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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 41, Dated 13 Oct 2012

    The Prisoner of Pottermania

    JK Rowling’s first novel for adults is a self-conscious attempt to free herself from her billion-dollar legacy, says Shougat Dasgupta

    Photo: JK Rowling Official Portrait


    When a book goes booker

    The Font of Genius
    ‘If a shy, gay man born in a Bombay chawl can see this fame, anyone can’

    The Casual Vacancy
    JK Rowling
    Little, Brown
    512 pp; Rs 850

    Day dreams Rowling admits she’d be flattered if the novel could be compared to those of Trollope and Dickens

    Photo: AFP

    JK ROWLING anticipated this would happen. That the ‘Harry Potter’ books would obstruct her readers’ vision, forcing on them the impossible task of looking around, over or through her towering achievement to see her latest work. The edifice she began building in Edinburgh cafes nearly two decades ago, a single mother then on state benefits, is now an immense, unbreachable fortress. But on occasion, however seldom or fleeting, the protection provided by the fortress’ sheer scale, its thick, solid walls must feel oppressive; there is no exit. In the few interviews Rowling has given in the secretive, guarded weeks before the publication of The Casual Vacancy (her first novel for adults, five years after the seventh and last of the Potter novels), she has spoken of the pressures that are the corollary to her grand good fortune. On the one hand, Rowling can write just about anything and be guaranteed a couple of million pre-orders, accounting for her publishers’ belligerent disregard for the press: review copies have been handed over with the angry reluctance of a child ordered by his parents to give the last chocolate biscuit in the tin to his sister. On the other, just about anything Rowling writes will invoke comparison with ‘Harry Potter’. Most reviews of her new novel last barely a sentence or two before succumbing to the inevitable.

    Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ formidably prolific reviewer, doesn’t wait even that long, scolding Rowling from the start: “With JK Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, we are firmly in Muggle-land — about as far from the enchanted world of Harry Potter as we can get. There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery.” Kakutani, in peevish form, later writes: “Instead of an appreciation for the courage, perseverance, loyalty and sense of duty that people are capable of, we are left with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity.” It almost makes you feel sorry for the billionaire author. Almost.

    Is it now Rowling’s responsibility to make us feel good about ourselves? Why should she not choose to remind us that the world is a cruel, shabby place in which justice is fleeting and people are petty and heedless far more often and readily than they are good or brave? Forget the children, it’s the adults who might not be able to let go, the many millions of grown men and women, who over the years have read each Potter novel — a socially acceptable regression unlike sucking your thumb at work, or taking Flopsy the Bunny to dinner parties. It is the many reviewers tut-tutting on behalf of the kids about the bad language in The Casual Vacancy, the sex scenes, the violence and drug use who appear most afraid that Rowling, lionised as Mary Poppins, might turn out to be Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

    Having read, as a magazine assignment, only one of the Potter novels and finding the prose like a microwave oven — ugly but functional — I’m bemused by adults who read Rowling for pleasure. What is it they find in her that they didn’t in the many better books I remember from childhood, Just William or Tom Brown’s Schooldays or even The Worst Witch (never mind Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe’s horrifying stories, Robert Louis Stevenson)? Of course, à chacun son goût and all that, to each his own. My point is that while I would like to say that I had no Harry Potter-themed baggage to bring to my reading of The Casual Vacancy, it wouldn’t be true. Being a Potter-sceptic meant that I was predisposed to suspicious scrutiny: “Okay Rowling, show me what you got.” This is, admittedly, an absurd stance to adopt in a world where commercial success means everything and the irrefutable answer to any question regarding a Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown or Chetan Bhagat is, well, millions of readers can’t be wrong.

    FLIPPING THROUGH a page or two of The Casual Vacancy is all it takes to confirm that for Rowling language is not an abiding concern. She is not a miniaturist, a writer who puts much stock in an arresting phrase, sentence, or word so much as family trees and back stories, the grease that maintains the complex machinery of her plot. I don’t imagine her as preoccupied by beauty or style. No writer who cares about words would in the very opening pages have headaches that thump or throb, heels that clack, agony that is excruciating, expensive houses that are extravagant. Sentences in Rowling’s workmanlike hands are not moulded, pliable but unyielding bricks, one slapped on top of the other to build the plainest of walls. This is a typical Rowling sentence: “Andrew leaned around the back of the computer; he instructed Simon wrong at first, but then, by chance, got the right socket.” Her resistance to beauty, to grammar (instructed Simon wrong?), is almost admirable. Almost.

    Sentences in Rowling’s workmanlike hands are bricks, one slapped on top of the other to build the plainest of walls

    If Rowling is not to be read for her prose, what then of the plot? The title refers to a place left open on a parish council after the death of a sitting councillor. Barry Fairbrother, his name semaphoring his goodness, is a popular member of the parish council for Pagford, an imaginary town based apparently on the Gloucestershire village in which Rowling lived as a girl. He dies in the first pages of the book of an aneurysm that “sliced through his brain like a demolition ball”. To complain about her use of ‘slice’ in conjunction with ‘demolition ball’ is, again, to get hung up on language. So back to Barry. His death is the catalyst for a local election that exposes the crevasses that threaten to engulf Pagford. The stolid burghers of “the pretty little town” have long held a grudge against a housing estate built by the government on scrubland sold by the new owners of the local big house, the mansion and grounds that were once home to an aristocratic family.

    Barry, lost in death to sainthood, was born in ‘The Fields’, built for families on state benefits, and is an eager proponent for keeping it within Pagford, encumbering its genteel schools with the yobbish children of the working class, confronting the town’s citizens, with their picturesque town square and spotless houses, with the taint and filth of drugs, promiscuity and, gasp, rude words. In the opposite camp are the Mollisons, Pagford-born and bred, eager to preserve their town from urban blight. The family most representative of the Fields are the Wheedons, 16-year-old Krystal, her toddler brother and their emaciated, toothless mother who prostitutes herself for heroin. So far so not Harry Potter.

    The Casual Vacancy is part kitchen sink realism, the British movement of the late 1950s that documented the grim lives of the working class, part middle class comedy of manners. Rowling, meanwhile, admits she would be flattered if her novel were compared to those of Anthony Trollope or Charles Dickens. She is socially conscious, a believer in the welfare state and eager to write a big, crusading Victorian novel. I admire Rowling’s desire, her drive to not be confined by her success. But The Casual Vacancy is just another bad novel, its many characters assigned roles rather than imagined fully so that they are always in character, like an actor who thinks an annoying tic is revealing of something more than an annoying tic.

    Some British reviewers have seen the middle class as Rowling’s target, but for all the scorn directed at Pagford’s upstanding, it is a working class family that is sacrificed so that middle class people can have their small epiphanies. The Casual Vacancy is an extended sermon and Rowling is as patronising of her working class characters as any of Pagford’s contemptible hypocrites. By the end, as the novel unravels into Grand Guignol, Rowling veers closer towards an episode of EastEnders than Trollope. Only when she writes about school, the uneasy accord between pupils and teachers, does The Casual Vacancy almost come to life. Almost.

    Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 41, Dated 13 Oct 2012



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