The Casual Vacancy, the first novel explicitly for adults by Harry Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, is a harrowing portrait of addiction. No, not to alcohol, although it does feature a middle-aged mother drunkenly making out with a spotty 16-year-old boy. No, not to drugs, although one character’s struggle with heroin is a raw depiction of physical need augmented by bureaucratic indifference.
No, J.K. Rowling is unsparing in her portrayal of a village in Britain’s West Country and its residents’ gruesome, reprehensible addiction to gossip. And on this matter, Rowling—so liberal on other issues—is unforgiving. Drug users, in Rowling’s Pagford, are worthy of sympathy and treatment; characters argue passionately and articulately in favor of keeping open the town’s treatment center. But if you’re a gossip addict—well, the only thing more ugly than your soul is your body.
The worst of the gossipmongers in Pagford is a relatively minor character in the book, Maureen Lowe, who co-owns the town delicatessen with village gadabout and council chair Howard Mollison. Maureen has little to do with the sprawling, wandering plot of Rowling’s novel, but in her voracious hunger for gossip she is the book’s spirit animal. We first meet her as Howard delivers the news that sets the novel in motion: the death of Barry Fairbrother, a councilman struck down in the parking lot of the country club by an aneurysm. As he relays the news, Howard hears “the yearning for every detail in her deep, ex-smoker’s voice.” “What’ll happen?” she asks Howard “greedily.”
Later, as news spreads that someone has posted scandalous information about one of the candidates for Barry’s empty council seat on a local message board—under the screen name “Barry Fairbrother’s Ghost,” no less—Maureen can hardly contain herself. Rowling’s description of her in this moment is repulsive:
Maureen’s droopy, bloodshot, heavily mascaraed eyes were fixed on the empty doorway like a bloodhound’s; her hunger to know what Shirley had found or seen was almost palpable. Maureen’s fingers, a clutch of bulging knuckles covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin, slid the crucifix and wedding ring up and down the chain around her neck. The deep creases running from the corners of Maureen’s mouth to her chin always reminded Samantha of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
When the news nears, Maureen’s mouth is “slack with anticipation,” as slack as the features of the novel’s heroin addict after she shoots up.
Maureen isn’t the only one. The first 100 pages of this 503-page book are devoted to the radiating news of Barry’s death, and throughout the novel Rowling is infatuated with the way information spreads from person to person in the town. Characters are forever phoning each other up to share rumors or getting frustrated by busy signals (do they still have busy signals in England?) because someone else has already phoned with rumors.
Gossip gets wives and children beaten up, turns friends against one another, costs a man his job, and sends a mentally ill father teetering near the edge. In the end so many characters are walking around town in a daze over the news they’ve heard or the rumors they’ve spread that they’re blind to the tragedy about to occur in their midst.
It’s easy to see the ways that Rowling’s allergic reaction to fame—her desire to exert control over her own privacy even as her untold hundreds of millions of dollars ensure she’ll never live anonymously again—has informed this book. The Internet is a trap: Accusations on message boards and bullying Facebook posts send characters spiraling out of control. And the real world is hardly better, filled as it is with people who think they know something about you. One character, riding in an elevator and thinking about what people have been saying about her, imagines “the lift doors sliding open to reveal a line of people in suits, waiting to accuse and condemn her.”
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.
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.