Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Towns

With The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling solidifies her standing as a modern-day Dickens

The following review was recently posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Though her identity as fantasy writer somewhat obscures her literary lineage, J.K. Rowling is, as a number of observers have noted, a very Dickensian writer. The most obvious similarity is her penchant for evocative names; Dickens monikers like Pip, Gradgrind and Scrooge have their analogue in those like Potter, Snape, and Voldemort. Like Dickens, Rowling has a gift for crafting memorable characters, which brush with caricature but remain vivid. Like Dickens, too, she writes big, sprawling novels with multiple subplots that converge with tremendous narrative drive. Both writers told their stories serially, Dickens through periodicals, Rowling via steadily growing novels conceived and executed in installments.

And both Dickens and Rowling are finally moralists at heart. Though her politics are what we Americans might call conventionally liberal, they have a genteel quality that echoes the Victorians, not in a sense of prudery, but rather a belief that human nature is sufficiently plastic to be redeemed by the reforming tendencies of enlightened social policy (once enlightenment meant religious uplift; now it means pluralistic uplift). When Rowling writes in her latest novel of a neglected child "not accustomed to being given what he wanted, and disobedient by habit, because grown-ups were arbitrary in their wrath and their rules, [and] so he had learned to seize his tiny pleasures wherever and whenever he could," the implied indictment sounds like something straight out of Hard Times.

The name of that latest book -- much promoted as Rowling's first adult novel -- is The Casual Vacancy. It's a title with barely concealed irony. The vacancy in question is anything but casual; actually, it's more like a casualty. Rowling's Harry Potter novels were hardly strangers to grave situations and adult sorrows. But they did not feature drug addiction, adultery or (conventional) child abuse. Still, fans of those novels, many of them former children, will find much to like about this one.

The story opens with the sudden and unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council in the English town of Pagford, beyond the perimeter of metropolitan London. Pagford is not, however, immune to the challenge of big-city problems; it abuts, and shares some political jurisdiction with, the neighboring Yarvil, a poorer town whose welfare programs siphon off Pagford tax dollars, much to the chagrin of some local residents. In the aftermath of Fairbrother's death, a series of characters with names like the (avaricious) Simon Price and (obsessive-compulsive) Cubby Wall jockey to contest a seat that otherwise might easily go begging.

It becomes clear over the course of the story, however, that Fairbrother's seat is, in an important sense, impossible to fill. His death opens up real wounds and holes in Pagford, particularly when a group of adolescents with separate reasons to be angry at their parents hack their way into the council website and begin making sensational allegations about them for public consumption as "the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother." The consequences of these acts begin to ping around the town in ways the adolescents scarcely anticipated. (One is reminded here of Tom Wolfe, who writes similarly sprawling stories exquisitely attuned the the nuances of race and class status, as Rowling is here -- a few of the major characters in Pagford are Sikh). For a while, it seems like the various strands of the story are headed toward a slapstick denouement, but Rowling's earnestness refuses to allow that. The novel begins and ends on notes of tragedy; her reformist sensibility takes the form of a cautionary fable rather than a morality tale with a neat resolution.

There's a middlebrow quality to The Casual Vacancy that may make some readers impatient.  But as with Dickens, there's a surprising toughness beneath the sentiment and humor. "Who could bear to know which stars were already dead," muses one character late in Rowling's novel, looking up at the night sky and contemplating the concept of light years. "Could anybody stand to know that they all were?" Perhaps not. But everybody has to stand knowing they all could be. And it's what people do with that incomplete knowledge that makes the world, and pages, turn.