflict with their miserable parents’ generation. Unfortunately she focuses too much on generational differences that stem from idiosyncratic conditions rather than universal themes (e.g. make love not war) – only Fats is described as having some philosophical thoughts, like wanting to be ‘authentic’. 

As such, the theme in The Casual Vacancy as a conflict of generations, is somewhat overdone. All the teenage characters are in conflict with their parents, one way or the other. Andrew Price gets regularly beaten up by this dumb working class dad who is given to mindless violence as much as being mindless generally. His wife gets the occasional fist as well. Rowling sometimes uses the word ‘pummelling’ as if she wants to downplay the physical family violence as not that bad, contrasting it with the far worse psychological violence visited upon Fats by his psychotic father, the deputy principal who imagines himself as a paedophile in disguise, and the somewhat clichéd terror of the strict traditional Sikh family values which demand educational success from their offspring at all costs. The unfortunate youngest daughter is therefore given to self-harm.

Then there is the verbal violence – if that’s what it is - played out between Krystal and her mother. As opposed to the other teenage-parent relationships, Krystal is the real mother figure (and in the end tragically wanting to become a mother herself) doing her best to save her mother from heroin induced oblivion. There is a bit of the 70s iconic ‘teach your parents well’ song lyric in all of this, as well as the age old observation that in very poor societies the young look after the old (and not so old).So why in this Orwellian down-and-out scenario do we have this low-down language to contend with? Many a sociolinguist has grappled with this question  which pains the polite middle classes in particular. Maybe poverty breeds not only crime but also a language dialect that bestows an unmistakable identity, a kind of verbal revenge visited upon polite society.

Rowling’s use of the vernacular, like the drug dealer’s request for Terri to keep some goods stashed away ‘Jus’ keep ‘em ‘ere fer us, Ter, fer a coupla days?’, or like Krystal’s vernacular anguish when she finds out her mother is shooting up again ‘You stupid fuckin’ junkie bitch, they’ll kick yer ou’ the fuckin’ clinic again’ - this sounds slightly laboured inasmuch all the other characters’ dialogue is rendered in conventional spelling form. To have sections of dialogue (or thoughts) in the vernacular for the down-and-out but not for all the others is a problem for social realism, inasmuch all people of all classes have sociolects, be it the Queen or be it the Terri, the junkie. As we know, the conventional written word is an abstraction of the spoken word, and as such cannot render the true spirit of a dialogue unless we employ phonetic script or other devices such as the liberal use of the apostrophe to indicate dropped consonants and vowels. Of course Rowling wants to demonstrate that so-called bad and/or obscene language as a dialect of certain sub-cultures is as neutral as BBC English is for the daily news. The well-known sociolinguist William Labov in his (1972) Language in the Inner City portrays black American inner city vernacular as a perfectly formed language dialect, transcribing recorded text with normal spelling (e.g. ‘Well, you must can’t fuck good then.’) but of course also detailing the particular prosody that goes with it in a separate chapter. Rowling could have adopted a similar scheme, thereby also being able to poke some fun at the affected accents the middle classes often adopt (à la Mrs Bucket in the old BBC comedy series).

As mentioned above, Krystal is the only ‘young’ character who, from the beginning, tries to looks after the ‘old’, i.e. her mother Terri, thereby alerting us to the role reversal that is necessary for any generational conflict to resolve itself. Rowling indicates something like that also for the Sikh family in that their youngest daughter changes from a Cinderella character into an assertive young woman who tells her mother what is what. Perhaps Rowling is pessimistic about wholesale generational change as the other teenage protagonists don’t seem to progress, stuck in teenage angst and sexual inadequacy.

I’ll resist the ‘how many points out of 10’ to give the novel, and instead check out what some of the mainstream reviewers have to say, and how much I agree or disagree. Much of the semi-intelligent British media is dominated by the Guardian empire these days – what with the BBC rapidly falling into everlasting disgrace over the Savile scandal – so the review by the Guardian’s Theo Tait must come first, giving a cautious thumbs up with various misgivings:

But if The Casual Vacancy is ambitious in its scope and themes, it is determinedly unadventurous in its style and mode. It's a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention-bound way.

In other words it sounds a bit boring. Wrestling with ‘political questions’ should best be left to the Guardian, it seems. A clearly disingenuous ruse to keep readers away from anything approaching social realism. One item of agreement lies in the reviewer’s observation of the use of the vernacular:

Perhaps that's partly because the Fields characters are handled with the tweezers of old-fashioned literary convention: whereas the others speak in rounded standard English, they use a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower-order-speak, that owes more to written convention than anything real: "I takes Robbie to the nurs'ry"; "Tha's norra fuckin' crime"; "No, shurrup, righ'?" (ibid.)
So what do the mighty say across the mighty Atlantic? The New York Times – in a recent NZ National Radio talk show identified as the best newspaper in the world, or thereabouts – as a counterpart to the Guardian is, perhaps not surprisingly, saying much the same, like it’s good but on the whole you don’t have to read it. At least the NYT reviewer Amanda Foreman opens with some compliments:

“The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s much-­anticipated departure from the genre of children’s fantasy, is a sprawling homage to the Victorian protest novel as typified by Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy. Like them, Rowling wishes to engage and enrage her readers, inspiring them to take socially conscious action.

While everyone seems to agree that Dickens was influential in highlighting Victorian degradation, and bringing about some social change for the better, both the Guardian and the NYT don’t want to accord any such possibility to Rowling, mainly because this is where the media calls the shots and ‘manufactures consent’ ( à la Chomsky and Herman). The NYT readers are warned that

Rowling has always harbored a particular loathing for middle-class smugness and self-congratulation — the kind Dickens so effectively satirized in “Oliver Twist … The unattractive sneer at middlebrow taste could have been toned down too. Few, if any, will share Rowling’s notion that a weakness for royal-themed tchotchkes and chenille robes is a sign of moral turpitude. (ibid.)

One also detects here the warning that Rowling seems to attack sacrosanct authorities like the ‘royals’ and as such cannot be tolerated as a social reformer, unlike good old Dickens (who never seemed to criticise Queen Victoria). Anyway, I must be one of the ‘few, if any; that share Rowling’s notion. The NYT in the end delivers the coup de grace:

A thoughtful edit might have removed many of the stylistic slippages that mar “The Casual Vacancy.” Rowling is at the height of her creative powers: there might have been a good, possibly even great, 300-page social novel inside the 500-page tear-­jerker we have instead. Let’s hope it will be different next time. (ibid.)

Subtext: write more Harry Potter novels and don’t meddle with the powers-to-be. Of course the NYT had also presented an earlier review, by one Michiko Kakutani, which totally rubbished the novel.

So what about a review from a bit on the left side? One cannot find them as easily as the ones from the right wing – naturally (as search engines deliver the conservative diet ad nauseam). One from a Yale (sic) college kid who is a bit of a lefty:

This is a book about class. The central battle of the book is one over the merits of government intervention and the meaning of responsibility — the battle between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots. Rowling, who once described herself as being as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” is exposing her readers to the miseries of poverty that they never saw even in a cupboard bedroom or second-hand wands. She is arguing powerfully for the responsibility we have to help the least among us. There is no magic spell to cure heroin addicts or uplift downtrodden children, and Rowling does not sugarcoat. This will not be a book with a happy ending. Yet it is an important one, from perhaps the world’s most important living author.

The kid writes very badly but at least honestly. If we were to apply a Marxist analysis, or something along the lines that it is a crime to own assets and wealth, which adds up to more than ten times the average wage of the workers, we would have to dismiss Rowling as a criminal, never mind her insipid analysis of the class struggle. Revolution cannot come from above as ‘government intervention’. However, since contemporary society has regressed to the point where ‘revolution’ is a cosmetics brand, one cannot be surprised that the reactionaries view Rowling as a real threat to the Tories:

I do not agree with the claim that this book is a "500 page long Socialist manifesto" masquerading as a novel. It's much too negative and depressing to be a manifesto of any kind.

Obviously Rowling is no revolutionary, after all it is reported that she donated a million Pounds to the Labour Party. How could she?

Perhaps there is a deep irony in that Rowling’s erstwhile success with the Harry Potter books is rooted in a neo-feudal magic mysticism – of the nicest kind of course – which was ordained by the ruling classes as suitable reading material for youngsters (unlike the young, 10-year old, Noam Chomsky reading socialist pamphlets and copies of the Freie Arbeiterstimme) but when she turned to writing in a mildly social realist mode in The Casual Vacancy, she must be stopped in her tracks, especially as her younger readership might be tempted to read it too. Doesn’t she know that richesse oblige? Imagine if Karl May had written Das Kapital as a postlude to his magic adventure stories! So, compared to Karl May, who never quite escaped his fantastic imaginations (he did however become a pacifist in his later years), J.K. Rowling did reasonably well.