Thursday, November 1, 2012

JK Rowling Goes Over to the Dark Side

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last time I looked, J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, had more than 1,310 holds on the 200 copies available to borrow from the New York Public Library. So I gave in and spent $14.99 on the Kindle edition. (Amazon is selling the $35.00 hardcover for $20.90.) Mystery writers needn’t panic: it’s not a detective story. It’s a masterfully and smoothly written literary-mainstream novel that I was glad I’d read but didn’t fall in love with.

Readers looking for the voice and sensibility of the Harry Potter books won’t find it in The Casual Vacancy. There’s no fantasy in the rather grim depiction of a smug English village in which the comfortable middle class are forced to interact with the socioeconomically disadvantaged council estate (the British version of “the projects”) next door. The events of the novel include child abuse, bullying, domestic violence, mental illness, a rape, and a suicide, as well as enough sex and greed and as little love to justify the most cynical opinion of the English village. Rowling’s Pagford is a hotbed of political maneuvering and dysfunctional family dynamics.

One of the features of the Harry Potter books that made it so appealing to adults as well as children was its endearing protagonist, Harry himself. Readers also empathized with Harry’s best friends, Hermione and Ron. The Casual Vacancy has no protagonist. I’d categorize it as closer to close-third-person point of view than omniscient narrator, but the point of view shifts frequently among a dozen main characters. The shifting POV is so deftly handled that I’d acquit Rowling of headhopping. But her POV characters are all so deeply flawed that it’s hard to root for any of them. They’re not endearing. They’re not lovable.

Rowling is willing to show a few of her characters behaving well. But inevitably, in another scene, in a different role or relationship, they’re shown behaving badly. The work that came to my mind as comparable was the movie Crash, in which the same character could be a sexually abusive, racist cop in one scene, a loving father in another (if I remember correctly), and a heroic firefighter in a third. But the whole point of that movie was that people show different sides of themselves as their lives intersect with those of others. That’s not Rowling’s purpose. I don’t think her characters’ complexity is meant to show the good and evil within each person, parallel to the macro good and evil in the world of Harry Potter. I might be oversimplifying, but it seemed to me that Rowling’s bleak view is that human nature is venal and self-serving, and that the real world being what it is in the 21st century, few can rise above their fears and hungers. In other words, Muggles suck.

Some readers won’t mind the absence of a protagonist. Equally, not all will mind the absence of a character endearing enough to empathize with. For me, however, at least one endearing character is the essential factor in books I fall in love with. I’m not saying that her characters are bad guys. They’re not like Voldemort or Harry’s Uncle Vernon. The latter is a fairy tale wicked uncle, portrayed without depth or realism. (If he appeared in The Casual Vacancy, he’d have to be an abusive guardian with a plausible psychological backstory.) The novel’s teens and adults have too much depth to be called grotesques. Most of them are complex enough to have a vulnerable side that makes them fleetingly sympathetic. But they’re unattractive in an inventive variety of ways. Hypocrisy, malice, and narcissism are well represented, kindness and especially self-knowledge in short supply.

As she reaches her denouement, Rowling finally shows compassion for her characters. A tragedy precipitates a general change of heart. A near-psychopathic teenage bully and mischief maker becomes remorseful. A hypercritical parent becomes kind and gentle. A self-mutilating teen stops cutting. A contemptuous wife becomes loving. We know from the Afterword that Rowling “supports a wide number of causes and is the founder of Lumos, which works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children.” To me, that suggests that we are supposed to take away a socially liberal message from the story. But all that has led up to that point is such a discouraging vision of society and people that I’m not sure every reader will get it.


Sandra Parshall said...

Just out of curiosity, I've reserved the audiobook at the library. I'm #229 in the queue, but I'm not impatient about it. Your comments are pretty much in line with what I've read and heard elsewhere. It sounds like an unsatisfying story, but I'll give it a try.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, you like dark a lot better than I do. You might not find it unsatisfying. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

We'll see. :-)