Final Rating: 3 1/2 cups of bittersweet tea.
It took me three days to read all 503 pages of this book, and I’m still not entirely sure why I did it.
From a technical standpoint, there can be no argument that Rowling is still excellent. She creates scenes, characters, and dialogue that are engaging and keep the reader interested. I didn’t even mind that she’d dared to tread the dangerous waters of writing out accents phonetically–a faux pas which, generally speaking, most authors have neither the skill nor the popularity to get away with. I’m not shy about DNFing a thing if I find it dull, especially if the plot or characters disagree with me.
Still, all throughout my time with The Casual Vacancy, I kept asking myself the same question over and over: What is the point of this book? I devoured page after page, ever hopeful that maybe in the next chapter, all would be revealed and I could finally understand what Rowling’s message was. Maybe in the next chapter, I’ll figure out what it is this book is trying to tell me. Maybe in the next part, it’ll all be made clear.
But now it lies finished on my nightstand, waiting to go back to the library, and all I can think is: There was absolutely no fucking point to this book.
Maybe The Casual Vacancy is some sort of meta-commentary that I’m too young or inexperienced to understand; maybe the message is there but I just don’t “get it”. In fairness, my preferred genres are generally more along the lines of high fantasy, overwrought murder mysteries and sci-fi boom-fests with lots of kissing. So I accept that perhaps this is a case of me not grasping the subtler workings of a genre, or of missing out on some larger context that would make The Casual Vacancy feel less like a sad, depressing waste of time.
And please let me be very clear: this is easily one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. For one thing, it might as well be labelled as a study in how women are expected to perform gargantuan amounts of emotional labor–without reward–and how everything is slowly poisoned by the men who view it as their inalienable right to receive this labor. There are exactly two men in this book who did not disgust me on the most visceral of levels: Barry, (who has the good grace to die three pages in) and Vikram Jawanda, who seems decent enough, but only because we barely ever see him or interact with him; he is literally just window dressing. Everything constantly comes back to how much the men are fucking everything up for the people around them. Many of the women are just as petty and spiteful, but their influence (as usual) is much smaller and more personal. They undoubtedly inflict hurt, but they cannot create the same waves of misery as their male counterparts; nor do their decisions stretch back and forth through history like grasping, horrible arms.
That said, the numerous ways in which these men inflicted pain on the people around them were expertly portrayed. Simon’s scenes in particular were difficult for me to read, because I have never seen the hell that was my childhood so effortlessly put into words before. It was both deeply horrifying and a little bit gratifying to hear the very same words my mother would always use after my father had been yelling again, or sit inside Simon’s head as he pouted over how the world owed him, and how everyone was always out to get everyone else so why shouldn’t he take his cut? Him and his precious stolen computer mirrored so many of the little schemes and scams my own father prided himself on running, and while I often wanted to go be sick after these chapters, I’m still willing to give credit where it’s due.
And herein lies the problem I kept running into with The Casual Vacancy–all of the characters felt incredibly real, but do folks honestly need an entire novel to tell them that most people are petty, self-absorbed, out of control and desperately unhappy? Is that really a good use of dead trees? Just pull up Twitter for about ten minutes and you get pretty much the same effect. There is absolutely nothing revolutionary or different about a lengthy meditation on how screwed up seemingly “decent” people in a small town are. This is a theme which has been done to death, and while The Casual Vacancy does it well, again I return to my original question: What is the point of this book?
All of this being said, I will fight to the death any of the numerous people I have seen bemoaning the fact that J.K. has dared to leave the world of Harry Potter behind and how “the magic has died” and blah blah blah. Get the fuck over yourselves. For one thing, just because she is popular and widely known does not mean you own her. You have no right to tell her how to live her life, and never will. For another, do you have any idea how depressing and boring it is for a creative person to be locked into one mode for the rest of their lives? How would you feel if you had to write the same thing over and over again? I would rather see Rowling branch off into a dozen different genres and fail spectacularly at each one, than have her stick with Harry Potter and produce an endless, gray procession of mediocre nonsense because she’s bored stiff with it all. The Casual Vacancy and I didn’t exactly get along, it’s true–but by god it clearly meant something to her, and that alone is reason enough for her to have written it.
In closing, I’d say that The Casual Vacancy might be a good read for people who are devoted fans of Rowling’s style, or for folks who love diving into the inner lives of fictional characters. (You will most definitely get to know these people, inch by agonizing inch) For those who are interested in picking this one up, please be advised that there is abuse, (both emotional and physical) drug use, rape, CSA, racism, self-harm, people fantasizing about committing suicide, sexual assault, gendered slurs, homophobic slurs, racist slurs, transphobic attitudes, and Rowling’s enduring fascination with making fat people into villains. Nobody warned me about any of these things before I read it, and I really wish they had. It gets pretty rough in some places.
And if somebody feels like explaining to me what the point of it all was, my comment box is open.