This is not a book that titillates. This is not a book that seduces people, luring them to fantasize about illicit sexual activity.
Nor is this a book for impatient people unwilling to reflect, people who want artists to preach rather than produce works of art, people who don’t want their own rebellion exposed in all its darkness, more by the absence of light than its presence.
What is this book?
Holding the Mirror up to Nature
This is a book that does what Hamlet told the players they should do: hold the mirror up to nature. And nature isn’t pretty. Actually that needs to be qualified. Nature, as in the world in which we live, is beautiful. Stunning, really, and Rowling sings the beauty of the cool morning, the night sky, the hilltop view of the quaint township.
But if by “nature” we mean what Hamlet wanted the players to depict, the things that people do in the world, Rowling reveals the only-evil-all-the-time-ness of human impulses and actions. Often these two aspects of nature are juxtaposed in The Casual Vacancy: Rowling describes the heavens declaring the glory of God, then shows the image of God defiling the cosmic temple God made for his glory. There is many a jarring movement from the beauty of the world to the ugliness of what humans do in it.
In all their selfish pursuit of vanity, Rowling’s characters are oblivious to the stupendous glory of the world they inhabit. Just like us, most of the time. The Casual Vacancy is laced with profanity and sex, so what I’m about to say may seem incongruous: this is a piece of moral fiction. This book is moral the way that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is moral. That book is about adultery, and it shows the sin in all its ugliness. The Casual Vacancy depicts lots of sins in all their ugliness.
One of the things I appreciate about the Harry Potter stories is the way that Rowling depicts her characters such that we really understand their motivations and predicaments. She’s a master of characterization. That’s true of The Casual Vacancy as well. Do you want to understand human motivations and difficult predicaments? This book could help your powers of imagination and sympathy.
What might this book help you understand? Depending on your background and the level of authenticity you’ve experienced with people who are really suffering, you might encounter a lot of new things in this book:
A dyslexic girl who is overshadowed by older siblings finds refuge in cutting herself. A goofy teacher mocked by the whole school shows enormous courage in the face of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A woman enslaved to heroin prostitutes herself and neglects her children to the point of one of them drowning and the other committing suicide. A liberal social worker has her own substance abuse issues, and her personal life is little better than the prostitute’s, as she is treated by the man in her life “like a hooker he doesn’t have to pay.” Conservative political types do not concern themselves with how their limitation of government programs will alter the lives of real people, particularly children.
My Brother’s Keeper?
This book will prompt reflection on the responsibility-depravity axis. It shows the unsatisfying lies of lust, the devastation of rape, the ruination of sex when used outside its appointed boundaries (a loving, one flesh, man-wife union in marriage), the wreckage of uncultivated marriage, the continual meanness to which all are prone, the lost-ness of unanchored souls unable to distinguish right from wrong and rumor from reality, the vanity of selfish and mistaken perceptions, the Stockholm Syndrome of a beaten wife and the rage of her abused children, the folly of youthful rebellion against “conventional morality,” and . . . and I’ve saved the biggest problem for last: the lack of a man who loves by living for others.
The catalyst of the story is the death of a good man. He leaves a vacancy. His death is the casual vacancy, which is a phrase used to describe the opening created by the death of a local councilor. The book is about the void left by the death of a man who was his brother’s keeper, and the story shows that the main reason others can’t fill the void he leaves is because they don’t love like he did.
Better to Give
Perhaps the sharpest contrast is drawn between the good man who has gone to his reward and the loser who is using the social worker for sex, a loser who could be a good man but he won’t commit, won’t invest his life in the woman he is exploiting, won’t lay his life down for the benefit of others. So he takes and does not give, and he knows no blessing. His selfishness does not make him happy, and it does not benefit those who need him.
Shame. Dirt. Filth. Sadness. Misery. That’s what people reject goodness to have. And when a good man dies, wicked people say “just goes to show,” as though the death of “Fairbrother” proves them right, as though they won’t die themselves, as though his death shows that loving others lands you dead. As though they are justified in their selfishness since “Fairbrother” died.
Rowling shows—in a way that never relativizes good and evil—that what you achieve or even what your agenda is matters a good deal less than how you live and whether you love people. She demonstrates that life outside “conventional morality” is miserable, and she tells it like it is. In The Casual Vacancy we see the unhappiness of sinners in all its fullness. We see that it’s not a program that makes a difference, it’s the man who loves others.
How to Respond?
This book is a powerful appeal for people to intervene in the lives of at-risk kids, for people to care about those unlike themselves, for people to be kind to one another, and Rowling is showing not telling. She makes her case not as a preacher but as an artist. The Casual Vacancy shows the “walking shadow” life becomes through disobedience, it shows the misery of the strutting and fretting on the stage when idiots reject God and his ways and become nothing more than sound and fury. When men will not love, when men will not be good, when men will not be Christ-like, the women and children suffer most, for they are weakest and easiest to exploit. Rowling makes this point, and makes it with power, by putting us in the wake of the death of a good man. No one steps into The Casual Vacancy able to love as Barry Fairbrother did.
If you ask me how I think J. K. Rowling wants people to respond to The Casual Vacancy, I think the answer is the one word formula of Dumbledore’s most powerful magic: love.
Will you love?