Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Casual Vacancy: A 21st-Century Dickens Novel

As a fan of the Harry Potter series I probably should have attempted to read JK Rowling's foray into adult literature long before last fall when a fellow bibliophile gave me a copy for my birthday. I jumped in eagerly, not only because of my friendship with said bibliophile, but because the reviews were so varied -- running the gamut between disgust and delight -- I wondered on which side my opinion would fall.

After the main character -- a good little man who casts an enormous shadow -- dies on the second page, the reader is introduced to a diverse cast of characters, all of whom are affected in some way by this death. How many characters? So many that I felt compelled to print out a character sheet just to keep everyone straight. Turns out I didn't need it for long: all the characters eventually became quite distinct as their stories intertwined brilliantly all the way to a denouement that must be the most bittersweet I've ever read.

An author who creates a long list of detailed characters that intertwine along a plotline centering on bitter class warfare and who has no problem killing off the good, the good-hearted, and the innocent: hmmm, let's see...what other novelist did this book bring to mind? I was about halfway through when I realized I was reading a 21st-century Dickens novel. The 21st-century bit must be what many found so offensive. Rowling writes, um, very descriptively in sections that I must admit to having skimmed over: unless we're talking about what Quentin Tarantino does to fictitious Nazis, I'm what is known as a sensitive viewer.

So I won't be rereading The Casual Vacancy anytime soon, even though it would be a great opportunity for a closer look at the novel's brilliant construction. For one thing, excepting the dead man, there are no characters in this book who I'd care to meet again. To see the effect that one good person can have on a community is almost inspiring here, in an It's a Wonderful Life sort of way, but as there's no one to fill the dead man's shoes, this inspiration factor is bittersweet at most. And, as many have said before me, there is a lot of grim realism to wade through, grit that was never thrust so graphically upon the readers of Dickens.

All this being said, the plot structure, characterizations, and writing in The Casual Vacancy should cement J.K. Rowling's reputation as a genius, even if so much about her novel gives little Dickens-like pleasure to the reader. Didn't he give us at least a few likeable, living characters?