Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Casual Vacancy

Update (Nov 23): Welcome, readers of "The Hog's Head"!


The most successful writer in English living today is probably J.K. Rowling, who has a house in Edinburgh and is considered an Edinburgh writer. Edinburgh has three or four superstar writers, which is a cause for celebration for Edinburgh readers but perhaps a source of crippling self-doubt for other Edinburgh writers.

Writers are often an envious lot, and many writers had their knives out when J.K. Rowling dared to change genre and write a novel for adults about ordinary English life in a village that tries to hold itself aloof from the big nasty town nearby. I wasn't going to read it, but I succumbed to temptation when a friend offered to lend it to me.

By the way, conscience compels me to point out that borrowing books instead of buying your own copy is a kind of theft from the poor author. However, J.K. is rolling in money, so I think she is past caring about this kind of thing herself. My guess is she hopes merely that her books inspire people to be nicer to each other, especially to children.

This guess is inspired in part by The Casual Vacancy, which is a very good book (for adults). My biggest problem with the latter Harry Potter books was the pages and pages of very boring description that an editor less terrified of J.K. Rowling would have immediately cut out. Either whoever edited The Casual Vacancy had more guts, or J.K. herself came to him in a spirit of humility.

BTW I never had a moral problem with the Harry Potter stories; they are intensely, if subconsciously or unconsciously, Christian. Again and again they stress love, loyalty, kindness, self-sacrifice and an afterlife for those willing to accept death.

They are very much against trampling on the weak. The World (using that word as St. John the Evangelist uses it) loves stomping on the weak. In real life, the World would side with the Malfoys (rich, beautiful, with a "responsible" number of children) over the Weasleys (poor, ginger, numerous) faster than you can say "the glamour of evil." And yet in Harry Potter poor bumbling little Neville Longbottom (what a name) whose parents are no doubt costing the wizard NHS untold thousands of gold coins becomes a great hero. So does Somebody Else. The end-of-story Somebody Else twist puts me in mind of the great paradox of Gollum. Indeed, even if J.K. Rowling never sees the inside of a church, the Harry Potter stories are Christian in the same way The Lord of the Rings is.

But on to The Casual Vacancy, which is a very rooted-in-reality look at English society today. If you really want to know what England is like, going beyond fantasies born from reading English literature written before 1963, or Royal visits, or stories of immigrant grandparents, or war movies, then read The Casual Vacancy. It will make your hair stand on end, and if you are American, what is very likely to blow your mind is that white people--the native population of a European country--can be that impoverished, miserable and reviled. Their situation cannot be blamed on racism.

The Casual Vacancy shows a community where some women worship and collude with their abusive or self-satisfied husbands, where others seethe against the weakness of the men or children in their lives, and where teenage girls self-harm or live in a self-centered bubble. Some adult men are comfortable bullies, others are doting, easily-awed sons of bullies, one has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and one keeps ending up with the wrong woman. The teenage boys are a mess, either bullies or victims, striking back in devious ways. And that's just the middle-class characters.

The poor people, which is to say those who living on the housing scheme that blighted the village, live in an earthly hell of filth, drugs, sex, violence, rape, indignity, state control, and the constant threat that their children will be taken from them. I recently watched a show about very poor people who make their living from making clay pots by the Ganges. Well, those poor Indian people are about a million times happier than the poor English people in The Casual Vacancy.

The comparison is apt, too, because there is a middle-class Sikh family in The Casual Vacancy, who occasionally feel the sting of the disapproval of the local English, of both provincial middle-class morons and the almost totally demoralized poor. (The wealthy, professional adults can mostly shrug this off; it's not so easy for their kids, who have to go to school with these people.)

The parents, Vikram (a heart surgeon) and Parvinder (a GP) are fascinating to me. Vikram is the only adult whose point-of-view we never see. Parvinder is the only adult who is religious, and although her religion gives her some comfort, it does't teach her how to deal with her anger, which she takes out particularly on her youngest daughter.

So again there is no overt Christianity in The Casual Vacancy, even though the message J.K. Rowling gets across once again is that bullying and violence against the weak is evil, that shared humanity should trump family and class distinctions, that the strong must help the weak, that the weak have gifts to help the strong, and that loving self-sacrifice is transformative.

There is also, by the way, a hint that the trend of people having sex with whoever they want to have sex with, whenever, with very little thought for anyone else, especially their sex-partner, is a root cause of abject misery in any social class.

I am impressed by how well J.K. Rowling draws her characters, showing how their flaws are also their weaknesses. One is a social worker who uproots her life and her daughter's life in London to live in the same village as the man she thinks is her boyfriend. He is not really her boyfriend, and he doesn't even like her that much. He just liked knowing a woman in London he could have sex with occasionally, and he doesn't have the guts to tell her that. Both are to blame for the situation, although one might argue that the woman is even more blameworthy, for she didn't just uproot her home for her deluded fantasy of romance, she uprooted her daughter's, too. And in this she and her heroin-addled client are sisters under the skin.

The one weakness in the book is how J.K. seems to yell "See, see!" when comparing the illicit drug use of the miserable poor to the licit drug use of the middle class. But wine is a good thing and can be used in moderation; heroin is not and cannot.

The drinker in the book is a middle-aged woman whose business is on the rocks, and her husband doesn't really think this important. Always the sexy kind of woman who likes to make risque remarks, her libido goes a bit crazy and fixates on a boy band. Oddly, this is the only funny part of the book, and of course it is also sad although there is a liberating aspect to it, too.

So if you were thinking of reading The Casual Vacancy, go ahead and read it. I will warn you that there are sex scenes--albeit not sexy (in real life sex is not always sexy, which JKR points out)--bad language and a rape scene, which I skipped. It really is not for children.

The author has chosen to highlight the difference between middle-class people and the very poor (in my town they are called "schemies", after "housing scheme") by reproducing the accent of the latter. This may lead you, the reader, to see the schemies as akin to alien creatures, and thus may undercut the author's praiseworthy attempt to present them as hurting human beings. Of course, one might argue that she is presenting their aesthetically horrible way of speaking as just one more degradation they suffer.


Anonymous said...

Borrowing books is theft? If that were true, then 75% of what I've ever read has been stolen. And libraries then dens of thieves. Making music and poetry, telling stories and teaching are all religious vocations, sacred like the priesthood or monastery. If you have the vocation, you should not resent the poverty. And if your writing were never lent, it would be much less often read, which if your book be a good one, would diminish your merit amongst the saints.

Seraphic said...

I am not sure if I should leave that anonymous comment up or not.

Libraries buy books, and not only that, but sometimes authors are paid directly according to the number of times a book is borrowed from a library. I remember Robertson Davies mentioning his chagrin when an obviously well-heeled woman told him that she had taken his book from the public library. In his view, public libraries were set up for the poor.

How to pay artists in the age of digital recording and the internet has become a serious issue. Artists are in a situation where people simply expect to consume music and stories for free. (In Britain people have to pay a regular fee to have television.) And yet the average person does not expect to eat anything for free he did not grow himself.

It's worth thinking about. Defrauding the labourer of his pay is listed as one of the crimes calling to heaven for vengeance.

Seraphic said...

Yes, I think I'll leave it up as an example of the kind of "suck it up, buttercup" attitude that artists have to deal with all the time, and I'll think twice before I leave the combox unmonitored again.

Alisha said...

There is a difference between resenting poverty and expecting a just wage for one's labour to simply be able to live. Priests are given a salary precisely so they can live while they go about the work they are called to do. Also, I am not sure what planet that person is living on but newsflash: IT TAKES MONEY TO MAKE ART. It is in fact, ridiculously expensive at times. I don't understand how people don't get this. People do not give me voice lessons, sheet music, vocal arrangements, recording time/equipment, dance training, rehearsal space, props for shows, program printing, piano accompaniment, food I have to buy while on gigs etc etc etc for free. I cannot pay my rent by smiling sweetly at the landlord and explaining my vocation. Please. Most artists, out of necessity, must take other jobs that allow for flexibility and time to pursue their art, and those jobs are not always well paid; it is also exhausting to have to work a full time job and have little energy and time left for your real calling. If you want the sacred vocations of artist and craftsman to continue, you have to put money towards it because unfortunately I have not yet learned to subsist solely off of emotional satisfaction and holy communion. For some reason, I seem to have remained mortal and require food.