Saturday, June 15, 2013

Not your daughter's Harry Potter

Once I got over hearing the F-bomb uttered by a teenage character in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy I settled back to enjoy this massive novel, modeled after those of Dickens or Trollope. Not that this book achieves the significance of either of those two 19th century greats, in their ability to agitate for social justice while telling a good story with empathetic characters; but I found it worth listening to.

Rowling's story takes place in a small English town called Pagford. Pagford struggles with a social and economic divide -- the long-time or middle-class residents living in ease and smug satisfaction mostly don't like the people who live in The Fields, a dilapidated low-income housing complex that includes a drug-rehab center. A son of The Fields, Barry Fairbrother, managed to educate and work himself into the middle class and he has since worked diligently to help others get out of The Fields, most recently a troubled teenager named Krystal Weedon. He sits on the parish council and has organized a voting bloc that has prevented a redrawing of the town's boundaries so that The Fields will no longer be Pagford's "problem."

But, at the beginning of The Casual Vacancy, Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm, creating the titular opening on the council. And the rest of the 18-hour novel tells the story of all those Pagfordians affected by Barry's death and how the vacancy is ultimately filled. The machinations of good and evil (liberal and conservative in this case), the back stories, the Dickensian side stories that are really not necessary but enjoyable nonetheless all build slowly to the inevitable catastrophe.

The characters are lively ones, although the teenagers are much more interesting than the adults (who aren't particularly complex, tending toward one-note-dom). Rowling clearly identifies and sympathizes with her teenagers; not surprising really. Moments of the book are quite touching -- particularly those involving Krystal, who is smart enough to know that she should get away from The Fields, but sees only a few disastrous ways of achieving this. Her tragedy is profound, she's almost like the deeply good Dickens' characters who always die (although Krystal's tragedy could be that she doesn't die).

What made this novel -- which some found tedious -- particularly pleasurable for me is Tom Hollander's narration. It might very well be one of those books that listens better than it reads (I might be in the middle of one of these right now ... I'm finding my current print read to be a bit of a slog).  Hollander is fantastic. He deftly manages the large cast of characters, finding distinct and realistic voices for each. I enjoyed all of them, but particularly Fairbrother's chief opponent, the bombastic Howard Mollison; Howard's cigarette-smoking business partner Maureen; the disaffected entitled schoolboy "Fats" Wall; Parminder (pronounced without that final 'r') Jawanda, Barry's chief ally on the council, who has a pleasant Hindi-(Sikh?) tinted accent; and Krystal, loud and screechy (and profane and disrespectful) but incredibly tender with her baby brother Robbie.

Hollander also has the perfect voice for this novel about mostly self-important people behaving badly. He's got a slightly nasal delivery and he reads the narrative sections with a sense of ironic superiority that is enjoyable to hear and just right for the supercilious omniscient narrator. He also raps and sings! I've only listened to him read one other time, A Clockwork Orange, where he was also quite spectacular; so I'd be happy to encounter him again. He seems limited in his movie/TV work to variations on the upper-class twit, but he's really got a surprising range.

So, can J.K. Rowling "write for adults?" For anyone who has read Harry Potter, this conversation seems to be inevitable. I don't think she's a "great" writer (a la Dickens), but I think she can tell a good story. There was a lot of extraneous material in The Casual Vacancy, which could frustrate a reader, but I was willing to let it be revealed to me in the author's time (and with the help of a master narrator). And she's not the only writer who commits this sin, so why are we so quick to judge her harshly for it? The money she makes, probably. But isn't there something satisfying in someone who gets rich writing, rather than creating an app or an overpriced computer, or -- leading away from the creative side of things -- building bombs or crappy real estate developments?

[Barry Fairbrother was able to connect with Krystal by cajoling her into joining the rowing team.  This crew is from Toronto, photographed by Sherurcij, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Narrated by Tom Hollander
Hachette Audio, 2012.  17:55

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