RECENTLY I attended the launch of a high-profile British cultural event. The government-funded bureaucrat in charge framed her speech around the Olympics, rejoicing that “the spirit of competition is back in British life”, and going on to express the hope that the arts event being unveiled would summon similar unifying excitement.
If only, went the subtext, the arts would buck up and lend itself to the crowd-pleasing logic of “good”, “better” and “best”. No-one, after all, needs to fight over whether Usain Bolt is good or bad. Success and merit aren’t separable: you win the prize because you do the best.
Art is confusingly different. The people who win commercial gold – the Dan Browns, the E L Jameses and the J K Rowlings – are not generally acknowledged to be the best at what they do. This necessitates – particularly if you are responsible for distributing public money – an endless, inevitably inconclusive effort to determine value. (Random, made-up example: invest carefully in fostering your indigenous arts scene, or fling the cash at a TV cook-off for micro-celebs?)
The unprecedented commercial success of Rowling’s Harry Potter series was attended by commensurate scorn on the part of the intelligentsia for its – and her – literary value. A Jessica Ennis and a half she may be on the commercial track, but technique-wise, Rowling is regarded as a limping also-ran. American critic Harold Bloom deemed her mind “so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing”.
Child readers, however, don’t necessarily enumerate the vital signs of metaphors; and if Rowling’s words were often weary, she did identify a grab bag of ideas from the existing children’s literature canon that resonated on a profound level (the guilty appeal of orphanhood, for instance; the combined horror of and desire for difference; the mystique of boarding school even for kids whose educations don’t involve midnight feasts and rigorous social exclusion).
And if the language tended to be thunkingly simplistic, the inner life it described was complicated. “Baddies” had vulnerabilities; “goodies” let you down; gifts were burdens too. To invoke that other blockbuster bugbear of the literati, Rowling did commit herself to shades of grey. It’s her interest in injustice – in the differences in opportunity and conditions that complicate the meritocratic “just do better!” narrative of the Games – that drives Rowling’s debut foray into the adults-only market.
You’ll know by now that the story of The Casual Vacancy circles a parish election in the wake of a councillor’s sudden death, an event that serves to draw together the interests of all the many levels of local society. Responding to the rumour that he had a cerebral haemorrhage (everyone in this book is always responding keenly to rumour), another character notes, “He was born with a weakness he didn’t know about.”
It’s a reversal of Rowling’s most famous character, Harry Potter, whose own head injury proved indicative of a strength he didn’t know about. What curses or blesses us – beauty, social advantage, wealth, talent, dumb luck or the lack of any of that – preoccupies this narrative, presumably because its author has had much occasion to ponder the vagaries of fortune and the politics of merit. Those who experience tremendous material success are guaranteed abnormal exposure not only to luxury and positive attention, but to others’ cruelty and need. Bitchiness and begging letters, in other words.
The Casual Vacancy, with its relentless focus upon the inner pressures and insecurities that drive recklessness and violence, seems like the outcome of a long research project into human nature which Rowling’s exceptional experience has forced her to undertake. It’s nothing new for a work of art to expose the dark side of an apparently respectable community, but what’s interesting here is the writer’s commitment to unearthing the origins of destructive behaviour – deprivation or moneyed complacency, frustrated desire or incurable undesirability.
This is, whatever your estimation of its value, an extremely compassionate book. One of Rowling’s great skills is the confident management of a vast dramatis personae, and that’s not lacking here: she draws her people well, knows them inside out. She is still not a stylist, but she seems to know this, and compensates for the absence of poetic flourishes with a diligent attention to physical detail that’s often very effective.
The tic of phonetically rendering the speech of her working class characters is blindingly irritating (“Ter” for to, “jus” for just, even “fr’m” for from – Come on. Must we mark out “poor” pronunciation this way? What does it achieve but interruption of the text and marginalisation of those characters?
As one with an avowed indifference to the Potter books, I found The Casual Vacancy a distinctly pleasant surprise: somewhat flat stylistically, and less than gripping on a plot level, but insightful, meaningful, daring and resolutely challenging to tabloid assumptions regarding the moral worth of individuals. I think that’s a pretty cool challenge for the most powerful writer in the world to have set herself. Hold the gold medal for now; but go Team JK. «