J.K. Rowling’s New Book Is Determinedly Unmagical, Puckeringly Sour, and Surprisingly Good

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 27 2012 6:59 PM

Psst … I Hear J.K. Rowling Hates Your Guts

If you like to gossip, that is.

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The Casual Vacancy is a sour novel, one that seems designed to leave Rowling’s biggest, most avid fans feeling as though she sort of hates them. For all its readability—I had no problem tearing through the whole thing today after buying it from a bewildered bookstore clerk at 7:30 in the morning—the book reveals that though she remains a careful observer of human foibles, Rowling the writer isn’t well-served by her enforced isolation. And oh, how I wish anyone at her publishing house had felt able to give the book a careful edit; there are characters, passages, whole chapters that could have been cut. An editor might have told her, too, how Facebook really works, or that she didn’t need quite so many descriptions of people’s furniture, or that every chapter doesn’t have to end on a kind of wan cliffhanger. (“Some sentences cause you to picture a Little, Brown editor starting to dial Rowling’s number, then slowly putting down the handset,” Ian Parker wrote in his New Yorker profile of Rowling, and he’s exactly right.)

On the other hand, the book contains many of the delights that I, a die-hard Harry Potter fan, hoped it would. When Rowling wants to be, she remains one of the funniest writers in the English language. Her sentences, sometimes slack and lifeless, turn tight and bright in her comic moments: The frustrated wife of Howard’s chip-off-the-old-block son notes that every once in a while she enjoys her husband’s pomposity “in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.” Rowling’s remarkably empathetic to her poorest, most disadvantaged characters, without seeming to condescend to them at all. And Rowling’s knack for memorable physical description remains intact, and benefits from the ability to go blue in a novel for adults—as in this description of Howard Mollison:

He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set of these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.

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Rowling’s teenage characters are particularly well-drawn; I would have thought that thousands of pages of adolescent Harry would have exhausted everything she had to say about angry teens, but it turns out she’d just gotten started. Andrew Price, so tired of his mother trying to mollify his abusive father; Fats Wall, coasting by on his charm but inside a Holden Caulfield, obsessed with the phonies; Sukhvinder Jawanda, depressed and lost, wishing that she, like Barry Fairbrother, could just drop dead; and Krystal Weedon, the ferocious girl from the council estates, funny and profane, who loves her little brother and goes truant to clean her awful flat just in case the social worker comes back a second time. They’re all indelible, these characters—far more than the often interchangeable adults who also inhabit this novel—and though in the end comparisons between this book and Rowling’s previous work don’t really serve Rowling or the reader that well, I can’t help but think that these kids would fit in at Hogwarts just fine, if they could handle the fact that none of their mobile phones would work inside the castle gates.

So fine, let’s compare them. Of course The Casual Vacancy isn’t as good as Harry Potter. That is, it’s not as good as the whole seven-book series viewed as a whole, though it’s about as good as some of the weaker parts of, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In moving to books for adults, has J.K. Rowling lost her magic? Yes—by design. The novel is stubbornly earthbound, intentionally so. It’s just a shame that the earth Rowling is forced by her fame to inhabit is not quite the same as the one the rest of us do.