I had been waiting the release of J K Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy with more interest and confidence than many. I had very little reserve or doubt that it would be a good tale and well told. Although an avid enjoyer of the Harry Potter series, what I appreciated from those books were not what most people seemed to be enjoying from them. I thought that Rowling’s bold plots and deft characterization were worth paying attention to, if her practical ability to put them across was rather weak — the way she was telling the story was more accomplished than her technical ability to portray that story on the page. The wizards and witches, the wands and robes, the spells and mythical creatures were, for me, neither here nor there. The genuine mysteries in the first three books, the themes of war in the next three, and the perfect denouement of the last which completely unraveled the entire universe that she had created, which so few authors are willing to do (especially with such a proven commercially viable property), was truly masterful. Not that the dressings of the books — the pidgin-Latin spells, the chimney travel network, the broomstick athletics — is not worthy enough to be enjoyed, it should absolutely be enjoyed, but there were so many of them, and they were so attractive, that they often obfuscated the enjoyment of what lay beneath them, like too many candied sweets and gumdrops on a birthday cake.
So what would her follow-up adult novel be like? That’s what millions of fans worldwide were interested to know. Unable to discern whether Rowling’s powers lay in her frivolity or some sort of right-place-right-time happenstance, I could see why they would be cautious. But since I had been able to strip away the layers on top and see an intelligent and confident, if not always efficient, structure underneath, that she would be perceived to go from strength to strength, and her next work of fiction would prove to be very enjoyable indeed.
I was very wrong.
I’ll say at this point that I have only read 140 pages of The Casual Vacancy‘s 500 and I am unlikely to read any more. The strong and intelligent plot and the brazen ending may still be there, but what Rowling has replaced the sugar and decoration of her previous books with is so bitter and unpalatable that it is literally sickening to continue reading this book. I had known to expect the swearing and approached it philosophically. It’s not something that particularly rattles me and the use of what Aldous Huxley called ‘the Anglo-Saxon tetragrammaton’ didn’t phase me in the least in the early chapters. It was Rowling making a statement that playtime was over and we were down to serious business now. For that reason I was actually encouraged by its presence. However, the foul language has just been relentless. Her point made Rowling doesn’t slacken off the obscenities, she actually ramps them up, stringing them together in capital italics, as if she’s desperately trying to win a bet or set a record.
One rationalization is that she is portraying the people who use such language accurately — that the artist is a slave to beauty, and beauty is truth — but the truth of that statement is that she’s not. Having grown up in the sort of environment Rowling is writing about (the state schools, the nearby council house development) I know it is true that the characters she writes about often swear, but they do no do it so constantly.To use bad language is only to express one’s emotions and thoughts more intensely — the language itself is not meant to give offense by the people who use it, but it is meant to portray the strength of the swearer’s feelings towards the object that he/she is swearing about. It is casual, and it is most often unconscious. Rowling’s use of bad language is anything but casual, it is positively ostentatious. She festoons her pages with the most forbidden of words shoehorned into the most awkward of places so that it is jarring to come across them, even if you are familiar in hearing them in everyday conversation. The only other author I know who applies such creativity to the application of his blue prose is Stephen King, but he is usually aware enough to know when to stop egging the pudding. The truth about ‘bad language’ is that you can choose yourself how much you care about it, how much you get worked up about it. Words have the power you give them and if no one was offended by these words then there would be no reason ever to use them. But if Rowling’s case is that these words have no meaning, then why does she use them so relentlessly? Knocking you in the face with them page after page after page?
And then there are all the penises. If someone were inclined to finish reading the book and would be willing to keep a tally list of all the male characters and all the penises that Rowling comments on, I would be interested in knowing if there is a male member of a male member of her cast that she does not comment on. She seems to feel it very important to tell us where and what all the penises are doing in each scene, but for no purpose that I can divine. Again, I could say that she has ostentatiously festooned her prose with penises, sticking them into all sorts of inappropriate places, and often with puzzling physiological commentary. Not to put a fine point on the subject, or to drive it home, but early on we are told that a young schoolboy’s heart and balls ached at not being able to catch a glimpse of a girl that he’s in love with. I find this intolerably bizarre for two reasons. Firstly, that the heart can ache after a love is well established, but why does Rowling think that genitals experience the same painful yearning? And secondly, why has no one told her that they don’t?
But these are surface elements, the dressing, the garnish. The magic words of Rowling’s previous work has been replaced with words of similar power but less joy, and the magic wands have lost any sort of metaphorical dignity. What was sweet and syrupy in her previous fiction is now sharp and makes the throat gag. The criticism for anyone commenting negatively on this new book is that they begrudge Rowling’s entrance into a more high-brow arena — that she has taken away our toys and turned us out of the playroom and we through our infantilism are hurt at the slight. This is only a Potemkin Village argument, because to dig past all this surface unpleasantness is to still find no reward. Every scene details some new tragedy to some character. Unpleasant word follows unpleasant deed follows unpleasant thought. We are given so few reasons to like any character and so few opportunities to do so. Those who are most unpleasant the most is said about. Anyone who is not inwardly or outwardly abusive to those around them are apparently of no consequence to the author because she disdains to give them much of a part in the story at all. As I’ve said, I’ve only read 140 pages and in the remaining 360 I could easily be convinced that something clever and intelligent happens, but I shan’t read it for myself because I feel I’ve already paid too high a price.
Because Rowling has broken the only cardinal rule of fiction. Above meaning and morality, above truth and beauty, above technical ability and above even God and all his angels, fiction must be entertaining. That is not to say that fiction must be happy, pretty, and always pleasant, for there are many, many ways to distract and delight. But returning to this book has become a dread, and that to me is unforgivable. Not to strain a comparison, but that’s what the Potter works were, start to last, in every considered element, they were completely entertaining — if criticism ever was made about them in fact, it was that they were entertaining to a fault. And so, to distance herself from her previous success Rowling has created a book that is deliberately vacant of any entertainment at all.