Reading Harry Potter, I often found myself wondering when the characters used the bathroom. Reading J.K. Rowling’s new novel, I was not granted this luxury. Those reading The Casual Vacancy are not spared the private and often disgusting details of the characters lives.
Take, for instance, the hairy navel of an overweight husband, the “crusty” anus of a toddler, the acne-ridden cheek of a teen. The descriptions are not only physically repulsive, but metaphorically gross as well. Or consider the sentence most quoted by critics, in which a used condom is described as “the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.” One such critic, the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, summed up the issue pithily: “Instead of an exhilarating sense of the mythic possibilities of storytelling, we are left with a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance. It’s as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling’s miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two-, never mind three-dimensional tale.” Rowling’s obsession with vulgar honesty seems a direct antidote to the virtuous fantasy of the Potter series.
I’ll try to avoid the tendency to mention Hogwarts in every paragraph, a pattern most reviewers have shown, but it’s impossible to look at Vacancy without knowing of the author’s towering oeuvre, looming over her latest attempt like the spires of that famed castle. That’s what this book is: an attempt, both at a new genre for a new audience, and at establishing a voice as a writer independent from her comfortable context.
One need search no further than my own prose to see Rowling’s style; devouring 4,000-plus pages has not left me untouched by her love of adverbs, ellipses, and excessive commas. She needs to vary her sentence structure. Metaphors are occasionally overwrought. A few reviews have ganged up on the passage where a wannabe parish councilman gazes “covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to this book than gossamer condoms and wrinkly breasts (though those do make plenty of appearances). After a few chunky sections in the beginning, Rowling hits her stride. Slinging hard-hitting lines like Bludgers (sorry) she carefully dissects the small English village of Pagford and its inhabitants. She pushes you into mundane goings-on, sometimes heavy-handedly showing readers into the characters bedrooms, schoolrooms, and boardrooms.
But some bits, when the book gets away from examining and just starts telling, border on punch-in-the-gut venomous veracity. Though the commonly quoted Twainism on letting the old lady scream still applies, Rowling sometimes wraps herself too deeply in describing how the lady is screaming rather than what she’s screaming. When she can walk the balance between frankness and poetic metaphor is when I turned the pages the quickest. I caught myself nodding fervently when an impecunious character’s progression through an affluent school is described as “the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.” Or, the relatable and moving: “It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?”
Some of it, though, is, frankly, fucked up. Rowling has admitted that she never saw herself “as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.” That definitely shows as the novel spirals towards its devastatingly real ending: no Deathly Hallows, no Expelliarmus, no “all was well.” There is graveyard sex, cutting, drug overdoses, and enough pettiness to drown a baby in (which, by the way, happens on page 462). There are no pulled punches.
The most jarring aspect of The Casual Vacancy, though, is not the gratuitous profanity or “adult content.” As someone who has spent so much time within the world of Potter, as many people in my generation have, it is shocking to hear characters whose voices sound so familiar speaking of entirely unfamiliar topics. It was like looking down at a close friend from a great height, and their words and actions were distorted.
Because really, that’s what Kakutani and all of the other reviewers don’t get. To many young adults, Rowling’s writing has the intimacy of a personal narrative. And to have the woman who wrote your own diary suddenly tell a tale that is suddenly too harshly real feels dissonant. After everything we’ve been through with Harry, accepting Rowling’s new portrait of an England stripped of the magic that once made it familiar may prove harder than coming to terms with the brutality of her new language. The X-rated content and dismaying ending don’t make this book bad to those who already know Rowling’s M.O. It’s the awkward feeling that maybe she wasn’t saying what she should or could that makes Vacancy less than satisfying.
Maybe Rowling’s trying too hard. Sometimes the stacked-up pathos gets a little wobbly, like when a character feels “alone in the endless stillness of the universe.” In the end, though, all I can say is: this isn’t J.K. Rowling’s best book. In my opinion, that was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though you’re welcome to disagree with me. But it won’t, most likely, be her last book, and I’m still looking forward to her next novel, because she has proven herself over and over as, above all things, a revelatory storyteller. My fingers are crossed that Rowling, with a little more time, is able to produce the adult work of fiction that she clearly wants so dearly to write.
I still read The Casual Vacancy gladly, with a pang of bittersweet nostalgia. When asked if she thought that Harry, post-Voldemort, could move on to a more normal life, Rowling responded: “Harry, as a character, can’t … And, after all, if Harry really had gone through everything he went through, he probably wouldn’t be mentally healthy enough to survive anywhere, would he?”
The true question for once-children like myself, who have spent most of their lives under the spell of Potter, is whether or not we ourselves can move on.
This article originally appeared in the Princeton University newspaper the Nassau Weekly.