Shazam! Check that out! As you might know from this post, I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to last week’s J.K. Rowling reading and I got a copy of The Casual Vacancy signed by Her Majesty herself. It is magnificent.
I forgot that a copy of the book was included in the ticket price for the event, so I also bought it on its release date. Oops. Oh well, at least that gave me a chance to finish the story before the Q&A, which was great because this one took me a while to read.
I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but as much as I love those books, I was hesitant to start this one. From announcement to publication, all anyone kept saying about The Casual Vacancy was that it would be an adult novel. It was repeated over and over again, like a warning: Be careful. This is not Harry Potter. Rowling’s doing something completely different and you may not like it.
I decided to ignore the warnings and get the book anyway, but couldn’t help wondering how the shift in audience would affect Rowling’s writing. Would her idea of an adult novel be one that relied on sex and swearing to make it seem more mature? Would the sex and swearing be strained and forced? Would it be too unbelievable coming from an author who spent 17 years writing books for children? Or, would Rowling’s adult novel be one that just happened to have adults as the main characters, without much of a change in content or themes? Like the time Stephenie Meyer said she was going to write a novel for adults but then published The Host, which was just as immature and just as much a travesty to literature as Twilight.
At last week’s reading, Ann Patchett prompted Rowling to clarify what she meant by calling The Casual Vacancy an adult novel. A bookseller as well as a novelist, Patchett commented on how “adult” had a very different meaning in bookstores, à la Fifty Shades of Gray. Rowling confirmed that it wasn’t that kind of adult book. And what’s the difference between Rowling’s adult book and E.L. James’s? According to Rowling, “People have sex in this book, but no one really enjoys it.” She and Patchett agreed that for the rest of the conversation they wouldn’t call The Casual Vacancy a book for adults, but rather, a book for grown-ups.
When asked what age the absolute youngest reader of this book would be, Rowling stated that it would be appropriate for the right 14- or 15-year-old, but not anyone younger than that. So what makes it so grown-up? It isn’t just the sex (though there’s a good amount of that) or the swearing (TONS of that), but the subject matter.
I don’t mean to say that Harry Potter is thematically immature by comparison. HP does deal with some tough stuff, but it mostly does so in an abstract sense. In those books you know bad shit’s going down, but it usually goes down behind the scenes. As for themes, most things in HP are simplified, broken down in as basic a way as possible. The line between Good and Evil, black and white, is clearly drawn and it’s easy to tell which bracket each character falls under (yeah, yeah, except for Snape, okay). The Casual Vacancy, on the other hand, brings the gray area to the forefront and deals with the tough issues directly. Rape, suicide, self-mutilation, and abuse: this book has it all, and then some. You don’t just hear about evil, you see it, and it is brutal. Whereas Harry Potter centers around Good characters overcoming obstacles, The Casual Vacancy focuses on the those who’ve given up and resigned themselves to living in difficulty and frustration.
Rowling sets this novel in Pagford, a fictional town “cupped in a hollow between three hills, one of which was crested with the remains of the twelfth-century abbey. A thin river snaked around the edge of the hill through town, straddled by a toy stone bridge.” The lawns are well manicured, the houses grand, and the townspeople as polite as can be. Pagford is, for all appearances, an idyll. But as the book progresses, Rowling pushes past the superficiality surrounding Pagford and its inhabitants and shows us what’s really going on.
No one in this town is happy, everyone is unfulfilled. The people of Pagford strive to maintain an air of decorum, but in doing so they bite their tongues and build up grudges. They lie to others, but mostly they lie to themselves.
What this book aims to get at is the nature of truth, no matter how ugly it may be. The main concern is that of the authentic vs the inauthentic, a concern which Rowling explores through the character known as Fats. Here’s the crux of Fats’s ideology:
The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else… The difficult thing, the glorious thing, was to be who you really were, even if that person was cruel or dangerous, particularly if cruel and dangerous. There was courage in not disguising the animal you happened to be.
The novel oscillates between characters belonging to these two extremes, between those who are inauthentic and too worried by what others may think to do what they really feel (like Gavin, who strings his girlfriend along because he’s too scared to dump her) and those who are authentic and act on every instinct (like Simon, who has no filter and abuses his family, subjecting them to his will, and like Obbo, who, well… you’ll see). As Fats finds out the hard way, being authentic isn’t always glorious and acting purely out of self-interest can do more harm than good. The Casual Vacancy asks why people act the way they do, and explores the consequences of those actions (or lack thereof).
So now the main question: why read this book? Almost none of the characters are likable and nothing really gets resolved. It’s long and it’s depressing. It’s a hell of a downer and when it’s over you might need to watch a couple hours worth of YouTube videos of puppies playing with babies to make yourself feel better. But as unsettling as it is, this book also has its funny moments and is well told. Rowling knows people, knows the way they think, and is great at capturing the thought processes of her characters. We may not like them, but Rowing makes us understand them and sympathize with their situations.
Comparisons to Potter are inevitable, I’ve already done it, but the books are too different for me to say if one was better than the other — they’re just different, but not in a way that seems forced. Yes, the book is abundant with swears, but they’re used with the right characters in the right situations. Same for the sex. It can be lewd, but it’s always right for those scenes.
All that being said, despite the quality of the work, this book isn’t for everyone. If you want a book with action, this one isn’t for you. If you want a book with a happy ending, then this book is definitely not for you. But if you don’t mind a slower pace, you might like it. If you’re as concerned about why things happen as you are about what happens, you should give it a shot. If you just like good storytelling (albeit for a very, very sad story), this book is worth a read.
In case you want to know more about what The Casual Vacancy is about before making a purchase, Lev Grossman gave a much more insightful account of it for Time. Ditto to everything he says.
Grossman was also in attendance at Rowling’s reading last week and highlighted some of the more memorable moments of the talk. He ends his recap with a brief paragraph about the signing, stating, “Rowling is a pro—she signed, I would guess, about one book every five seconds, but she gave good eye contact, and she managed to communicate a lot of warmth in that very brief interaction.” That’s all true, but an understatement if I ever saw one.
I would be remiss to ignore the fact that while the reading was meant to promote The Casual Vacancy, nearly everyone who was there that night came just to be in the presence of She Who Penned Harry Potter. Admittedly, it was knowing that Rowling would be signing books that was the biggest draw for me. And why shouldn’t it be? I started reading the first book in the Potter series when I was in the fifth grade and the final one came out the summer after my first year of college. Why wouldn’t I want to meet the author I’d been reading for nearly half my life?
Rowling’s had a huge influence on my generation, so with this event being her only U.S. appearance, of course it would be attended by only her biggest superfans. I used to think I was a big HP fan, but it took being surrounded by some legit, hardcore Potterheads to realize that there is in fact much, much farther to go. The people in the row behind me rattled off trivia and traded obscure facts about the canon. There was talk of LeakyCon, StarKid, and Pigfarts. I had to Google these things, so obviously I am not the fangirl I thought was.
Living in New York, I’ve been lucky enough to have attended a good amount of book readings. This one was by far the most raucous of them all. Familiar with being a part of a subdued literary crowd, the exuberant audience that showed up for Rowling took a little bit of getting used to. I won’t deny that I’m a grumpy curmudgeon, or try to hide the fact that I got increasingly irritated by the sporadic cheers that erupted whenever Rowling mentioned anything even close to Potter or children’s books, but come on, it’s a Q&A — don’t you want to hear the As to your Qs??? I know you’re excited, but quit yelling and let her talk, jeeeeezzz….
All this is to say, people were really excited to see Rowling, to hear her speak and to finally speak to her, even if only for just a few seconds. The signing guidelines handed out at the beginning of the event made it clear that Rowling wouldn’t sign anything other than The Casual Vacancy, but that didn’t stop some people from hoping she’d sign this copy of The Deathly Hallows, or that copy of the DVD. That’d be impossible though, what with all the ridiculously stringent security measures put in place by the event staff. They made it clear that the books given out at the event, and ONLY these books, were going to be signed.
I understand Rowling’s not wanting to sign any Potter paraphernalia, but I still don’t get why people who bought a copy of The Casual Vacancy before the reading couldn’t get that version signed. To ensure that Rowling only signed the copies that were handed out by the event staff, each of them had a shiny silver sticker, similar to the one you might find on a baseball cap, affixed to the series title page.
Check out the bottom left-hand corner.
After Rowling’s Q&A with Patchett, we were called outside a couple rows at a time for the book signing. There was a ticketing snafu that resulted in the event having nearly twice as many attendants as was originally planned, meaning that there were almost 2000 people in the theater. 2000! I was actually supposed to be in the Balcony in the first theater, and when a customer service rep called me to reassign my seat in the second theater, she said that if I were to be placed in a comparable seat I should’ve been placed in the Second Tier. Fortunately, I lucked out and the rep I got was really nice and asked if I wanted to sit in Orchestra Row H instead (um… yes!).
The signing started a little after 9 and, thanks to that extremely nice rep, I was out in the signing area by 9:30. Towards the back of the line everyone was giddy and jittery. They tested out their cameras and planned out what they were going to say to Rowling when they got to the signing table (“Tell her we went to see her at CBS yesterday!” “Tell her about how we saw her in London!” “But don’t sound like a stalker…” “Show her your tattoo!” etc., etc.). Towards the front of the line, it became hushed and reverent. You could hear every word between Rowling and the person she was signing for.
When the girl in front of me got to the signing table, she just fell apart and started crying her eyes out. Rowling reached across the table, held the girl’s hands, and thanked her for coming, which made the girl cry even harder. And then, before I knew it, the crying girl was gone and I was in front of the signing table. Rowling and I were face-to-face and I had to nothing to say. How could I sum up how much her writing influenced me in just a few seconds? Maybe the girl in front of me had it right, maybe crying was the only way to accurately show it.
Except I don’t cry, unless I’m laughing, and I didn’t want to laugh cause then it would look like I was laughing at the girl who was crying, which would be inconsiderate. I tried to think of something to say, but everything I came up with seemed clichéd, contrived, and insufficient. You were great tonight. You idiot, she’s great every night. I love your books. No shit. I love you. Crazy person.
Then my mind turned to mush. I forgot the rules of the English language completely and my thoughts about what to say to her went something like this: “You Queen write good. Love Harry. This different, but different good. Book sign, yes?”
The last thing I wanted was for Rowling to hear me talk with about as much competence as a caveman in an ESL class, so I just said, “Hi,” then handed her my copy of the book. She signed it, looked right up into my eyes, and smiled. That’s right, we made eye contact. Direct eye contact. Her eyes are the most incredible, brilliant shade of blue. They’re mesmerizing. I froze in front of the signing table for a few moments, her stare was just that hypnotizing. I’m not exaggerating. Go look around online, see how when people talk about about meeting her they all mention those magical eyes.
I’ve been to book signings before where the authors would scribble their names real quick, barely sparing you a word or glance. There were so many people waiting in line for this signing that as nice as Rowling seemed on stage, I expected her to do that as well. That long stare of hers caught me by surprise. Judging by the reactions linked to above, everyone else was similarly stunned. It’s kind of ridiculous how a gesture as simple as looking someone in the eye has the power to elicit that kind of reaction, but kudos to Rowling. With what limited time she had to spend with her fans, she was able to find a way to acknowledge and show her appreciation for every single person who came to the event. Saying she “gave good eye contact” just does not suffice.
But guys, seriously though. Those eyes. Just — damn. Her stare was so intense, it was like she was performing Legilimency on me. Like she could see into my soul. Yes, J.K. Rowling looked into my eyes and stared into my soul. My soul. Eventually I managed to gather my wits and remember that there were more than a thousand people still in the signing line behind me. I reached out for the book and said, “Thank you.” Rowling, still smiling, said, “You’re welcome,” and handed the book back to me. Our fingers grazed. OMG.
Then I headed down to the subway and for the whole 45 minute ride home I sat next to a guy who looked exactly like Colonel Sanders, if Colonel Sanders had a purple cane and a wore panama suit. Perfect way to end the night.