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Emily Layden Headshot

J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' and My Response

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I have, of course, the memories you've read before: plastic, taped glasses; stuffed owls and broomsticks borrowed from hall closets, wrapped with string and scribbled with Sharpie (Nimbus 2000 or 2001). I can close my eyes and open them again inside a Borders (its doors now shuttered, its shell of a building still unoccupied) on a summer night; I can see with a sharpness fine wrinkles forming in a paper-plastic wristband marking my place in line. I remember walking with old best friends to an orange-lit parking lot, books clutched in a clichéd-but-earnest way to our chests, hurrying to get home, to climb into our childhood beds and spend the night in a fantasy world as familiar as our own.

Growing Up Potter narratives were tropes and, to those who did not live them, tired. But there is for my peers -- those of us in and around our mid-twenties who were around 11 when we read The Sorcerer's Stone like Harry himself -- a sort of sweet nostalgia in this gigantic shared memory. When we say that Harry Potter was our childhood, we of course do not mean it literally, but we do mean it. We cannot remember growing up without also remembering road trips and summer afternoons whiled away with Harry. I remember bringing him to the dinner table and hearing my parents' half-hearted protestations. I wonder if they remember me book in hand.

The news that J.K. Rowling would publish a novel for adults was greeted generally in predictable ways: with excitement, trepidation and skepticism in equal measures. When I first learned of The Casual Vacancy, I wasn't worried that the book would not live up to my expectations (how could it?) or that it would taint my own conceptions of Rowling as God-like, but I was rather acutely worried that she could not possibly live up to the impossible self-imposed standards created by Harry Potter, and that the general public would not only condemn her for this but delight in it. I feared the inevitable onslaught of schadenfreude. Fantasy fans develop a fierce protectiveness of their world and its creator -- in this way, Harry Potter devotees are no different than Trekkies and Ringers.

My intent here is not to review The Casual Vacancy (certainly not with a kind of blind affection) -- it is not, in fact, to review at all. The critics have voiced their opinions, and although some are unduly harsh, most get the details right: Rowling's metaphors are simplistic, her similes obvious and her plot tedious. In generous terms it is referred to as a dark comedy, while less-impressed reviewers see the small town of Pagford and its prattling inhabitants more literally. Critics have universally noted that it is distinctly not a book for children (the comparison of a used condom to a the "cocoon of some huge grub" has become the definitive evidence of this matter, so referenced has it been), with the most disappointed reviewers offering this announcement as some kind of consolation. Rowling has stepped out of her element: the plot of The Casual Vacancy centers around a bureaucratic battle over a public housing complex and includes all the expected gritty details (drugs, rape, children hardened by circumstance). The problem is that they are not gritty enough, nor is the reader close enough, nor is the darkness so enveloping as to feel that right kind of relentlessness. I was not a third of the way through The Casual Vacancy before I began to feel resigned: I would finish because I owed it to J.K. Rowling to do so.

But here is the thing: If I did not particularly enjoy the book, I did enjoy reading The Casual Vacancy. Although Harry Potter exhibits far more sophisticated writing than that of the Twilight or Hunger Games series, it's strength is not in Rowling's artistry as a literary writer. Harry is consuming because of Rowling's relentless imagination and her clarity in communicating it -- a clarity evident in The Casual Vacancy. Rowling has an unwavering commitment to her story, and although we certainly cannot call her Hemingway-esque, there is something to be said for intent of purpose.

But this is all beside the point. The point is that J.K. Rowling is perhaps the only writer I consider to be one of my favorites (because I must; again, there is loyalty and gratitude here) who has really only produced one work. As a writer, she is inseparable from a single narrative arc. I did not, until last week, know her voice in any other context, and so more than I was committed to her as a writer I was committed to her story. Reading The Casual Vacancy, I was -- and quite suddenly -- struck with a reminder of what a wonderful thing it is to know and love a voice. So much of reading is dependent on life circumstance -- each time we come to a text we bring a new set of experiential understandings -- and as such my most recent weekend spent with Rowling could not have been any different than the last time I read her. I was 17 or 18 then, and I am 23 now, and although the years are small in number they are large in certain kinds of growth. At 17 or 18 I had not yet been transplanted to California and back. I had not yet graduated college. I had not yet held any kind of real job and I had not yet discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up (this one may still be in flux).

But here is the thing: her voice was as familiar to me as my childhood, as clear as the mental map I keep of my hometown, tucked away and unforgettable. If her metaphors are simply built, so be it. I was -- and remain -- safe inside her constructions. I believe many writers write with the hope that one day someone, somewhere will say something similar.