Picture of J. K. Rowling from Guardian article announcing her new book.
October 4, 2012


The Casual Vacancy

My wife and I, who are definitely not Ms. Rowling's target audience of adolescents, both read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books, and the first few movies. So when the new novel was announced I placed an order for it. I placed the order on April 12, and I was tempted to make a crack about the Titanic, but that happened on the 15th. The Fort Pillow Massacre happened on the 12th in 1864, and lets just say that both my order and the massacre are unfortunate incidents.

The Harry Potter books have a Christian moral center, and while Rowling does create ambiguous characters, such as Snape, it is fairly clear that there is a moral universe of good and bad, or good and evil that her characters inhabit. In The Casual Vacancy the moral order that guides the characters in Harry Potter is replaced by a socialist view of humanity that provokes a gritty, morbid realism in which the sole character who appears to have any moral value is killed off in the first chapter. It is his death which provokes the incidents of the novel.

Ms. Rowling's characters include an Asian family (two parents who are doctors, two perfect children, and one troubled girl); a neurotic social worker; a couple of lawyers; neurotic, self-absorbed teenagers; a junkie prostitute; teen-age sluts; horny elders; horny middle-aged; and a large assortment of other undesirable types. Troubles include self-mutilation, pedophilia, rape, drug addiction, sex, and every other problem that you can think of.

The plot centers around the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council, whose death creates a vacancy, the "casual vacancy" of the title. American audiences may wonder about the "parish council." Most of us probably think of that as being an ecclesiastical designation for a church of the Anglican/Catholic/Methodist/Orthodox type. In Britain it refers to an administrative district for a town, community, or neighborhood, and is the lowest form of local administration. The town of Pagford, on whose council Barry Fairbrother sat, is divided between those of a liberal bent, who want to keep The Fields, a poor slum area, as part of Pagford, and those of a conservative leaning who want to pass it on to Yarvil, the District so that they will be responsible for it. There is also some discussion of the methadone treatment center.

The case is made that the methadone treatment center keeps women like Terri, a drug addict and sometime prostitute, from going "on the game" full time. Now methadone treatment, which has been around since at least the 1960s, is still controversial, and I don't know all the ins and outs of treatment with methadone, so I won't discuss that here. The contrary point is also made, that the clinic does not help, and does not lower addiction rates. At a climactic point a doctor who favors the clinic blows up at an opponent, and tells the man, who is massively obese, and who has had a quadruple bypass performed, that his problems, ranging from skin rashes (intertrigo and lichen simplex) to asthma to high blood pressure, are all caused by his obesity, and that they cost as much, if not more, than the treatment center. That is left unanswered, but I think there is a conservative response to that. Neither the man's obesity, nor the hooker's drug addiction, should be paid for out of the national treasury. They should both be treated under private health insurance schemes. Alternatively, only the hooker should be on the NHS, and the porker with the bypass should be under private insurance.

Rowling afflicts one character, who is not described as being morbidly obese, with type 2 diabetes, and has her injecting insulin into her stomach. Now I'm not an M.D., but I do have type 2 diabetes, which is under control with diet, exercise, and moderate medication, and that strikes me as a bit odd. Type 2 is insensitivity to insulin, not failure to produce insulin, which is type 1. Type 2 is treated with Glucophage™ (metformin), Januvia™ and other drugs which are given orally. I don't know if someone with a new diagnosis would be injecting insulin or not, but it did seem a bit odd.

When it comes to social issues, and the book does have an implied stance towards them, it seems to advocate governmental dependency. Thus the prostitute, the morbidly obese man, the very residents of the slums she deplores, are all to a greater or lesser degree dependent upon government largesse. Now the conservative view is that dependency upon the government is a "bad thing," while your average liberal either ignores it, or pretends that it's an example of compassion and caring. In reality though it represents a transfer of power from the individual, who gives up his right of self-determination, to the centralized, omni-compassionate, omni-present, government. This transfer of power from the individual to the government is represented in the character of the social worker, who is herself irresponsible, and dependent. She has had one child out of wedlock, and has had two other long term, unmarried, relationships. Rather than maintaining a stable relationship with one person, she has transferred responsibility from herself and her partner to the state, which acts as a substitute parent to her daughter.

Another of Rowling's characters is a teenager who is obsessed with being "authentic." Now "authentic," at least when I was growing up, is a word that has some association with Sartrean existentialism. To be authentic is to act out of the self's true longings and yearnings without the interference of socially determined codes. So if your true self longs for indiscriminate sex with members of your own gender, then to be authentic you would engage in that behavior. To get married and have children against your own inner longings is to be inauthentic. Now Rowling's character accepts this dictum, and acts upon it. This manifests itself in various anti-social behaviors. Now the whole question of authenticity, which Rowling doesn't address, immediately involves itself in the question of why I should accept someone else's definition of the authentic and the inauthentic. Further, is the authentic merely acting out the inner yearnings of what Freudians call the id, the unstructured, primitive part of the psyche out of which the ego, the superego (conscience), and the rest are formed, or is authenticity something else? In the version Rowling presents, and the way her character understands it, authenticity appears to be simply rebellion, and the acting out of primitive urges. Is it possible, however, to strip off those layers that are artificial and social, and have something more civilized than a rebellious infant? Rowling doesn't address that, but her repellent presentation of the teenaged quest for "authenticity," does lead one to wonder.

I've noted that I associate "authentic" with existentialism. That may not be the case with Rowling's character, but it's obvious the he has read the term somewhere, and approves of the idea of living authentically. Of course, since he is living up to an ideal that originates in another rather than in himself, he is living inauthentically. In any case, Rowling does not present her character as an intellectual, so how does he come across the term, and what prompts him to choose this attitude? Rowling does not present this aspect of his character.

Authenticity, at least in its Sartrean version, is linked with absolute freedom. It seems worthwhile at this point to ask whether absolute freedom exists. To be absolutely free could mean that one either has an infinite number of possibilities from which to choose, and that one is able to choose freely amongst any of those possibilities without acknowledging any pre-existing forces or conditions that would impinge on that choice. Okay, but that exists only as long as the choice exists. In other words it exists only in that moment of indeterminacy prior to choice. Once the choice is made consequences flow from that choice. Once Mathieu, in Sartre's Age of Reason makes the choice to look for an abortionist, certain actions flow from that choice. When Mathieu's girl makes the choice to have the baby, actions flow from that choice. The act of choosing destroys the indeterminacy that is the sine qua non of absolute freedom.

It's not enough that absolute freedom is destroyed in the act of choosing, it is also precluded by the facts that surround the choice. One exists, and one is material. Sartre, an atheist, excludes the possibility of spiritual entities acting, so it is only material beings that can act. But the material being exists in time, so choices that are out of time, in the past or in the future, are precluded. Things that are out of reach are precluded. Conditions of the body, paralysis, imprisonment, blindness, deafness, preclude certain actions. So the ability to choose is sharply limited by factors outside of the choosing being. So it is only within the existing framework that freedom exists, one may say that one has absolute freedom within this framework, but it is conditioned, it becomes, paradoxically, a relatively absolute freedom.

In short the Sartrean position, as I understand it, is contradictory. One may even say that it is a useless passion.

Rowling seems to be aiming at a sort of Zola-esque naturalism, but whereas I cared, more or less, about Nana and her fate, and may even have cared about Gervaise in L'Assommoir, I couldn't really care whether Kay got together with Gavin, or Gavin would be happy with Mary, the widow; or about any of the other characters. In any kind of work that matters, whether it's epic poetry, such as The Iliad, or Beowulf, or a modernist novel such as Ulysses, or The Sound and the Fury you should have at least one character that you care about. In The Casual Vacancy there are none. The best I can say of it is what appears on the blurb of a volume of short stories by Sartre that I have in my library, that Ms Rowling has drawn her inspiration from a landscape "filled with cesspools."