I recall that eight-year-olds in the nineties used to pass around the first Harry Potter book with enthusiastic praise, accompanied by one small caveat: the first chapter is boring. The first few chapters of The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and weakest book in the series, are not only boring, but also poorly written–they are awkward and painfully self-conscious, devoid of the quick and natural energy that readers of the earlier best-sellers have come to expect from Rowling’s prose. In The Casual Vacancy, her first non-magical novel, Rowling’s characteristic struggle with beginnings extends for a full seventy-five pages or so before she deploys her usual easy style.
Once the book is readable, it keeps our interest primarily with concern for the fate of the vividly portrayed central character. It is not a good book. Rowling has said in an interview that it would be presumptuous to aspire to actually be like Dickens, but that she “did want [The Casual Vacancy] to be like a Trollope or a Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell in the sense that [she is] taking a small community, literally a parochial community, and trying to analyze it and anatomize it in the way that they did.” Grouping Dickens together with Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell in this particular context is a bit odd. Dickens did not analyze, and he did not focus on communities, as Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell did, and as Rowling attempts to do in this book. Dickens, like Rowling in the Harry Potter novels, tends to focus on lovable weirdos and outcasts, and to non-analytically chronicle their often humorous brushes with the very bad and the very good.
Trollope and Mrs Gaskell (together with George Eliot) do actually attempt to paint panoramic pictures of communities. Their novels are characterized by a preoccupation with balance, nuance, and analysis. Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot both wrote novels in which it is difficult to pinpoint villains. They tend to regard their poorly behaved characters with pity and occasional contempt. Although his satire is generally more caustic than that of his female contemporaries, Trollope’s hatred for his villains is still incomplete: most of the antagonists in his novels are complicated, realistic people painted with a fine brush, not cartoons. He was a committed liberal, but quite a few of his nicest characters are not only conservatives, but conservative politicians. In the frequent discussions of political topics which occur throughout his novels, he displays a subtle understanding of both sides of the contemporary political questions at hand. Similarly, Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South presents both striking union workers and stubborn mill owners in a sympathetic light.
J.K. Rowling, talented though she is, utterly fails to achieve–in this or in any other novel–the sort of nuance and tolerance which typically go together with the Victorian community portrait genre. In the Harry Potter books, the characters are distributed across the parts of the spectrum with which Dickens was comfortable: about half of them are wonderful people and those in the other half are detestable. Her adult characters here–even those who are on the “right” side of the political question at the center of the novel–are almost all comically repulsive and unsympathetic.
The political issue around which this political novel is constructed is clumsily handled. If she could not (and she cannot), like Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell, let both sides sympathetically express their opinions, Rowling ought to have been able to, like Dickens, viciously and effectively satirize some gross injustice. In the same interview quoted earlier, she explained that she wanted the book to address the questions of whether “we should be extending a helping hand and whether that should come from government and so on.” The specific question addressed by the book is whether the public schooling of children who live in a certain block of public housing should occur in a certain city or in a somewhat wealthier village nearby. Alas, a plea for the well-off rural “officer class” to assume the mantle of noblesse oblige more readily, although it may have been well-executed by a Mrs. Gaskell or a Trollope, is simply not something which lends itself to an effective treatment by a broad-brushing, Dickensian sort of artist.
Instead, Rowling contents herself with savagely exposing the hypocrisy of the petty and pious small business owners from the village who wish to disassociate themselves from the drug addicts and unwed mothers who live nearby. The villagers’ gluttony, lechery, avarice, pride, despair, wrath, vanity, and sloth are all duly trotted out for the disgust of the reader. Our concern for Krystal Wheedon, the girl from the slums, is certainly excited, and we do see that the paunch-bellied shopkeepers who couldn’t care less about her are inhumane. However, the political upshot of this political novel seems to be that, if one wishes to be a non-revolting person, one must keep the petit bourgeois at a distance, and vote with the nice educated professionals in the village council. In the end, the polemics of The Casual Vacancy hark back more to The Jew of Malta than to The Warden, Mary Barton, or Oliver Twist.
I believe that Rowling gets the magic of the Harry Potter books from Dickens; unlike Dickens, she also possesses a flair for constructing tight, compelling plots with satisfying surprise endings. The Cormoran Strike novels lack the exuberant joy which lies behind the magic of Harry Potter, but they retain the Potter books’ style, insofar as they have excellent plots and brilliant characters. Enjoyably, each of the books contains evidence of painstaking “research” the author has undertaken at Britain’s most celebrated eateries, where fussy and thoughtless interviewees often insist on meeting Strike, a perennially insolvent private investigator. Each crime mystery immerses the reader into a different colorful and compelling world: The Cuckoo’s Calling takes us into the world of London’s rich and famous, The Silkworm introduces us to the British publishing world, and Career of Evil explores a seedy criminal underworld, populated by more or less mentally imbalanced ne’er do wells.
Where Rowling fails to make any sort of coherent political argument in The Casual Vacancy, she does manage to slip some trenchant cultural commentary into the mouths of plain-speaking Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. We may never know whether Strike’s and Ellacott’s insistence on calling the people who send them weird letters “nutters,” in defiance of a culture which deems this behavior to be disrespectful to the mentally ill, is a perfectly accurate reflection of Rowling’s own opinion. In any case, the tempering perspective of an old socialist on this and on many other current questions of political correctness is interesting.
The Strike books are perfectly good for what they are, which is upmarket crime fiction– each is mostly enjoyable from the first page to the last. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis suggests a genre-neutral test for whether or not a book is literary: is it read more than once by those people who like to read things more than once? Although I have read each of the Potter books multiple times over, I cannot see myself ever picking up one of the first two Strike books again. The possibilities that this difference could be attributed to my own advancing age or declining sensibility cannot be ruled out. But I suspect that the literary grain in the Potter books was mixed in somewhere with the happiness, hopefulness and magic.
This is not to say, of course, that I do not think that pessimistic books can be literary; of course, nobody can deny the artistic quality of (most of) the (mostly) sad twentieth century books which are generally more respected than Rowling’s. It is more that, for Rowling, despondency is an unnatural mood, and the artificiality which is necessarily present in her despondent writing precludes high literary quality. In The Casual Vacancy and the first two Strike books, at least, there is a feeling of something off, as if, in an effort to fit in with the current literary fashion, the author were occasionally suppressing what she really wants to write, or interpolating events that she does not want to write about. Strike is made to have a few somewhat boorish interactions with women, and we wonder, “is that really who he is?” The crimes and the suspected criminals in Career of Evil are more gruesome and creepy than those in Cuckoo and Silkworm; yet, paradoxically, the whole tenor of the book is somehow more buoyant and hopeful than that of its predecessors. Perhaps this is partly because Strike is allowed to be well-behaved for the entire time–Strike’s and Robin’s honesty and intense compassion for the crime victims they encounter comprise the engine which allow the book to sail past many frightening specters to a happy, if ambiguous, ending.