“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.” (88)
J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is about reality and stories. Every paragraph is tailored to the character she is describing. A clumsy, pompous deli owner who is Chair of the Parish Council and First Citizen of Pagford. His self-righteous wife. His immature and irrational daughter-in-law. His kind but oblivious son. His cool but distant lesbian daughter. A teenage girl and her three year old brother with a heroin addicted mother. A boy with an abusive father. His bullying best friend whose OCD father is the deputy master of the high school. A solicitor who doesn’t love his girlfriend and falls in love with his best friend’s widow. A doctor who doesn’t care about helping people but cares about winning a fight. A social worker who does not realize her boyfriend doesn’t love her.
The novel takes place in a small idyll, where almost everyone knows everyone. Turmoil ensues when city councilman Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly. Why? Because the city council was up for a controversial vote that would drastically change their lives. After his death he speaks from the grave, revealing dirty secrets, destroying people’s carefully constructed lives. Someone is repurposing his respect in the community to lend credibility to their own agenda. Everyone has their own version of reality and believes their reality is the truth. Whoever knows the stories, owns the stories, controls reality, and therefore has power over the uninformed. They market information to support their beliefs, preferences, and politics.
The characters are always reconstructing a story, even as it is happening. They revel in disaster because they get to tell someone about it later. The night that Fairbrother dies, Miles Mollison and his wife are at the restaurant. They accompany Fairbrother and his wife to the hospital. The next morning, Miles calls his father, Harry Mollison, to tell him the news. Initially he says, “Fairbrother’s dead. Collapsed at the golf club last night.” (7) Miles offers more details at his father’s request. “Samantha [Miles' wife] noticed how Miles’ second version emphasized what you might call the more commercial aspect of the story. Samantha did not blame him. Their reward for enduring the awful experience was the right to tell people about it.” (8) Instead of focusing on their neighbor’s they are focusing on the story of his death. “Some of Samantha’s irritability lifted as she chewed. . . . Then she imagined telling customers at the shop about how a man had dropped dead in front of her, and about the mercy dash to hospiral. She thought of ways to describe various aspects of the journey, and of the climactic scene with the doctor.” (10) And so we see how people react to a man’s death. Krystal Weedon, a troubled teen has an honest outburst of emotion. Because of her reputation, it is misconstrued as laughter, and she is sent to detention. But she is one of the few who genuinely care for Fairbrother without any ulterior motives. And we see her grieve for him throughout the novel.
Stories are another way of defining reality and these characters are living in different states of unreality. Ruth, a nurse, lives in a false reality where her husband is not abusive or a scheming thief. Stuart “Fats” Wall, comes from a good home but rebels and becomes a bully. Krystal’s mother, Terri, lives in a constant high, either on heroin or methadone. Kay, a social worker, moves to Pagford to be with her uninterested boyfriend. She is so unhappy that when she notices Terri high, Kay thinks, “right now, not to feel, not to care. . . she’s happier than I am.” (72) Kay is so unhappy in her own reality that she is jealous of an addict’s unreality.
Gavin, who isn’t a bad person, just a stupidly selfish one, allows his girlfriend to move from London with her daughter to be closer to him. But all he wants is to leave her because he views her as a nuisance. She offers to go to Fairbrother’s funeral with him but he rudely declines. After helping carry the coffin, he realizes he has nowhere to sit. No one has saved him a seat. And he thinks to himself that he is a “sad bastard at funeral.” (161) And later, when he considers actually breaking up with his girlfriend, Kay, he ”[spends] the whole weekend brooding on how it would feel to be seen as the bad guy.” (269) Instead of worrying about how Kay will feel if he leaves her, he wonders how it would feel to be perceived as the bad guy. He doesn’t consider that he is a bad guy for letting a woman he has no interest in change homes and jobs for him.
Unhappy with his reality of two loving parents, Fats portrays himself as a delinquent and aligns himself with students from the slum. He starts having sex with a classmate, Krystal Weedon. During one of their trysts, they smoke pot in a cemetery. He gets paranoid and cannot get away from her and the situation fast enough:
“Fats was thinking about how he would be able to work this into a funny story for Andrew, about being stoned and fucking Krystal and getting paranoid and thinking they were being watched and crawling out almost onto old Barry Fairbrother’s grave. But it did not feel funny yet; not yet.” (255)
Once again, Fats is unhappy with what actually happened and he is eager to rework the event into a funny story to entertain his friend. He has no concern for Krystal. He recreates reality into short vignettes composed of 3-5 words, revealing what is important to him.
Language reflects the reality of the characters. When Rowling writes dialogue for two teenage boys, their words are trite, filled with cliches and curse words. The boys think that they are having a philosophical discussion:
“Fucking. That’s what matters. Propogun. . . propogating the species. Throw away the johnnies. Multiply.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, laughing.
“And death,” said Fats. . . “Gotta be, hasn’t it? Death.”
“Yeah, said Fats. “Fucking and dying. That’s it, innit? Fucking and dying. That’s life.”
“Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.”
Or trying to die,” said Fats. “Some people. Risking it.”
“Yeah. Risking it.”
“And music,” said Andrew. . .
“Yeah. . . And music.” (175)
What have the teenage boys discussed? Sex, death, and music. While these are universal themes that countless philosophers have written tomes about, the teens eloquently offer: fucking, death, and music. Nothing new there. But the conversation reads authentic, something that Fats is obsessed with, and something he does not understand. Teenagers would believe this discussion erudite and original. Rowling illustrates the naivete lost beneath their public personas.
Rowling’s authorial voice is so tender, her language almost whispers descriptions, “his visit had been so brief that when Mary, slightly shaky, poured away his coffee it was still hot.” (456) And when she describes a woman’s unwanted love for a man, she describes it as a “threatening and agressive barnacle.” (162) A woman hungry for gossip, is “like an ancient baby bird, or perhaps a pterodactl, hungering for regurgitated news.” (279) The Casual Vacancy overflows with beautiful symbolism and figurative language.
The teenagers in the town have their own interests that initially do not correlate with the adults, but eventually, somehow, slowly, without notice, all of the characters are intertwined. And there’s the beauty. All these seemingly unrelated people, from different parts of the idyll, from various economic, social, and political backgrounds interact with one another in a very natural, unforced way. You fall in love with the protagonists and pity the antagonists.
J. K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.